How “Fellow Travelers” Got 1950s (and ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s) Costume Design Right

fellow travelers showtime jonathan bailey matt bomer
How “Fellow Travelers” Got 1950s Costumes RightKurt Iswarienko

A homoerotic, psychosexual historical romance and political thriller starring Matt Bomer and Jonathan Bailey? Sign me up. Showtime’s new miniseries Fellow Travelers—adapted from the 2007 novel of the same name by Thomas Mallon—hits so many of the right notes, and looks great doing it. The story follows a star-crossed romance between its two leading men as they fall in and out of each other’s lives, first against the backdrop of 1950s McCarthyism, and then through the political turmoil of the 1960s, the 1970s’ days of disco, and the AIDS crisis of the ’80s.

Period fashion is something we see represented all the time onscreen, but to witness the growth of these characters as their stories develop and worlds change over the decades is a delight to watch—and was a challenge to costume. We caught up with the show’s costume designer, Joseph La Corte, to learn more about how he tackled this sprawling, emotional story and helped bring it to the screen.

You’ve worked on a number of different period productions, like Pan Am, Boardwalk Empire, and Vinyl. How was Fellow Travelers different?

I have really varied experience in period, but this one was different because it was personal, in a way. Growing up in the ’80s as a closeted gay man, I identified with what these guys were going through. That’s what drew me to the project.

What was the most challenging part of this project?

The show spans four decades. That’s a lot of clothes to have on hand. That’s a lot to build. Sometimes we would shoot two different decades in one day. On a few occasions, we did three decades in a day. To get your mind to flip between decades can be a challenge, and there are so many things you wouldn’t obviously think of—like the placement of where a tie clip goes in the 1950s, versus where it goes in the 1980s.

The other challenge is with scheduling. As much prep time as you have—even though [costume designers] don’t really get that much anymore—you’re always trying to beat the clock. Working with [actor] Alison Williams, for instance—because of her schedule, she would come in and out while we were shooting. We built 90 percent of what she wore in the show, and she’s often flying in just the night before, so we would build clothes in advance. But then you have to get them fitted, and have someone work through the night to have it fitted just right on time for shooting. We also filmed in Toronto. There are [costume] rental houses in Canada, but it’s not like Hollywood, where they have endless stock.

fellow travelers showtime alison williams matt bomer
Ben Mark Holzberg

fellow travelers showtime
Ben Mark Holzberg

When you have a cast of characters that we follow across four decades, how do you ensure they have some sort of continuity, or that they continue to look like themselves over the passage of time?

There was a massive amount of research, and we thought to look towards who might be the contemporaries of the characters we were dressing, and then we looked to how those contemporaries’ style changed over time. For Alison Williams’s character, for example, we looked to Lee Radziwill and Jackie Kennedy. But [Matt Bomer’s lead character] Hawk remains pretty classic and effortless throughout his journey. He is pretty charismatic, and everyone is drawn to him.

I love the idea of restrained, seemingly conservative clothes hiding something underneath. Would you say that’s the case on this show?

Everyone has something to hide on our show. Everyone has a secret, and their clothes are a little bit like armor. You present one way, but you’re actually a different way. We made it so that they blend into normal society. There were also codes back in the day. There was one scene we filmed that ended up on the cutting room floor—but we explored how if you were secretly gay and wanted to let other gays know, you would match your pocket square to your tie and your socks.

What was the hardest costume to get right?

I would have to say Frankie [a drag queen played by Noah J. Ricketts] as a whole, character-wise. Not so much hard as it was important to get it right. I wanted to make sure we brought a real verisimilitude to the drag of the time and what it looked like. Drag at the time was different than what we see on RuPaul today. Guys would go to the dime store and get makeup and put it on. Frankie lives in a room above the cozy corner and uses a sewing machine; he doesn’t have a lot of money. We wanted to make sure we had an authentic tale there in his clothes.

fellow travelers showtime
Ben Mark Holzberg
fellow travelers showtime
Ben Mark Holzberg

Why do you think audiences love watching the 1950s onscreen?

I think people love watching period things because they get an escape. For a brief hour or 30 minutes, they get to feel glamorous. I’ve been getting a lot of Instagram messages asking where I found certain pieces, and it’s people just dying to feel the way you feel when you put on a vintage dress and it fits you perfectly and you feel like you can take on the world, and people just love that.

Later on, you’ll see [Jonathan Bailey’s lead character] Tim has some struggles, and his clothes are just as real as it can be. There’s nothing heightened. In the 1950s, everything feels heightened because of the cut and silhouette. This was post–World War II, so color was back, and Dior was doing cinched waists and full skirts, so everything felt heightened.

Are there any major fashion moments you want audiences to watch out for?

Allison [Williams] has some really incredible moments. Allison is so incredibly smart about style. We worked really hard to understand who [her character] Lucy was and that her clothes reflected that. In the third episode, she goes to the symphony with Hawk, and that dress to me was one of the best looks in the show, and was quite something special. Also Noah who plays Frankie, the first time he performs in the club, wears a simple black cocktail dress, but he shined like a million bucks. And in the fourth episode there’s a drag show at Christmastime that is so fun.

Were there any clothes your actors tried to pilfer from set?

A bountiful. Most of them were just so polite and asked. I was very flattered to have almost everyone ask for their clothes, which is the biggest compliment any costume designer can get. There were lot of things custom-built to people, and some were gifted in the end. But there were many times that people would wear underpinnings home by accident, and we would tease them by saying, “I know you want to wear that period corset the rest of your life, but there’s only one, so please bring it back!”

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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