The Hidden Messages in Nicole Kidman’s 'Expats' Costumes

Mild spoiler warning for episodes one through three of Expats below.

In Lulu Wang’s Expats, mid-2010s fashion—from spiky Valentino Rockstuds to egregiously distressed skinny jeans—helps telegraph a poignant, if not gut-wrenching exploration of grief and a meditation on belonging. Plus, the limited series continues two-time Emmy winner Nicole Kidman’s small-screen character-defining style domination, following luxurious cashmere knits in Big Little Lies (costume designed by Alix Friedberg) and a series of plush, enviable longline coats in The Undoing (by Signe Sejlund).

Amidst the vibrant energy and dynamic multicultural makeup of Hong Kong, three American women struggle to genuinely connect with the people around them. Anguished mother Margaret (Kidman) tries to make amends with advertising exec Hilary (Sarayu Blue), her next-door-neighbor in a luxury high-rise on the elite Victoria Peak. Listless, 20-something Mercy (Ji-young Yoo) plays an integral role in Hilary’s disintegrating marriage and the breakdown of Margaret’s family, after her youngest child Gus (Connor James Gillman) goes missing.

Costume designer Malgosia Turzanska dove into research to authentically portray the distinctive and self-expressive wardrobes of Hong Kong’s diverse micro-communities, from the wealthy international expatriates to the local pro-democracy activists that Mercy befriends to the domestic helpers, largely hailing from the Philippines (and the focus of the penultimate episode).

“I looked at tons and tons of street photography and people’s private photos,” says Turzanska, who fell into social media and online rabbit holes to study the daily lives and dress of the region’s 7+ million residents. “Just to see not the posed, curated things, but just street life, which did not prepare me for how rich and incredible the layers of culture there are.”

Margaret’s ‘Not a Housewife’ Aesthetic

“I’m not a housewife,” says Kidman’s Margaret, bristling at a perceived insinuation from an event planner organizing her husband Clark’s (Brian Tee) lavish 50th birthday celebration. Back in the States, Margaret was a landscape architect; an unnecessary service in an urban environment with scarcity of space. “She was designing gardens in the U.S. and had this very practical, earthy side to her,” says Turzanska, about Margaret’s relaxed, “masculine” button-downs and shirt dresses by London-based Cefinn, founded in 2017 by Samantha Cameron, wife of former British Prime Minister James. (Margaret mainly carries—or tensely clutches, rather—a luxe, but practical brown leather Loewe tote.)

But Margaret possesses a “duality,” in both hiding and explosively releasing her intense emotions. “She also wears nicer dresses in slightly more feminine silhouettes,” says Turzanska, whose work also includes season one of Strangers Things, A24’s Pearl and The Green Knight. “[The feminine and masculine silhouettes] always fight a little bit. She’s living a double life, constantly.”

Margaret’s Hopeful Green Dress

Sartorial Easter eggs also hint at Margaret’s pervasive guilt and regret, extreme agony of not knowing her son’s fate and emotional divide from her bereft husband. “I had this idea that basically her heart was torn out, and she has a scar across her chest,” says Turzanksa, explaining that Margaret’s neat blouses are fractured by delicate seams or trim, and intricate faux leather piping fragments the neckline of a navy Stella McCartney dress in the finale.

To convey gestures of grief, like “wringing of hands,” Margaret’s wardrobe also features knotted details, plus hole-esque textures, such as rough linens, eyelets, and crochet weave on a custom-dyed navy Everlane top. “Like pieces of her were missing,” says Turzanska.

For Clarke’s milestone celebration in the first episode, Margaret builds her strongest facade: an emerald Monse gown, with scar-referential ruched pleating on the bodice. “Green is the color of rebirth, regrowth, hope and spring,” says Turzanska, about the scripted hue. “She has a little hairpin that is trying to be joyful and cute—and then, things go sideways.”

Turzanska customized the green gown with an extreme low-plunge back, which helps evoke Margaret’s deep pain as she stands, staring into the usually frenetic, but now desolate night market where Gus disappeared. “Bits that [indicate] heavy, heavy grief that she is not allowed to process out loud because she is constantly having to suppress it in front of her children and the society,” says Turzanska.

Hilary’s Weaponized Fashion Statement

Indian-American Hilary (Blue) also wields fashion as “camouflage” as she continuously reinvents herself, first masking and later facing her intergenerational trauma and own identity.

“The main theme I was going with was ‘aggressive neutrals,’” says Turzanska, who also took advantage of Hilary’s creative profession to go bolder with fashion and of-the-moment designer labels. “She’s super controlling and deliberate in her palette because she is so very controlled. there is an aspect of power to her dressing.” Hilary’s silhouettes are often structured, sharp and asymmetrical, including power suits and body-con dresses by Roland Mouret, Proenza Schouler, Vivienne Westwood and Theory.

Hilary stays on the defensive with her accessories, like heavy-duty Celine handbags, and a closet-full of skyscraper-high—and very-2014—Valentino Rockstud heels. (Hilary clearly is not taking the famed Central-Midlevels Escalator home after work everyday.) “The Rockstuds and her jewelry are almost like armor, in addition to the camouflage,” says Turzanska. “So there’s something weirdly militaristic about her persona.”

Turzanska considers Hilary’s weapon-like stiletto collection, also featuring Giuseppe Zanotti sandals with round gold studs and four-inch-high and gold-embellished gladiator booties by Balman, a power move, too. “She wanted to be taller and take up more space,” says Turzanska. “She is a very vulnerable person and is protecting herself. She’s prepared. If someone tries to hurt her, she is equipped to fight back.”

Hilary’s Heartfelt Wardrobe

But, Hilary does let down her walls—emotionally, and sartorially—as she flails in the throes of her failing marriage to philandering David (Jack Huston), who’s grappling with his own guilt over a childhood tragedy.

Hopeful for David to join her, Hilary hosts some smug expat friends for a dinner party. Making excuses for her absent spouse, she wears a steely smile, and a rosy pink David Koma jumpsuit, with lush draping along the one-shoulder neckline. “It almost looks like she’s wearing a sling or a bandage,” says Turzanska. “She is like an open raw wound and she is showing him she cares and she wants to fix [their marriage.”

To later confront a binge-drinking David, Hilary dons a soft, flowing custom-hand-dyed red silk dress by Galvan London. “It’s totally out of character and it’s a final scream for help,” says Turzanska, accessorizing with navy Pierre Hardy heels. “On one hand, the color is a little bit obvious, but she was showing an open wound.”

Mercy’s Lost, Eclectic Style

Mercy (Yoo), who’s also escaping her immigrant and generational trauma abroad, hustles through hourly jobs to pay rent on her tiny flat and splurge on overpriced cocktails to keep up with her rich college friend from Hong Kong. The Korean-American struggles through her search to find where she belongs, while leaving a trail of destruction in her wake.

“She is the youngest of our three and the most lost,” says Turzanksa. “A few pieces may be gifted or loaned to her by one of her rich friends, but mostly, thrifted or chain store/high street pieces. Mercy wears “mismatched,” high-low outfits, like an H&M dress over Abercrombie ripped skinnies and Doc Marten boots, which represent both 2014 and that timeless experimental aesthetic of an adrift 24-year-old.

Mercy finagles her way onto a posh yacht trip, filled with elite Hong Kongers and expat families, including a harried Margaret in a floral Agua by Agua Bendita maxi-dress, customized with a reworked neckline and overdyed muted effect. Mercy, however, went casual and very American in cut-off jean shorts and a striped nautical t-shirt. “She’s sticking like a sore thumb among Connecticut housewives in floral dresses,” says Turzanska.

Like a budget-strapped young transplant in Hong Kong would do, Mercy wears random pieces that would have been copped from the night market, or a tiny, local shop in one of the many malls. Turzanska’s favorite is a thrifted t-shirt with a literal, but nonsensical translation, reading: “sympathize with body chill touching crash leads to standard.” “To me, it exemplifies her character, like we’re slightly confused by her because she is confused by herself,” says Turzanska.

She also enjoyed shopping Hong Kong-based brands for Mercy, like a Glue Associates tee, featuring a print by Taiwanese art brand Zishi and a button-up from Matters Matters. The costume team also customized pieces, like Mercy’s hand-painted white baggy jeans in the last episode.

“There’s a lot of layers to her and a lot of things that just don’t entirely go together. Mercy is a patchwork; living in this place pretending to be someone else,” says Turzanska. “They’re all basically living double lives.

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