Like many a classic movie star before her, Meryl Streep arrives to her showstopper scene in The Post with a showstopper gown to match it. Playing Katharine Graham, the publisher of The Washington Post during the 1971 publication of the Pentagon Papers, Streep is seen in much of the film wearing the conservative business attire typical for the time—skirt suits with high necks or shirt dresses, with echoes of menswear to match the almost exclusively male world that surrounds her.
But for The Post’s most pivotal scene, in which Graham makes the decision to publish the Pentagon Papers in direct defiance of the government, the film changes things up in dramatic, glorious fashion. Graham is in the midst of hosting a party when editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) and the assembled Post staff tell her that the papers are ready to publish once she gives the word. On the phone, and later in a room with all the key players, Graham is thoughtful and deliberative, and totally aware of the historical weight of her decision. But instead of a power suit or anything resembling what a male decision-maker would wear in this situation, she is wearing a very feminine, flowing white caftan, embroidered elaborately in gold.
Costume designer Ann Roth, a three-time Oscar nominee and winner for The English Patient, has worked with Streep since 1983’s Silkwood; they don’t collaborate on every film, because of scheduling conflicts and the idea that perhaps, as Roth puts it, “Sometimes maybe her director says, no, I’m not having that old bat.” Roth had never worked with Steven Spielberg before The Post—but given the accelerated schedule of production, the designer had to jump in feet first. “I was hired in I think April, and we started shooting in May,” Roth says. “I didn’t have loads of time to scour the country for this period.” Due to the time crunch, all of Streep’s costumes were made new.
And though Streep’s costumes are featured more prominently in the film than nearly anyone else’s, it was the background players—particularly a group of college-aged protesters featured in a handful of scenes—that gave Roth the biggest challenge. “There were just loads of background people that if they were wrong, it would have screwed up everything for me,” she says. “It was a lot to do, an awful lot, and it was done in a big hurry. And yet I wanted it. I did not want to have people say, ‘Oh, that amusing 70s show.’”
As for the caftan, Roth says simply: “I just decided to do it. She’s giving a party for somebody who’s retiring. People are coming after work, and people are coming dressed.”
Despite having made her career as a costume designer for five decades, and one who is still hard at work—the day we spoke, she had nine sketches to finish for the upcoming Broadway revival of Carousel—Roth balks at the idea that anyone would even be interested in the costumes of The Post: “The movie is so important to me that the costume are the least—it’s just not about that.”
So she really thinks the costumes are the least important thing in the movie? “Of course they are! That’ll hurt Steven’s feelings, but of course they are. They’re just the atmosphere of the movie. It’s the paint wash over the background.”
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