UK costume designer Jacqueline Durran continues her collaboration with Joe Wright on Anna Karenina, creating costumes lush enough for 1870s Russia yet with a modern twist. Wendy Mitchell reports

Anna Karenina presented costume designer Jacqueline Durran with her biggest challenge to date. “It is the kind of job you can’t quite believe you can take on, but you just have to try your hardest. It’s potentially so great that it’s daunting,” she recalls of the moment director Joe Wright told her about the project.

Durran, whose credits include Vera Drake, Nanny McPhee And The Big Bang and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, had to not only design jaw-dropping evening gowns for Keira Knightley’s Anna, but also create 26 identical pastel gowns for the background players in a ballroom scene, in just one example of the complex and theatrical production.

Durran and Wright have a close working relationship, having collaborated on Pride & Prejudice, Atonement (Durran created the film’s famous green dress) and The Soloist. Wright had suggested he wanted the costumes for Tolstoy’s epic to be somewhat stylised rather than sticking to historical accuracy. Durran recalls: “Joe said, ‘Pare it back, pare it back, pare it back; it’s about colour and silhouette.’”

Researching couture

Durran and production designer Sarah Greenwood took a research trip to Russia, and studied photographs and paintings. Yet Durran also shook things up for the 1870s-set story, examining 1950s couture to see how those architectural silhouettes could work in the film.

Durran chose not to watch old film and TV adaptations of the story. “Someone is bound to have made something completely gorgeous and I’ll just want to do that, even subconsciously,” she says.

Wright is very concerned with all aspects of a film’s visuals, including costumes. “He doesn’t tell me a lot up front but he comes to principal fittings and we talk about how it’s looking and what’s bad and what’s good. He’s very involved,” says Durran.

Colour is key for the auteur. Making a white uniform for Aaron Taylor-
Johnson’s Count Vronsky as per Wright’s specific instructions proved a real challenge. “It absolutely had to be white wool, not cream. And white is only available in a light wool not used for suit-making. The fabric was too soft and didn’t hold the shape well, but that’s an example of Joe and colour.”

Anna Karenina marks the third time Durran has worked with Knightley following Pride & Prejudice and Atonement. “She isn’t in any way vain, she’s about the work,” Durran enthuses. “She is very interested in finding ways of expressing the character.”

Anna’s wardrobe consists almost entirely of “silk, duchess satin or taffeta, because those will hold shape”. Another modern touch is a denim dress created for a racing scene. “It is not accurate but I liked the idea of it,” Durran says of using the textile in such an unlikely setting.

Diamonds also help to add luxury. “In early conversations we discussed using real fine jewellery; it’s about adding to the aura of Anna,” she notes. Chanel enabled the production to borrow anything from its fine-jewellery collection. “It is all modern but I chose things that weren’t minimal modern pieces, you could believe they might have existed at the time. You could use fakes, but there’s something marvellous for the image to know that they’re real.”

While it is Knightley’s dresses that steal the show, a lot of thought also went into costumes for other cast members.

Vronsky’s wardrobe took inspiration from classic Russian uniforms “and then we tweaked it”, she says.

With Jude Law’s Karenin, the challenge was “how to distinguish his rank as being higher than Vronsky’s, which was in part to recognise that the most decorated officers wouldn’t wear as much ornamentation.

“As Jude said, the most powerful men will dress in the least ostentatious way — Roman Abramovich probably wears a Swatch.”

For Alicia Vikander’s Kitty, her looks start off as “much more childlike. Her palette moves in a linear arc — she moves from wearing blue to pink to cream. And as she grows up she wears more of a champagne beige, it’s something a little more sophisticated.”