Everything You Need to Know About Jonathan Bailey’s Underwear in ‘Fellow Travelers’

Fellow Travelers paints a portrait of a familiar political sartorial landscape. Hawkins Fuller (Matt Bomer) and Tim Laughlin (Jonathan Bailey) wear the required tie as part of their Washington. D.C., politico uniform, but in the bedroom, the role of neckwear goes beyond dress etiquette.

In the third episode of the sweeping (and super-steamy) gay romance on Showtime, after a disastrous dinner date, Tim follows Hawk’s command to strip naked and consents to having his wrists bound by his own tie. Hawk stays mostly dressed while he fucks Tim, but for the post-coital late-night conversation, he sheds all of his attire and, finally, some emotional barriers.

Whether slowly pulling off a sock—for that scene—or neatly folding a pair of pants before getting hot and heavy, removing clothing is a foreplay power move on this show. “It sets the tone of who’s in charge at the moment,” designer Joseph La Corte tells The Daily Beast’s Obsessed about the undressing costume flourishes.

Set across four decades, beginning with the Lavender Scare in the 1950s and stretching to the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the mid-’80s, creator Ron Nyswaner ensures the story doesn’t coyly cut away when characters fall into bed—or wherever else they get frisky. Daniel Minahan’s direction in the premiere sets the sexually liberating tone (toe-sucking!) that continues throughout the series. All the while, Tim and Hawk use various shields to keep their private life from ruining their public ones. Hawk, for example, believes the old military uniform in his closet makes him bulletproof from the oppressive hunt to banish “sexual deviants” working in government.

Of the approximately 2,000 ties La Corte had to choose from—for both that scene that, surely, everyone is now going to talk about, as well as for all the background actors—the designer estimates that they used around 1,000. For a scene as intimate—and vigorous—as Tim and Hawk’s hotel rendezvous, backups are needed, after all. Before heading to Toronto to shoot the series, La Corte purchased “dozens and dozens of yards” from a New York vintage tie fabric vendor. “We built a lot of vintage ties based on actual fabrics from the period, so we did have multiples of that tie for that scene,” he says.

Multiples are far more challenging for vintage garments, so this workaround is the ideal solution. I mention that the considerations for the intimate hotel room exchange sound similar to a stunt scene. “It is a stunt sequence to some degree,” agrees La Corte.

Ties were far from the only item in high demand on set, as La Corte and his team filled 35,000 square feet over two floors with period costume options. Crunching the numbers, La Corte says they had 4,446 costumes total (686 principal costumes and 3760 background), which is a mix of costume house rentals, custom builds, and thrift store finds. The costume designer is no stranger to narratives that criss-cross decades, having previously worked on FX’s Under the Banner of Heaven and Fosse/Verdon.

Across each era in Fellow Travelers, Tim and Hawk face new obstacles and changing styles, expressing their time together and apart. Here, La Corte shares details about the mammoth task, setting the midcentury scene, and all the details we don’t even feel guilty for wanting to know: why boxers or briefs, the challenge of drawing attention away from Jonathan Bailey’s biceps, and the pattern that unites the lovers.

First impressions

During Tim and Hawk’s election night meet-cute in 1952, everything you need to know about Tim’s fresh-faced, wholesome persona is immediately revealed through his brown patterned bow tie alone. “It was [setting him apart], adding an extra layer of naivete to him and making it extra clear that Tim is the younger guy here,” says La Corte. “I think you’ll agree when there’s a shot of him clapping and looking at Senator McCarthy; you just want to squeeze his cheeks.” (For the record, yes, I agree.)

Meanwhile, Hawk wears a signature crisp blue tailored suit as he works the room, telegraphing that someone in the State Department is politically neutral. La Corte custom-built Hawk’s closet using vintage fabrics, referencing archival footage to get the political operative’s looks spot on.

The blue and gray palette worn by most political players matches the standard suit colors of the era, while also nodding to the foreboding atmosphere of the time, which the show also mirrors. “I wanted D.C. to look ominous and like a thunderstorm,” La Corte says. “It was brooding, and something was coming, but you don’t know what it is. As the series progresses, Jonny [Bailey] best put it: It blooms into color.”

Hawk’s sharp three-piece suits contrast against Tim’s rotation of humble brown knits, casual plaid jackets, and shirts. “[Tim clearly] came [to D.C.] with one suitcase full of clothes. You notice he repeats things—mixes and matches. He doesn’t have a vast closet,” says La Corte. The brown tones distinguish Tim from the rest of the workers on the Hill and nod to his low-income upbringing on Staten Island; in this era, brown was the “saddest color.” Despite this, Tim’s sweater vests have already impacted my fall attire as much as Lesson in Chemistry’s Elizabeth Zott.

Whereas many Hawk pieces are custom builds, for Tim, La Corte mostly opted for “rentals and thrift store finds, because there’s nothing like buying something from the ’50s, and it’s already aged perfectly. It already has a life in it.” He was concerned about the condition of some pieces, but Bailey was enthusiastic about them: “Jonny was like, ‘Yeah, let’s do it!’ I was like, ‘We can’t wreck this because there’s only one. If it disintegrates, we’re in trouble.”

However, for the much-talked-about, more athletic sequence, La Corte had to make sure he had backups available.

Boxers or briefs?

It doesn’t take long after meeting him for Hawk to visit Tim in his small rented lodgings. When the two hook up, the first look at their undergarments was equally thought out—including who wears boxers and who chooses briefs. “We looked at all the different styles. We wanted to set Tim apart from Hawk, and the cheaper brand of underwear at the time would have been a brief,” says La Corte.

La Corte didn’t use vintage tighty-whities, but did take his cues from the designs of the time. “[Vintage briefs] would never endure that kind of sex [scene], struggling and pulling on and off continually. So we reconstructed them all,” La Corte explains. “All of Hawk’s and Tim’s undergarments were built using replica fabrics of the period.” The costume designer is always prepared: They had 12 pairs total of Tim’s underwear, and Hawk had eight pairs covering the different eras with “three pairs of each one, because there are moments when a button pops and you gotta keep going.”

It isn’t just a briefs and boxers divide, as Tim sports a “boyish” t-shirt under his attire that purposefully contrasts against Hawk’s athletic tank. “A little secret: We had to cheat the t-shirt sleeves for Tim down an extra inch to cover up his bulging biceps, so that [his muscles] weren’t the first thing you noticed when he took off his shirt,” La Cortes says.

One of the biggest challenges (aside from time, budget, and distracting the eye from Bailey’s muscles) was “trying to recreate some fabrics that don’t exist anymore.” La Corte reveals his costume designer hack for making an outfit look period: When Hawk takes his jacket off, you can see his undershirt through his shirt. It is authentic to the time, but “they don’t make fabrics that thin anymore.” The solution? “We ended up having someone tape down fabric and take a sander and sand it down so it has the right translucency, so you got that effect.”

Overlapping threads

La Corte uses touchstones when toggling between ’50s D.C. and San Francisco in the mid-’80s (with everything in between), and plaid is one of those. Hawk is “constantly classic throughout,” but his pattern choice is more than its timelessness. “Matt and I discussed maybe wearing the plaid is [his way of] having Tim near him, even though he’s not near him,” he says.

Despite the many costume changes, La Corte only had four dedicated fittings with Bomer (three of which occurred before cameras rolled), “because Matt was in almost every single scene of the show, it was almost impossible to ask him to come in for a fitting.” Instead, everything was pre-altered to his specifications, and if La Corte couldn’t decide between two “fabulous” ensembles, he would give Bomer the chance to weigh in. This method clearly worked as Bomer gave La Corte “one of my favorite compliments I’ve ever gotten” when he said, “I’ve never looked so good with such few fittings.”

The costume designer recalls a different challenge for Bailey, as the actor was shooting Bridgerton’s third season and was in rehearsals for the Wicked movie in the U.K. at the same time as Fellow Travelers filmed in Canada (“I don’t know how he did it. Three shows at one time. He’s remarkable human”). La Corte had five fittings with him, but Bailey had a long-lasting style influence on La Corte. “In Bridgerton, he’s curly-haired; on our show, he is straight-haired, so when he would leave us, he’d have to get a perm to go back to Bridgerton,” he says. “One night, we were talking, and he said, ‘Come, I’m gonna get a perm.’ I’m sitting in the chair, and I was like, ‘Wait, let’s do me!’ We did my hair, and I’ve had it permed ever since because of him.”

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