We know a great deal about the Watergate hearings, its cast of characters, its major events, and the various trials and hearings that took place once the scandal was revealed. But we know little about the day to day of its major players, those faces who later would be splashed across every newspaper, magazine, and newscast of the period. Before all of that, G. Gordon Liddy, E. Howard Hunt, John Dean, and others were all basically your average, ordinary Washington, D.C., players. It was often a direct component of their jobs to stay out of the limelight.
When approaching costume designs for HBO’s White House Plumbers — a retelling of the Watergate scandal through the perspective of Liddy and Hunt — costume designer Leah Katznelson needed to accurately portray the fashions of the era as completely as possible. The trial and hearing sequences were heavily documented, so she had a great deal of inspiration that would drive costume choices for those characters.
But the period before the hearings would allow Katznelson a high degree of artistic freedom, and her costume designs would often stem from the themes of the limited series as well as the characters’ hopes and darkest desires.
“There are a few things from their family archives and other items that we had access to. It became a bit of a backing-into process. We took our lead from what was documented and available to us, and then, just by reading more of both their biographies and anything else that was written about them personally during the time period, we learned more about them. Not just what they wore and how they appeared, but who they were as human beings, their background,” Katznelson explained. “Howard Hunt was very blue-blood New England. He came from affluence, went to good schools, that kind of thing. Liddy was much more solidly middle class and had access to things in a different way. So the class differences between them played into the costume designs.”
The costumes for Dorothy and Howard Hunt (Lena Headey and Woody Harrelson) reflected their access to money. In the series, Hunt is never portrayed as a fully wealthy person, but they were a family accustomed to a certain level of financial comfort, even if creditors plague them throughout the series. During Hunt’s heyday in the late 1960s, they would have had more financial stability, so their fashion choices would have reflected that. As they move into the 1970s, however, their funds are less stable, and they’re largely still wearing some of the clothing from the 1960s while incorporating newer pieces to keep up with their country club lifestyle.
Dorothy Hunt’s wardrobe, in particular, reflected not only her affluence but also her position of power within the relationship.
“Our fabric choices [for Dorothy] leaned less synthetic and more like her husband’s more natural fibers. More silk was used in her silhouettes. We kept things very soft and feminine but with some structure. She was actually the one very much in control of her family and their circumstances once things started to unravel,” Katznelson shared. “So, we wanted to always keep her very well put together. There was a real elegance or grace, but things were very buttoned up — lots of lots of buttons on her dresses too. Some little quiet details in that way.”
Harrelson’s Hunt required special attention due to the actor’s staunchly vegan and environmental belief system. The 1970s marked a period of widespread synthetic fibers, but Harrelson personally does not wear synthetics. When using vintage clothing, Katznelson needed to select all natural fibers — wools, silks, or cottons. Anything constructed, the large majority of what Harrelson wore, were all created from natural fibers from mills that had environmentally sound practices. Right down to the buttons, shoes, and belts.
Contrasting with the “old money” Hunts, the Liddy’s (Justin Theroux and Judy Greer) fashion choices reflected their ideas of how wealthy people would dress. The culture clash culminates in a tiki night at Hunt’s country club. There, Katznelson surrounded the main cast with waiters and extras dressed in themed shirts and ties. Fran Liddy (Greer) wears a brightly colored floral dress that she would have considered to be very classy and upscale, wildly different from the more subdued, pink pastel dress worn by Heady’s Dorothy Hunt. Theroux’s Liddy appears to have coordinated with his wife by wearing bright red, nearly garish, pants.
Outside of tiki night, Liddy’s costumes often reflected his overwhelming belief in hierarchy and structure, a brilliant touch Katznelson added to the costume palette.
“He believes in organization and in a hierarchy and a structure within his own family, within his relationship with Hunt, with the government, and with the world at large. So, we really wanted to mirror that sense of structure that he so desperately seeks. All of his shirts have structure and geometry,” Katznelson revealed. “My background is architecture, so I leaned a little bit more into what’s the structure of how Liddy composes himself. He’s always put together because, for him, it’s presentation in a different way. We even put a shirt on Liddy at one point that has some barbed wire on it prior to his arrival in prison. That’s something he took pride in, actually. He was thrilled about going to prison because it meant it took one for the team.”
That style temporary breaks when Liddy and Hunt go to Los Angeles on an undercover adventure. Katznelson and director David Mandel understood that the story, while satirical at times, would not revel in broadly comic tropes. The costumes could look funny, but they weren’t to be the joke. However, in the L.A. sequence, Liddy and Hunt sport outlandish costumes that lend a comic bent to the story.
They interpret tourists of the period in a ridiculous way with Liddy’s power blue leisure suit and Hunt’s cream-colored suit with broad lapels. This comic aspect to the otherwise very serious story actually proved a bit of a challenge for the costume team. First, the trick was to balance their costumes so that they were totally different from those worn previously but, at the same time, weren’t completely out of the realm of possibility so as to give them away. Plus, given Harrelson’s lifestyle choices. The team did eventually locate a vintage leisure suit that wasn’t made from synthetic fibers that they accentuated with a custom-made shirt, shoes, and other accompaniments.
The team of “plumbers,” or men hired to break into the Watergate Hotel, also required their own unique costumes. Initial glances at the men would infer that they’re wearing simple suits, but look closer and you’ll see that each costume choice reflects the nuances of the characters. Katznelson studied who these men were, their Miami-based backgrounds, and their ordinary jobs (a locksmith, a real estate agent, etc.) and created costumes that reflected all of that detail. In particular, she wanted their costumes to reflect their attempts to blend into the Washington government circles of traditional, conservative palettes while retaining nuances of who they were in their Miami life. For example, the locksmith character’s suit had many, many pockets. He also didn’t have money for a traditional suit, so they outfitted him in a sport coat and mixed in more casual shirting that reflected his Cuban background. The fabric choices also reflected the Miami climate as the characters weren’t supposed to have an extended stay for their Washington jaunt.
The exploration of the characters and their individual backgrounds proved to be the most influential aspect in designing costumes for everyone. Oh, and it proved a great deal of fun, too.
“It was definitely because it wasn’t the same sort of traditional suiting. We had a lot of fun figuring out the differences with everybody. One character loved tennis, so all of his ties had sports,” Katznelson said. “Learning about everybody as individuals was a really fun way to look at menswear. It was heavily nuanced and really character-driven.”
White House Plumbers streams exclusively on MAX. The limited series finale airs Monday, May 29.