The Genteel
February 27, 2021


Keira Knightley as Anna Karenina. Source:
The Camelia Poudre necklace from 
the Chanel fine jewellery collection.
Source: blogspot.

Period dressing offers an escape into a world that we never personally had a chance to know, becoming a form of play that allows knowledge and imagination to collide. Oscar-nominated and award-winning costume designer, Jacqueline Durran, knows a thing or two about period dressing.

Using her knowledge and, more importantly, her imagination, Durran creates worlds that are tip-top tailored to a director's vision. She is the creative mastermind behind the enchanting costumes in such films as Pride & Prejudice (2005), Atonement (2005) and now Joe Wright's upcoming film, Anna Karenina.

Adapted from Leo Tolstoy's classic novel of the same name, Anna Karenina is an epic love story set in 19th century, high society Russia. Wright's film is an expressionistic take on the classic tale, shot predominantly in an old theatre at Shepperton Studios, outside of London. The entire production is created as if on a stage - inspiration Wright drew from reading Natasha's Dance (an account by Orlando Figes on Russian aristocracy).

Durran's designs had to reflect Wright's expressionistic and experimental directorial vision - and the result is a stunning blend of two centuries. I had the pleasure of speaking with Durran on the inspiration and composition of Anna Karenina's costumes. 

Alina Kulesh: What "Russian" inspiration can be found in Anna Karenina's costumes? 

Jacqueline Durran: In our research, we discovered that the Russian aristocracy didn't really wear Russian clothes unless they were dressing up as Russian peasants…as a kind of dressing-up exercise. They all bought their clothing in Western Europe. So, with the exception of Levin [an educated landowner], [costuming] didn't involve much Russian research at all. But we did do as much Russian research as we could for the household of Levin and other small[er] characters.

Because it's such a stylised film, the accuracy of Russian costumes wasn't really a priority, although we did try to do it.



AK: But it seems that the costumes are quite historically accurate of 1870s Russia - yet with a bit of a couture feel.

JD: [Director] Joe [Wright] wanted me to trace the shapes of the 1870s but to make them completely unfussy. He wanted me to take away all the trimmings of the clothing and keep a very stark silhouette. And the way he explained it to me was: "Look at '50s couture, how it's all about silhouette and apply that approach to the 1870s."

So, that's how it [the designing and creation of the costumes] all comes together. Because I was referencing the 1950s, I tried to emphasise the '50s element of the clothing within the 1870s silhouettes so that people understood that I didn't think for a moment that I was being accurate, but [that] I was [actually] stylising the costumes. 

AK: Was there a specific designer that you referenced from the 1950s?

JD: Not really, it was a mixture. It was French haute couture of the late '40s, early '50s; so it was Dior, Balenciaga, Jacques Fath, Lanvin. Those are the main ones.

AK: How would you describe the composition - silhouettes, fabrics - behind the male characters' costumes?

JD: The male costumes are loosely based on the uniforms of Russian military men. We had military references [from Russian history books], we had books of Russian uniforms, but we didn't have a Russian military and history advisor. So, we didn't have detailed information of which rank or regiment [went with each] type of uniform. So we just made a "look" that is a Russian military "look" but isn't accurately based on the exact style of the Russian military.

I really don't know why costume design is getting more and more popular...Maybe because fashion has so many looks that are fashionable at the same moment in time.

AK: In the film, there is an opulent emphasis on accessories - jewellery, head dresses, scarves and gloves. What role do they play in the costumes of Anna Karenina? Were they custom made specifically for the film? 

JD: None of [the jewellery] was custom made - all of Keira [who plays Anna Karenina] jewellery comes from Chanel. It's all real, so in every scene she wears real diamonds [or pearls]. And it's not vintage; every piece is from Chanel's fine jewellery collection. But we used things that we thought matched the mood of Anna Karenina. And because we were stylising the look and we weren't being accurate about [being in] 1879, it didn't bother me at all to use modern jewellery.

All the headdresses and hats were custom made for Anna Karenina. The gloves weren't; we bought them from various glove makers. And in most parts of the film, everybody wears ballet shoes rather than any other period shoe and that again arose from the stylisation of the piece [the film] and the fact that we had to work with a choreographer. Because it [the majority of the film] was composed as a dance, it made sense that everyone had dance shoes on all the time.

AK: What is your favourite costume piece from the film? 

JD: There is a white dress, which she [Anna Karenina] wears when she visits a tearoom in Moscow, which I think might be my favourite. It's got a very faint grey stripe in a cream background and it's got a very '50s inspired bodice and she wears it with a pillbox hat - which is obviously very '50s.

AK: There is also a black tulle dress that she, Anna Karenina, wears in the film - it is absolutely stunning.

JD: Yes, that's the dress that she wears to the ball - the first ball. I do like that dress, it had to be designed to be very light because Keira had to do a very complicated dance in it.

AK: I can imagine that dressing someone as beautiful as Keira Knightley is quite fun. But, what were some of the challenges in creating the costumes for this film? 

JD: The main challenge really was the volume of costumes that we needed for the film. We didn't have a very long prep [time] and we just had to keep rolling out these dresses. I think Keira had about 15 dresses, but every other character also had their dresses made.

(Durran laughs) 

So, it was an unrelenting series of dresses to design and have made. We also had to make a lot of the crowd costume - so, volume really was the biggest challenge.

AK: How many people were helping you?

JD: I had one main assistant and I had two cutters in the workroom; I had two wardrobe supervisors - crowd and principals; I had quite a lot of dailies to dress - not a very big crew.

Jacqueline Durran blended 1870s 
fashion with 1950s silhouettes.

Major retailer, Banana Republic - which seems to love period pieces - are debuting an Anna Karenina-inspired collection in October 2012. Although designed apart from the film's production, Durran was invited to style the collection. I was curious to know about Durran's experience in the process.

AK: Banana Republic is set to release an Anna Karenina-inspired collection with your creative participation. What were some elements that you translated into the BR collection from the film? 

JD: I went to Banana Republic and, with Simon Kneen [BR's creative director], took things from their holiday collection that I thought could be put together to make an Anna Karenina look. And I think the essence of it is that you accessorise a strong silhouette with jewels and faux fur, and you layer different textures so that you get a very rich and elegant look.

AK: Creative director of Banana Republic, Simon Kneen, said that the collection is a different take on Anna Karenina than the film. How so? What was the goal behind Banana Republic's take on Anna Karenina

JD: It's completely different; it's taking modern elements and giving you a way to combine them to reference Anna Karenina, rather than literally looking like Anna Karenina. The collection doesn't literally look like the movie, but it references the movie.

AK: There seems to be an appeal (for retail brands like Banana Republic) for period dressing, for example, Mad Men and Anna Karenina. In your opinion, what is the appeal behind period dressing - does fashion truly repeat itself? 

JD: I really don't know why costume design is getting more and more popular; it just seems to me to be phenomenally popular at the moment. Maybe because fashion has so many looks that are fashionable at the same moment in time that it is no longer a single look that dominates each season. But maybe you can look to such a wide variety for sources for how to dress. It's a kind of mystery to me. 



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