Elizabeth Holmes is weird. “The Dropout,” Hulu’s limited series charting Holmes’ (Amanda Seyfried) rise and fall as CEO of Theranos, certainly has more nuanced things to say about what led Holmes to perpetrate one of Silicon Valley’s most notorious frauds, but part of the series’ drive is Holmes’ essential strangeness: a mixture of ambition, intensity, anxiety, and fan-worship that is both unique to her and painfully of her time growing up in the Dot Com bubble. And all of those disparate aspects come together in one instantly recognizable article of clothing: that black turtleneck.
“We always wanted Elizabeth to be pretty much an outsider,” costume designer Claire Parkinson told IndieWire. “She was always a bit off in style, never trend-driven, something was always askew or not quite who her mother wanted her to be. So [her high school and college style] wasn’t necessarily as trendy as the Y2K fashion of her roommates, who are in poppy pinks and teals and limes.”
Additionally, Parkinson created moments where Elizabeth sticks out not just among her peers but in various situations, such as the dorm in the Chinese language immersion program where she meets Sunny Balwani (Naveen Andrews). And throughout those scenes, Elizabeth looks out of place in her own clothes.
The lack of fit also served to make Seyfried look younger, almost swallowed by frumpy sweaters and loose-fitting hoodies as she finds Stanford to be everything and nothing like she expected. It’s especially prevalent in the painfully awkward suits Holmes wears to drum up VC funding for Theranos in Episode 2. Each misplaced fold of fabric helps accentuates the twitchy energy Seyfried brings to Holmes throughout every stage of her quest to become the next young baron of Tech.
Even as she settles into her own as Silicon Valley’s favorite (only) female CEO, her wardrobe choices are imitative of success, not an expression of her sense of self. In the opening of Episode 3, Elizabeth waits at an Apple store for the release of the first-ever iPhone alongside several other fans cosplaying as Steve Jobs. By the end of the episode, Holmes will be wearing her own version of Jobs’ signature black turtleneck. “This is the first time in my career that I’ve ever attempted to make someone look as if they were actually in a costume that felt unnatural and uncomfortable,” Parkinson said, “that she wasn’t even achieving [the look] she was intending.”
For the rest of the series, Parkinson found ways to keep Holmes’ monochrome look still representative of Holmes’ own personality. “Most people look better or great in black,” Parkinson said. So Parkinson made sure to put Seyfried in baggy pants with awkward flares and uncomfortable-looking shoes. “You can’t necessarily tell,” Parkinson said, “but she’s constantly fidgeting.”
That trajectory from discomfort to polished CEO was drawn from Parkinson’s research Holmes’ career. “[I drew inspiration] from images, like her sitting with Bill Clinton [and] her suit was pulling in the arms and it was opening up weird in the chest. So we wanted to make sure, without interrupting her performance, Amanda was using her body in that way.”
The fact that Holmes never settles into her clothes — even after hiring a stylist and receiving the requisite start-up founder puffy vest that seems to come with Series D funding — is a subtle but pervasive part of what “The Dropout” has to say about Holmes: a woman who will do anything to become a billionaire entrepreneur who changes the world, but isn’t as focused on how she’ll do it. “She wanted to appear calculated and perfect, but she wasn’t,” Parkinson said. ” It’s fascinating. It’s like all the feelings come up.”