Birds of a Feather …flock together. Kim Izzo plucks the deeper societal – and style – meaning of Truman Capote’s fall from grace with his Swans.

They rolled off the assembly line yesterday like dolls, newly painted and freshly coiffed, packaged in silk, satin and jewels and addressed to Truman Capote, the Plaza Hotel.

Tom Hollander as Truman Capote in Feud: Capote vs. The Swans. Copyright 2024, FX. All rights reserved.

Tom Hollander as Truman Capote. CR: FX

You wouldn’t be blamed for thinking such a myth-inducing sentence had erupted from the pen of blockbuster television producer Ryan Murphy (Glee/American Horror Story), whose Feud: Capote vs The Swans, his follow-up to Feud: Bette and Joan, captures the rich and mighty women of ’60s and ’70s New York and their gay best friend with melodrama to spare. But in fact, the sentence ran in the New York Times as part of its coverage of Capote’s legendary 1966 Black & White Ball. 

The FX series, which is based on the book, Capote’s Women: A True Story of Love, Betrayal, and a Swan Song for an Era, has been dissected and analyzed by critics and fans alike since its debut in February. The Swans are OGs! The first influencers! The original Real Housewives of New York! And, while the media – social and otherwise – are taken to hyperbole, in this instance, they gotta point. The real-life Swans set fashion trends on fire and were as known for their backstabbing as their bouffants. But what bouffants! 

The show focuses on Capote’s close friendship with the ladies-who-lunch set, specifically Babe Paley (Naomi Watts), Slim Keith (Diane Lane), CZ Guest (Chloe Sevigny), and Lee Radziwell (Calista Flockhart). And these formidable actresses deliver formidable performances that are likely to surface come Emmy-nom time. Tom Hollander as Capote is no slouch either. But arguably the biggest stars of Capote vs The Swans aren’t flesh and blood thespians but the wardrobe, hair and makeup, each as integral to the storytelling as the dialogue and cinematography. If a picture is worth a thousand words, a killer outfit and expertly coiffed beehive is worth a million. 

Naomi Watts as Babe Paley and Tom Hollander as Truman Capote in Feud: Capote vs. The Swans. Copyright 2024, FX. All rights reserved.

Naomi Watts as Babe Paley and Tom Hollander as Truman Capote in Feud: Capote vs. The Swans. Copyright 2024, FX. All rights reserved.

To ensure the character depictions lived up to the legends, each woman’s onscreen style is distinct and personal. There’s the Park Avenue polish of Babe, the California style of Slim, the equestrian chic of CZ. As Capote refers to his Swans in one episode, “[they are] beautiful and unruffled above the waters…stunning, singular, gliding through the ponds of society.”

The series moves back and forth through the ’50s and ’70s and follows Capote’s ouster from the Swans inner circle after an excerpt from his unpublished novel ran in Esquire in 1975. The piece – La Côte Basque (named after the famous Manhattan restaurant where the girl-gang regularly assembled for lunch and lethal gossip) – scandalized New York society and forever ruptured Capote’s relationships with the women. He never regained his place in the Swans’ nest and remained a social pariah until his death in 1984.

The storytellers use the ritual of having one’s hair “done” as character development with scenes of the leading ladies seated quietly in a salon chair like a queen on her throne, as she is coiffed to perfection, or attended to at home by a personal hairstylist, almost like a lady-in-waiting. Hollywood hair designer Chris Clark created a total of 21 wigs for Swans, including five for Watt’s Babe. Beauty fanatics can watch video of Watt’s hair and makeup transformation in a video posted to Clark’s @wigorama Instagram account. 

The makeup for the series was designed by Emmy award-winning makeup artist Jackie Risotto, who described the background work she and her team did to prep for the series. “[There was] extensive research all around, including facial hair and nail polish, length of nails, everything,” Risotto tells The Zoe Report. “It was a ton of research, but it was so fascinating and so much fun.”

The period wardrobe was sourced from designer and private collections, with designer Zac Posen creating original looks for the Black & White ball episode. Fashion’s recent embrace of quiet luxury is rejected here, and the series may usher in a new era of maximalism, or at least big hair. 

Naomi Watts, Chloë Sevigny, and Diane Lane in Feud: Capote vs The Swans. PHOTO: FX

Naomi Watts, Chloë Sevigny, and Diane Lane in Feud: Capote vs The Swans. PHOTO: FX

Of all Capote’s women, it was Babe Paley that the author of Breakfast at Tiffany’s worshiped most, “Mrs. P. had only one fault: She was perfect; otherwise, she was perfect,” he once wrote. And he wasn’t alone. According to Vanity Fair, “Women followed her slavishly in everything she wore. On her way to lunch at La Grenouille one day, she removed her scarf because it was too warm and tied it casually to the side of her handbag. Within a month, this ‘look’ was copied everywhere.”

In episode 3, Watt’s Babe is asked why women are drawn to gay men and vice versa: “We see the importance of presentation – it’s how we defend ourselves. Underneath, though, is someone who is just trying to control their environment. It’s a defense.”

Naomi Watts as Babe Paley in “Feud: Capote Vs. Swans.” Photo: FX

FEUD: Capote Vs. The Naomi Watts as Babe Paley. CR: Pari Dukovic/FX

Babe’s words are acutely drawn in a later episode when, like voyeurs, we watch as she painstakingly assembles her outfit, her hair is done at home by a personal hairdresser, earrings and necklace are put on; the result is perfection. Only to observe in a later scene Babe removing it all under the fluorescent glare of a hospital change room as she slips into a shapeless gown. That she put such effort into an appearance for an X-ray machine and cancer treatment is telling of what role clothes and beauty played in the lives of these women. 

Style as defense was one of the few weapons the Swans had, and one aspect of life under their total control. For despite all the wealth and glamor, their value in society was inextricably linked to their husband’s power and money. In our current geopolitical climate, where sexual assault is a global war crime and American courts tear apart women’s rights, having complete authority over our bodies and faces – even if it’s how we dress, what lipstick we choose, or how we do our hair – feels like an intimate protest of its own. A protective veil against outside forces and a way to hide our true selves. Or as Capote quips, “Life itself is a masquerade ball.” 


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