Television

340 Speaking Parts, 98 Wigs

The hair on Mrs. America is telling its own story.

A collage of characters from the TV show Mrs. America from the neck up, most prominently featuring Rose Byrne as Gloria Steinem.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Pari Dukovic/FX on Hulu.

Mrs. America is a show about women, and any show about women is also, on the sly if not overtly, going to be a show about hair. Especially this one, since the FX on Hulu period drama looks to be in contention for filling the void of “show with the most wigs on it” left when The Americans went off the air. Amid all the wig modeling, the show finds the time to tell the story of the fight to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment between second-wave feminists and a group of conservative women led by Phyllis Schlafly, played here by Cate Blanchett.* On the show, the hair is multifunctional: It sets the scene, it telegraphs the characters’ personalities, it punctuates the dialogue, it wears hats. So getting it right was of the utmost importance. As Rose Byrne, who plays Gloria Steinem—and wears three different Steinem wigs over the course of the show—told the New York Times about the pressure of the role, “I thought, if we don’t get that wig right, I’m out of here.” Slate spoke to Anne Morgan, the show’s hair designer for everyone except Blanchett (who worked with Kerry Warn), about the hair challenges and triumphs of Mrs. America. Our interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Heather Schwedel: Did you have an animating idea for what the hair should look like in the series?

Anne Morgan: There needed to be a different texture of the one group than there was of the other, the pro-ERA and the anti-ERA. That texture for me was hair in movements versus hair not in movement. The more conservative group, the antis, had a more retro silhouette, almost a leftover from the early ’50s, though it was into the ’70s. It was rounder, it was tighter, it was smaller, it didn’t move as much. Then with the pros, it’s hair and movement, natural.

How did you go about doing historical research?

Dahvi [Waller, the show’s creator and executive producer] would send me things quite often, as would Stacey [Sher, a producer], or we had a research person that could send deeper found footage, things from the Library of Congress—say, speeches. I’d say, “Do you have anything with Eleanor Schlafly in it? I can’t find anything.” That’s Jeanne Tripplehorn’s character. But over and above that, I have such a voracious appetite for history. So I don’t just look at the specific character. I look at things that go outside of that, and that would be fashion. That would be film. That would be politics.

There are a lot of wigs.

In this particular story, we have a bit more than a 10-year time period. You’re going to have to show these women changing, right? Then you look at the actors that are playing them, and what is it that they have and/or what are they doing? Are they playing a real person, are they not playing a real person? In general, it was easiest to create this time period with wigs. Almost everyone wore wigs. There’s like 340 speaking parts I think it was, and 98 people in wigs.

I wanted to talk about Gloria’s hair, because it’s so—prominent.

For Gloria’s character, I knew that it needed such soul and complete focus on just that. Because she is such an icon and that hair is part of her entire look. I chose a wig-maker by the name of Martial Corneville, who I have a long-standing relationship with.

Martial does an entire plaster cast of someone’s head. Rose was working in Atlanta. She had to fly back up to New York on a weekend, get a plaster cast made of her head by Martial, and then he goes on and makes the wig. Every wig-maker has their own process and the way that they make a pattern. Martial does that particular thing, and I knew it would need that. When you order a wig, you try and control many parts of it so that when you are actually working with it on set, it’s doing what you need it to do. We talked about how that hair needed to be tied in and all these different technicalities, and he just so delivered. All the wigs, each hair is tied in individually one at a time by a person, no machine.

Close-up of Rose Byrne as Gloria Steinem on Mrs. America
Rose Byrne as Gloria Steinem in Mrs. America.
Pari Dukovic/FX on Hulu

It was so interesting to me how Rose as Gloria tucked her glasses into her hair. I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone do that before.

Well, I’ll tell you something that I remember. Obviously, I became a hairdresser, so all these things were sinking in to me as a kid. One of the things that I absolutely know is that showing your ears was super not cool in the 1970s. I grew up in Los Angeles, and if you tucked your hair, then you took the back of it and you put it over your ears, you pulled it forward so your ears didn’t show. That was just not cool. That was geeky.

The thing with the glasses is another way to keep your hair on your face and in control. That was something that clearly becomes her thing. Other women were doing it as well, but that totally is her thing.

I imagine it would be hard for an actress to keep from tucking her hair behind her ears. Was anyone in charge of making sure it stayed down?

It is such a massive head of hair and Rose has such a petite little face. Gloria Steinem’s features are quite large and broader than Rose’s. So being able to keep that hair mastered and it tame does take someone being with her all the time. So Rick [Findlater, who worked as the show’s hair department head] did take on Rose as his main focus. It took a lot of being on top of it and going in between every take almost always, because if you bend down, all that hair comes in the face even with the glasses.

I found it a little surprising that Gloria Steinem would have teased her hair.

Do not mistake Gloria Steinem for a hippie. She spent time at the salon. You’ll see if you look at images of her, you can see her hair curled. Gloria Steinem was chic. She was fashionable and she was stylish. She is not someone who woke up and brushed her hair and put her glasses on and that was it. No way.

How did you think about doing the hair for the Shirley Chisholm character (Uzo Aduba)?

When I looked at pictures of Shirley Chisholm, you see her all the time in these wigs. It was very popular at the time period. Women would go and get a different wig each week. You could change hair colors; it was very acceptable.

Up until she ran for the nomination, you see her in her natural hair and little hats. So what I thought was really interesting is that every image of her when she’s running is with wigs, and it’s not until you see her later in her life, she wears the exact same hairstyle again that she did when she graduated from college. There’s a scene in the show where we see her at her house and Flo goes to visit her, Niecy Nash’s character. I fought to have this little wig. I wanted to show her in her natural, more intimate state.

Uzo Aduba as Shirley Chisholm in Mrs. America
Uzo Aduba as Shirley Chisholm in Mrs. America.
Pari Dukovic/FX on Hulu

By the time we get to the 1970s, there are some things to be culturally conscious of. We know the natural hair movement has come during the civil rights movement: losing wigs and being more activists on the streets and what that represents, wearing your hair natural. Except for Shirley in our story.

A lot of these African American women that we show are real women who we can do research on. So I did look at that research and made those choices, choices in texture and density and all that kind of thing. Bria [Henderson], who plays Margaret Sloan, Bria’s real hairline goes back very, very far, like Sade. So we dropped her hairline and made it very round in the way that Margaret Sloan wore her hair.

Did you have a guiding principle for working on the male actors’ hair?

It’s a funny time period for men and hair. There was a campaign that ran in the early ’70s that I remember that was like “The wet-head is dead,” and it was all about not wearing Brylcreem and that tight little hairdo, combed all into place circa early ’60s. There was a whole thing about wearing your hair natural, no product. You have the hippie movement growing their hair very long, but then you have the average guy starting to grow his sideburns longer. The nape is a little thicker, more dense, and everything becomes puffier.

Close-up of John Slattery as Fred Schlafly in Mrs. America.
John Slattery as Fred Schlafly in Mrs. America.
Pari Dukovic/FX on Hulu

For someone like Fred Schlafly, John Slattery [the actor playing him], he has a very elongated face. He has a very high hairline. He is a very dashing-looking guy. And Fred was not any of that. It really needed him to step away from who he was. John was not saying anything during the wig fitting. He’s taking it all in. And then once it’s going on him, he just embraced what it brought him when he looked in the mirror at the end of his session. He’d be Fred. They put the wig on, and it’s like they become that person.

Whose hair was the most challenging to figure out, and whose hair was the most fun to figure out?

Melanie Lynskey in costume as Rosemary Thomson in Mrs. America
Melanie Lynskey as Rosemary Thomson in Mrs. America.
Pari Dukovic/FX on Hulu

The most fun, Melanie Lynskey. Bar none. Rosemary [Thomson’s] hair, that fuzzy auburn, just so housewife-y, and it is completely based on my mom being pregnant in 1970 with my little brother.* I love it so much. Melanie put the glasses on, and I can’t even take it. I just love it because it’s so real and it’s so not Melanie’s hair.

Elizabeth Banks in costume as Jill Ruckelshaus in Mrs. America
Elizabeth Banks as Jill Ruckelshaus in Mrs. America.
Pari Dukovic/FX on Hulu

Then I’d say the biggest challenge was Elizabeth Banks. There was concern that the character of Jill Ruckelshaus, her hair was so … if we look at it now in pictures of Jill Ruckelshaus, it’s so jarringly unattractive, right? We’re just like, “Whoa, that is hair. That is some hair.” The wig arrived and it’s just in its natural dark-blond state and I’ve got to frost it, which was so much fun. Frosting, come on. I never did that even in the day. In the end, finding a balance for it—there’s something about it that is attractive and Liz totally sells it. But there is no mistaking what year it is when you see her in her hairdo.

It’s an amazing thing to me that they were so individual. I hope for that. I hope for that more. Besides equal rights, my God. I mean. Is that crazy?

Correction, May 6, 2020: This article originally misidentified the Equal Rights Amendment as the Equal Rights Act. It also misspelled Rosemary Thomson’s last name.