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The Watergate Scandal is one of those moments in American history that almost feels too surreal to be true; government officials doing the dirty work of a president, break-ins, illegal recordings, and a whistleblower named after an even more salacious film. The cast of characters, and they really were characters, that made up the real life drama have lived on through repeated news reports, All the President’s Men, and generations of scandals being dubbed with the suffix “-gate.”
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But in HBO’s new miniseries, White House Plumbers, the curtain is pulled back on two of the scandal’s key players: G. Gordon Liddy (Justin Theoroux) and H. Howard Hunt (Woody Harrelson). The satirical retelling of the odd couple’s relationship makes for riveting and comical show, but also depicts something else about the era: the clothes. Showcasing everything from wide lapels to bell bottom pants, costume designer Leah Katznelson had to find looks that fit the era and characters, without going so overboard as to distract from the scenes.
SPY spoke to Katznelson about how she took two of history’s most notorious political criminals and created a wardrobe that spoke for itself.
SPY: How did you embark upon the project for this show? Watergate has bled into just public knowledge. Where do you start in terms of source material?
Leah Katznelson: I knew about Watergate, about the fallout of what had transpired. But when I got the scripts, I literally sat and read one through five without stopping. I was immediately captivated by how insane everybody was. The photographs that we have, the photographic evidence, the research that was available in that regard was post-Watergate, post-break-in, post-litigation, and being in front of the Senate.
Much of the story centers on what happened before, the lead ups, the multiple break-in attempts and the quiet spaces and relationships between not just Hunt and Liddy but their families and how that unfolded. There’s not a lot of photographic research and documentation available to us. A lot of my work and our department’s work was to go backwards and see what we could in the newspapers and interpret: what was going on internally within the Republican Party, what was happening in music, what was happening in the Sears catalog. A lot of the research we did was also just acquiring every Sears catalog from 1967 to 1974.
SPY: What a fun way to build costumes for a period piece.
LK: It’s amazing. It’s so wonderful to have this as a library because those are the tools that really help inform what real people wore. A lot of period work can be heavily stylized and there’s absolutely a place and time for that. But David Mandel, our director, felt very strongly that this wasn’t That ’70s Show. That this isn’t a show about clothes. This is a show about real people and he also didn’t want the clothes to be jokes. We wanted to land them in a place where they just exist as human beings.
I mean of course, then, there’s All the President’s Men. There is a parking lot outside of an office building that is just all the cars parked in the parking lot and I did a screen grab of the cars in that parking lot and I blew it up huge, that became my pallet for DC. So that was how it started. That was the starting place for the pallet for DC for our project.
SPY: Suits from this period tend to have lots of flourishes, how did you manage to find ones in the right condition that reflected those points?
LK: We made sure every lapel and every tie and every collar point measured the same. We used the Brooks Brothers model as our silhouette for Hunt, given that he came from a much more affluent background. New England, blue blood, money. We used all natural fibers for Woody and luxury fabrics, cashmeres, and wools, and silks, and cottons. But his career was cresting much more in the ’60s, and our story only opens in the beginning of the ’70s, so now we’re starting to see that his clothes have some wear to them.
Liddy, by contrast, Justin’s character, was squarely middle class. He was out of the Sears catalog. He was a 70’s man. He didn’t have the money to be part of a country club and be part of that sort of DC government elite. There was an element of striving. So he had synthetics and wider lapels and much wider ties.
SPY: Were the suits vintage or bespoke?
LK: For Hunt, because we were leaning into natural fibers and not using any synthetics on him whatsoever. We manufactured, I would say, close to 90% of everything that he wore.
LK: And that’s everything from top to toe. I mean hats, shoes, belts, shirting. We got lucky on a few things that we found that we were able to source. Certainly there’s some wool suiting that we used that was vintage, silk ties that were vintage. It’s a careful balance when you’re constructing a made-to-order wardrobe for a whole character, because you don’t want it to read made-to-order. There is a certain hand to the fabrics of the ’70s and the ’60s but that doesn’t have the same kind of gloss that a lot of newly constructed fabrics have in the wovens and in the printing and all of that. It was really important that we married those things as seamlessly as possible. He read as grounded in the world as the other characters, many of whom wore vintage garments.
For Liddy, I would say, was probably more like a 60% vintage. We manufactured a number of suits for Liddy along with shirting and probably a dozen ties or so we manufactured from vintage fabrics. We would find patterns and silhouettes that we liked and that represented the character and then found and sourced a whole host of vintage fabrics and in some cases, some newer fabrics made to look old.
We had an extraordinary team who do aging and dyeing of fabric, led by Chandra Telfer, who was able to really take things that felt maybe too crispy and turn them into something that really felt accessible and appropriate for our storytelling. We had probably the best shopper in the business. Our assistant designer, Deirdre Wegner, went to every cat lady’s garage sale, to every rental house, to scavenging every vintage store. There was no stone unturned to find our needs. She was pretty extraordinary about sourcing. We even used earrings that were from the ’60s and ’70s from our coordinator’s grandmother who lived in DC during the Watergate era.
SPY: Who is the tailor behind the bespoke suits?
LK: Leonard Logsdail. Leonard manufactured the lion’s share of Woody’s suiting. He’s extraordinary. Our first fitting with Woody was remote. He was in his home in Hawaii, and was not coming to New York until very close to production. And because we were manufacturing almost all his clothing, what we did was we put together three or five head to toe [images] that I had illustrated, that we sketched out, that we built. Going off of conversations with designers who had worked with him more recently and measurements that he had shared with us. And Leonard, by looking at photos of him standing, he has the skill set to see how someone walks and moves their body and knows how to drape a suit. It’s extraordinary. I will say that the first fitting was wildly successful in many parts because of Leonard’s hand. To fit somebody never having laid eyes on them, doing it in Zoom in the time of COVID. There were a lot of things stacked against us and it was really awesome how beautifully it all shaped out.
SPY: What about the rest of the custom pieces?
LK: CEGO did a huge portion of our shirting for the show. And Martin Greenfield Clothiers manufactured a bunch of Liddy’s suiting. Jay, Martin’s son, at Greenfield really played a huge role in overseeing the work there. And Anthony Giliberto, as well.
We also had an extraordinary team on set, and I want to be sure we give them credit. Our head tailor, Kate Rusek, ran the tailor shop in-house for us. She manufactured garments for Woody as well. She made his tennis outfit. I mean, she truly made an unreasonable amount of garments for that show. She really did have a tall order with the quantity of clothing that we needed. We also had Alyssa Bracken, who was our assistant made-to-order costume designer, and Angel Peart, the associate costume designer.
SPY: What were you looking for in the era’s casualwear: the polos, the tennis clothes. How were those sourced?
LK: That was also a conglomeration of vintage and made to order garments. We stayed true in terms of the fabrications of keeping Hunt in natural fibers and Liddy largely in synthetics or blends. And we really stayed sort of in a preppier, more conservative for Hunt. I think the only detail that we really stayed connected to for him in his knitwear or his day to day men’s fitting looks. He always wore a crew neck undershirt under all of his clothes. It was another layer of armor that kind of didn’t quite let you see what was happening with him with his stoic personality until things started to crack.
SPY: And it’s a very specific kind of man that always needs to have an undershirt on.
LK: Absolutely. Woody is not that guy. He doesn’t wanna put his shoes on. I love Woody with all my heart, that man loves his flip flops. He would always be like, “Do I have to put these shoes on?” And we’d have to tell him, “Yes. Your feet are in the frame.” To be fair we shot a lot of it in the summer, it was incredibly hot out. We filmed in DC in August and September. It is a swampy, humidity-driven environment. We were putting people in either synthetics, which don’t breathe, or wool, which was just meant to keep you warm. They really did put their clothes on beautifully and didn’t give me a hard time at all. They were the best, absolutely dream collaborators.
SPY: What about Justin? Because Liddy seems obsessive about his clothes.
LK: The real Liddy was always perfectly pressed, even in prison. Literally, in the biography, I think it’s Hunt who writes that he even managed to get an inmate to press his uniform in prison. He didn’t want a hair out of place even when he was incarcerated. It’s pretty amazing. We maintained a very crisp element to all of his wardrobe. He tucked it in perfectly, we didn’t pre-set any of his ties, he would always do them himself.
SPY: Like method acting, but with clothing.
LK: Totally. Justin never walked out of that trailer with a button out of place. There was never a knot that wasn’t perfect. He always he nailed it. The tie always hit at the right part of the buckle.
SPY: What about the mustache? Was that done in makeup?
LK: That was his mustache. He did not wanna have to sit in the chair every day and have a mustache applied. It takes a long time and it’s also very hot and the retouching with glue. Liddy is very much known for that silhouette, so it was very important to create the overall look for him. I think they may have toned it a little bit and made it darker to match Liddy’s. But it was absolutely his, he had a special comb for it and everything.
SPY: How might the modern man pull off these looks? Obviously, they’re not going to go head-to-toe the same as Hunt or Liddy, but how can they adapt this style and make it their own?
LK: I think that you do it in pieces. Like, I think one of the beautiful ways of infiltrating period garments or silhouettes into a more contemporary look is by extracting some of the elements and maybe not doing them all—so it doesn’t feel like a costume. You know, pick the shirt, the knitwear, the pattern, the pockets, the cuff detail, whatever it might be that resonates. Maybe it’s a Beatle boot, maybe it’s a higher waisted trouser. There’s a lot of 70’s influence in menswear already. So I think it can be available in a more mass produced way. It can also be done if you go to a thrift store or a vintage store and find a hat that you love and that just becomes part of your look. Vintage accessories are an awesome thing to incorporate—whether it’s a tie, a pocket square, cufflinks, a pair of shoes. Those are ways to kind of nod to an era that you might love. Dig around your family’s closets, there’s always good stuff there too.
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