‘The Trial of the Chicago 7’ Costume Designer Susan Lyall Embraced 1960s Authenticity for Film’s Look

The Trial of the Chicago 7
Photo courtesy of Netflix

Tie-dye? Check. Fringed leather? Check. Headbands, puka shell necklaces, corduroy and denim? Check, check, check. No facet of late 1960s fashion goes untouched in “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” Aaron Sorkin’s Netflix docudrama based on the 1969 trial of a group of radicals charged with conspiracy, among other things, for the uprisings surrounding the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.

“You don’t always get a really cool 1960s movie, with clothes that I happened to be incredibly partial to, with a cast of really great men,” says costume designer Susan Lyall of the film, which features a star-studded ensemble including Eddie Redmayne as Tom Hayden, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as Bobby Seale, Jeremy Strong as Jerry Rubin and Sacha Baron Cohen as Abbie Hoffman.

“It was a moment when men and women really moved out of their looks from the previous couple of decades,” says Lyall, who worked with Sorkin on “Molly’s Game” in 2017. “By the end of the ’60s and into the ’70s, everyone looked totally different. It’s really fun as a costume designer to take on something like that.”

Using historical images as a jumping-off point, Lyall — whose credits include “Empire Records” and “Rachel Getting Married”— began creating the individual wardrobes for each of the characters, some staying truer to life than others. “Jerry Rubin wore a lot of provocative costumes and painted his face all the time. He was really doing a lot with his appearance,” explains Lyall, pointing out that on occasion Rubin’s look, often punctuated with a signature headband, was toned down for the screen, “so it doesn’t take away from the story at hand.” And while the real-life Hayden grew out his hair during the five-month trial, Sorkin opted to keep it short throughout the film, a visual reminder of the stark contrast between Hayden’s buttoned-up persona and the more radical Hoffman.

“[Sacha] was the one playing the character [that] garnered the most attention, and was the most photographed,” says Lyall, highlighting Cohen’s concern with remaining true to Hoffman with his wardrobe choices. “We [tried to] authenticate it as much as possible for him.” Key looks included the judo jacket Hoffman wore on the way to free Hayden from jail, and a fringed-leather moto jacket Lyall sourced from a rental house to match the one Hoffman wore on the first day of the trial. The costume designer also re-created the iconic American flag shirt in which Hoffman was arrested outside a U.S. House of Representatives building in 1968 (and charged with flag desecration).

Lyall was tasked with dressing the rest of the courtroom’s characters as well. That meant prosecutor Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and defense attorney William Kunstler (Mark Rylance), not to mention politicians, court reporters, the jury and a cast of spectators — leather-clad Black Panthers included. Using seasonal clothing and era-appropriate palettes (think corduroy blazers and jewel tones), she was able to denote the passage of time for the five-month-long ordeal.

But even in the court there were lighthearted fashion moments, such as one standout, true-to-life instance in which Hoffman and Rubin dress in judge’s robes, worn over police shirts, to taunt Judge Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella). Early on, Cohen approached Lyall with the idea, which wasn’t included in the original script. He suggested they present it to Sorkin, who had been circling the same image. “I think it was worth it,” says Lyall of the decision to include the scene. “It was pretty bold. They really couldn’t wait to get under the judge’s skin.