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‘Feud’ designer Zac Posen on the stories behind the swans' costumes

Posen says contemporary designers are still "swanning" to this day, thanks to the socialites' lasting influence.
FX’s FEUD: Capote Vs. The Swans
Chloe Sevigny as C.Z. Guest in "Feud."FX
/ Source: TODAY

Zac Posen says that in his 25 years of working in fashion, he's only been told to "bring more drama" once, and that was working creating costumes for Season Two of "Feud."

The series follows the wildly complicated relationship between writer Truman Capote and his friend group of high society ladies, whom he nicknamed the "Swans."

The award-winning designer told that the show’s creative team had a vision for the leading women’s costumes: “Elevated, beautifully evil birds on this aquatic pond.”

The costumes are meant to express details about Babe Paley, Lee Radziwell, C.Z. Guest and more, that they might not say outright. Never is that more obvious than in Episode Three, when Truman hosts the Black and White Ball.

The real-life soirée, whose guest list included the likes of Frank Sinatra, Andy Warhol, Gloria Vanderbilt and Candice Bergen, took place Nov. 28, 1966 and was inspired by the race scene in “My Fair Lady.”

FX’s FEUD: Capote Vs. The Swans
The Black and White Ball in "Feud."FX

The room at New York's Plaza Hotel was filled with nearly 600 celebrities of all kinds: Socialites, artists, aristocrats, writers and businesspeople.

Given the prominent coverage of the night (about 200 photographers were there, too), Posen says he was able to take a “deep dive” into the historic looks the show's six swans sported at the time.

Show creator Ryan Murphy told Posen the characters' costumes shouldn't be replicas of what the real people wore, however: The costumes had to resemble "what a contemporary audience would expect as a level of glamour and drama."

Still, Posen looked to the actual party for inspiration. Posen mentions that Washington Post owner Katharine Graham, the evening’s guest of honor, was likely the most photographed person at the ball.

Graham’s look in the show remained “pretty similar” to the original Balmain dress she wore, which is now held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.

Washington Post publisher Katherine Graham and writer Truman Capote
Washington Post publisher Katherine Graham and writer Truman Capote arriving at Truman Capote's Black and White Ball in the Grand Ballroom at the Plaza Hotel in NYC in 1966.Fairchild Archive / Penske Media via Getty Images

The next most photographed, according to Posen, was Lee Radziwill, former princess and sister of former First Lady Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis, who is played by Calista Flockhart on the show.

“She was in the Mila Schön dress historically, and she definitely was the height of the direction of the swinging '60s of fashion,” Posen says. “It was definitely the most ‘youthquake,’ if we could put it that way, of all the dresses that the swans wore.”

Lee Radziwill arriving at Truman Capote's Black and White Ball
Lee Radziwill at the Black and White Ball.Fairchild Archive / Penske Media via Getty Images

Posen adds that her look had “futuristic” and “statuesque” elements to it while combining nods to Egyptian styling, calling the dress a “very dramatic” elevation of the original.

FX’s FEUD: Capote Vs. The Swans
Calista Flockhart as Lee Radziwill in "Feud." FX

Babe Paley, the “queen swan” and closest to Capote, wore a dress lined in red fabric, which Posen says was “a bold move at a black and white ball.”

Explaining that she was the era's muse for decorum, manners and quiet luxury, Posen said that her character on the show required “a very large entrance” to the ball, prompting him to create a look “different than what she historically wore.”

“I created this very sculptural, cocoon feathered coat, with this large open collar lines in marabou. I started to work on something that was a construction of an actual swan arm,” he recalls. “It almost looked like she was enveloped in a swan that opens as she entered and could drop.” 

FX’s FEUD: Capote Vs. The Swans
Naomi Watts as Babe Paley. FX

Posen says the dress C.Z. Guest actually wore to the ball wouldn't have resembled the height of '60s fashion. So, for the show, he aspied for her to “meringue swan” or “whipped cream," because Capote used to describe Guest as “kind of cold cream.” The back was mean to resemble the ribbon given to a winning horse, noting Guest’s equestrian interest.

FX’s FEUD: Capote Vs. The Swans
Chloe Sevigny as C.Z. Guest.FX

Posen describes Nancy “Slim” Keith, played by Diane Lane on “Feud,” as one of his favorite fashion icons. But he couldn't find a record of what Keith wore to the ball.

“She went through his side entrance. Slim Keith was a very smart lady, and I don’t think she was very happy about actually being at the ball, let alone not being the hostess of it,” he says. “Which gave us great character research into the actual storytelling.”

FX’s FEUD: Capote Vs. The Swans
Diane Lane as Slim Keith.FX

Demi More plays controversial socialite Ann Woodward in "Feud," who wasn't included in the circle of swans and had a complicated relationship with Capote. Because she wasn't invited to the ball, but still decided to attend, Posen says he crafted an intentional piece for her.

“I wanted her to feel like she had to put this kind of Artemis helmet on as her protection as the uninvited guest to show up and be kind of hidden in a crystal mesh and these feathers that would shake with her fragility,” he says. “She’s in chiffon and it’s very much in the time period.”

FX’s FEUD: Capote Vs. The Swans
Demi Moore as Ann Woodward. FX

“I wanted her to look like this kind of fluttering bird,” Posen says. “Something that would show — chiffon — a way of moving. And it shows kind of wings, but also a sense of fragility to it and her vulnerability as a character.”

Joanne Carson, portrayed by Molly Ringwald and not quite considered a swan, missed the ball altogether in real life, but the writers inserted her there for the show.

Inspired by Carson’s love for astrology, her mask was the shape of a crescent moon. Carson wore mismatched black and white gloves, which Posen says was made to pay homage to another dress that Amanda Carter Burden, one of Paley's daughters, originally wore to the ball.

“(Burden) got to borrow one of Cecil Beaton’s costumes from 'My Fair Lady' which had just which a production had wrapped,” Posen adds.

The apparition of Capote’s mother, Lillie Mae Faulk, played by Jessica Lange, also showed up at the ball. Posen described her as a “black swan,” and says she posed the question: How does somebody get darkened to become a black swan?

FX’s FEUD: Capote Vs. The Swans
Tom Hollander as Truman Capote, Jessica. Lange as Lillie May Faulk. FX

"The history of Truman’s mom her her ambitions to be part of this high society and style, making her way from the South and almost leaving her son” also played a role in his vision for her couture, he says.

Each of the swans paved the way in the fashion industry at the time. But Posen says there’s “definitely swanning” still happening, adding that Keith remains on the mood boards of contemporary designers.

“You can definitely see on the carpet of a lot of the American eveningwear designers,” he says. “The foundations are all based in the way that these ladies and women dressed as ideals of elegance or glamour are understated American couture.”