Tech Support: Jacqueline Durran on playing with history (and Chanel) in 'Anna Karenina'

Posted by · 11:28 am · November 23rd, 2012

It’s rare that a single garment in a film takes on an iconic status independent of the character or performer wearing it, yet such was the case five years ago when British designer Jacqueline Durran created That Dress for Keira Knightley in Joe Wright’s “Atonement.” I needn’t describe it: the shimmery emerald number launched a thousand prom-night knockoffs, has entire blogs devoted to it and is currently on display in London’s Victoria & Albert Museum. Durran may have lost the 2007 Oscar to “Elizabeth: The Golden Age,” but it turns out there’s more than one way to reward great costume design. 

Intricately in-period, yet subtly, flexibly modernized, Durran’s creations were a vital collaborative element in Wright’s first two films with actress Keira Knightley: two years before “Atonement,” she earned her first Oscar nod for her youthfully mud-splashed Regency garb in “Pride and Prejudice.” 

But for her third go-round with Wright and Knightley (though she’s worked on all five of Wright’s films), the stakes were raised somewhat. The eponymous heroine of “Anna Karenina” doesn’t merely require That Dress, but one for virtually every scene – and that’s to say nothing of the other characters in Leo Tolstoy’s swirling 19th-century study of sartorially advantaged St. Petersburg society. It’s the biggest project Durran has ever taken on, and yet also one of the most playfully quirky: what appears from a distance to be a resplendent diorama of ribboned and ruffled Russian finery turns out, on closer inspection, to be alive with witty character details and calculated anachronisms. 

When Wright first told her of his intention to take on Tolstoy’s doorstop, Durran initially limited her research simply to re-reading the novel: she admits it rather passed by her by as a university student, though this time she found herself “bowled over by the richness of the text.” Further preparation, she explains, can be futile when working with Wright. 

“With Joe, I kind of don’t have too many ideas in advance of our first meeting, because he always has an angle that he wants to investigate in the piece. And he thought we should look at 1950s couture as a way into reinterpreting the 1870s. He was interested in reducing everything to the barest essentials. ” She pauses. “He says we thought this up together. I’m not sure!” 

Whether this 20th-century infusion was Durran’s idea or not, the designer found herself increasingly excited by it. “I tried to mesh the two things together, so I took very sparse details from the 1950s, the architectural simplicity of that era’s couture, and transposed those to the 1870s silhouette. So the buttons, some of the neckties, some of the sweeps around the shoulders, the use of asymmetry, are all very Fifties. It brings a modern kind of perspective to the 1870s.” 

In some areas, meanwhile, the influence was even more modern than 1950s couture: the glittering jewelry on display in the film, Durran tells me, is entirely 21st-century. She explains: “In early discussions, we thought we really should use real jewels for Anna, because she is slightly about vanity and glamor and opulence. By being part of Russian society, she would have been living in a completely opulent and privileged world. So the fact that we were committed to having real jewels meant that we’d have to make a different decision in terms of their style. ” 

The determining factor was the involvement of a certain iconic French fashion house, with whom Knightley was already closely associated. “Chanel volunteered to be involved in the movie, and for us to use all their diamonds and pearls and everything else,” Durran says. “So I went to Paris and chose the things which I felt would be in keeping with the piece, even though they’re completely modern. And personally, I don’t feel it detracts. Having taken the step into stylization anyway, you just buy into the fact. And the glory of the diamonds outweighs anything else about them.” 

I remark that the catwalk-ready quality of these accessories actually enhances the film’s characterization of Tolstoy’s taboo-breaking heroine as a woman substantially ahead of her time. Durran agrees, contrasting her costuming of Knightley to the more demurely updated styling of the virginal Kitty (played by Alicia Vikander), whose romantic arc runs counter to Anna’s. 

“Kitty we made quite 1950s, but in much less of a high-style way,” she says, before bringing another period reference into the mix. “The white dress that she wears to the ball a combination of a Fifties ballgown and a Victorian-era children’s outfit: a bodice with a skirt that’s slight short. It also has elements of a ballet dress – an underlying theme to everything, really, because of the choreography of the film.” 

Durran also used a subtly shifting color palette to mark Kitty’s gradual maturation in the film: “She starts off with an absolutely childish palette – all pale blue, pale pink, white – but as she changes in the movie, she evolves into a kind of champagne beige by the time she’s a married woman.” 

Kitty’s costume transformation as clearest in the film; by contrast, Anna’s succession of outfits is intentionally irregular, styles and hues morphing with her moods and fancies. “Anna definitely doesn’t really follow a linear pattern,” Durran says. “She refers back and forth to herself, I think. She dresses at the beginning of the movie, and she dresses again at the end, and it’s a kind of mirror image of the events. The black dress that she wears to the ball, I mirrored in the white dress that she wears at the opera. So at the two social events that mark her, she’s wearing the same thing – but one is black and one white.” 

But it’s not just the women who get all the dress-up fun in Wright’s film; in particular, Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s young, callow Vronsky seems at least as much in love with his dashingly uniformed image as he is with Anna herself. In designing his character, Durran was inspired by the rough shape of 19th-century Russian military wear, but with a degree of stylized improvization. 

Fastidious historical accuracy wasn’t of paramount importance: though the ornate white dress uniform he wears for much of the film would really have been reserved only for rare occasions, Wright thought it defined the character well. “Joe was very specific in wanting Aaron’s uniform to be white, which caused me almost more problems than anything else in the film!” Durran remembers. “Because you can’t actually buy white wool. It’s really impossible. You can only buy cream wool, so I had to end up using more of a woman’s wool that was really not very good for suiting. It wasn’t heavy enough. It was just a bit of a nightmare.” 

Durran was already working a highly stylized mode before Wright dropped the news of his intention to set the action in a mostly theater-based context. While that obviously had a dramatic impact on the production design – as you’ll surely read in Gerard’s interview with production designer Sarah Greenwood next week – it didn’t greatly affect the individual costuming concepts for the film, though Durran believes the crowd costumes became bolder than they would have been in a more naturalistic context. 

Still, the shift presented less tangible challenges for Durran. “It sounds silly, but I found it very difficult to imagine the costumes when I didn’t know where they were going to be,” she says with a laugh. “It’s kind of stumbling block, because when you imagine things, you always put them somewhere – you don’t imagine them in the ether. So I couldn’t quite get on with it as fast as I would have liked.” 

This is Durran’s third time working with Knightley, and in addition to now conceiving designs with the actress’s very particular frame in mind, she’s found the ongoing relationship a personally rewarding one. “I think she trusts me more, and I kind of trust her more,” she says. “It’s just a more equal collaboration. We’ve both learned more about costume in the time that we’ve been working together, and we know we’re better at interpreting what Joe wants. She was absolutely the most conscientious at going back to the text and finding motivations for Anna, but she’ll also just go with something that Joe and I want, and see where it takes her. She doesn’t bar any kind of creativity.” 

Though her period work with Wright has earned her the most acclaim and exposure in her career, Durran’s work in more contemporary spheres is no less accomplished. A regular collaborator with Mike Leigh, she won a BAFTA for “Vera Drake” and created the gaudy, character-defining thrift-store ensembles for Sally Hawkins in “Happy-Go-Lucky.” Last year, meanwhile, she deserved more awards attention than she got for her remarkable costuming of the 1970s-set “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” – a veritable gray rainbow of men’s suiting that she describes as “a learning curve,” having never previously worked on a film without a female lead. 

Durran enjoys hopping between period and contemporary work in this fashion, and says she doesn’t actually see a vast difference between them. “I just really enjoy working with directors, and I really mind what it is that director decides to do. I like getting inside their vision. It really doesn’t matter whether it’s period or modern.” Or, indeed, somewhere in between — as is the case with “Anna Karenina”’s exquisitely adaptable magpie wardrobe.

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