The Looks of Love
ANNA KARENINA’s Costumes Weave Together Period Style with Emotional Elegance
Alicia Vikander stars as Kitty and Domhnall Gleeson stars as Levin in director Joe Wright’s bold, theatrical new vision of the epic story of love, Anna Karenina, a Focus Features release.
Though the film’s dress, Joe Wright and costume designer Jacqueline Durran followed a historical thread of luxury that connected the fashions of our time to 1950 European haute couture to 1870 imperial Russia. Be it Keira Knightley’s swoops of black taffeta or the simplicity of the peasant’s tunics, the designers created looks that showed off the timeless emotional truth of their characters.
Always one of the most visually engaged of directors, Joe Wright “remains the most prepared director I’ve ever worked with,” states Paul Webster. “The film is in his head. Then he crafts it shot by shot and scene by scene. Anna Karenina was highly storyboarded, even more so than the other movies we’ve done.
“He plots out every location – or, in this instance, set. Then, he shares all this information with the whole crew. Everything and everyone contributes to a greater understanding of the story being told. When things change during production, everyone is kept in the loop.”
Jacqueline Durran remarks, “The image of every scene is already in Joe’s mind, so your job is to find out what it is – and to try to fulfil his idea. He has pre-thought it all, but looks forward to using what you give him.”
Anna Karenina‘s 19th-century setting notwithstanding, Wright asked Durran to ensure that Anna’s costumes be in the style of 1950s couture, though still with the silhouettes of the 1870s. “Not having to be strictly in the one time period was liberating,” says Keira Knightley.
Anna’s image was to be one of pure luxury, befitting her status as a Russian aristocrat who wore French clothes. Durran notes, “Had nothing else in the production been stylized, we would have been out on a limb. But I knew this would fit in to the visual-feast approach within the theatre.”
The costume designer’s research included looking at French fashion plates Balenciaga and Dior, and period photographs; the other characters, with the exception of Princess Betsy, would hew closer to the story’s time period. Durran comments, “I thought that Joe’s idea was genius because a lot of 1950s couture was itself looking back to an earlier time. We looked at some images from the time next to fashion pictures from the 1870s and although they were eight decades apart, the two periods meshed together very well.
“We associate 1950s couture with chic elegance, and so this would be a signifier to the audience and a way in for them to the image Joe wants conveyed. With Anna, I did keep an 1870s skirt shape all the way through – while pushing the bodices in the direction of the 1950s. There is also a 1950s feel to several of the other costumes, such as Anna’s gray silk jacket – it’s very much a 1950s jacket shape, with buttons down the front, although even this is paired with an 1870s skirt.
As on Atonement, Durran worked closest with Sarah Greenwood and Ivana Primorac, discussing themes and color palettes, and exchanging swatches and reference material. They stayed on the same track while each honed their respective contributions. “We discuss everything together,” states Primorac. “It’s like we belong to the same department, and I’m finishing what they have started.”
Durran elaborates, “Ivana and I will talk about hair and make-up in relation to costume and character. Sarah always has a sense of what the proportion of a given scene is shaping up to be. Joe is often at fittings at the beginning saying, ‘I think this is the direction we should go in.’”
The direction Wright wanted Primorac to go in was to enhance Anna’s sophisticated look with soft, dark curls unlike any of the other female characters; she was also to have make-up that would subtly exemplify her innate beauty.
Having memorably costumed Knightley in an iconic green dress for Atonement and in period garb in Pride & Prejudice, Durran specifically discussed with the actress ways to support the look Wright was hoping to achieve. Durran comments, “Keira is ideal to dress, and so collaborative; she had good suggestions about adjusting things.”
Primorac adds, “Keira has no vanity attached to herself at all; she doesn’t care what she looks like, she just wants the character to look right.”
Durran reports, “Anna’s thematic scheme of color is dark, particularly with the red she wears at the beginning in the Karenin home. What she wears becomes somewhat lighter in tone when she becomes enraptured with Vronsky, before returning to the darker hues as she becomes anxious and paranoid that his affections towards her have waned.”
Among Anna’s costume highlights is a sumptuous jet black taffeta ball gown which captivates Count Vronsky and all of society when she steals Kitty’s thunder at the ball. 1950s-inspired bodices with asymmetric fastenings, a swoop of taffeta around the neck, and a long tail folded into the bustle to extenuate the 1870s shape are evident in three of Anna’s costumes: the cream dress she wears at the tea room, the dark red dress she wears at the film’s climax, and the dark blue dress she wears at the races (the bodice of which is made out of denim).
At the ball, Knightley performed as Anna while adorned with sparkling diamonds worth $2 million, specially loaned to her by Chanel for the shoot.
The two men in Anna’s love life have distinct styles reflecting their respective positions within society as well as their very different personalities. Count Vronsky’s stylish uniforms are influenced by Russian uniforms of the period and are in shades of pale blue and pure white; tandemed with his blonde hair and blue eyes, he stands apart from the other men. Durran reports, “We did pare the uniforms down a bit so that they became the essence of a Russian tunic.”
Karenin’s costumes have their origins in tsarist uniforms of the late 19th century. The designs were simplified for his character, illustrating his power and status within society. Durran remembers, “Jude Law latched onto the idea of removing details rather than adding them. We gave Karenin a slight air of monasticism, playing on the idea at home with his dressing gown and nightshirt.”
Law offers, “I think that first trip into wardrobe, and hair and make-up, is so rewarding because you all have these ideas to define what the character will look like. Yet you might not necessarily start to see him until you make the final leaps.”
Primorac notes, “When it was all put together, I think it was quite far from Jude and very recognizable as the Karenin that’s described in the book. We had gone over everything from the character’s fingernails to his neck.
“As for partly shaving the head to make Karenin balding, Jude responded to it better than I did; I was aware of how drastic it was going to be – lasting several months – but Jude was completely up for it.”
Searching for the authentic life more than the other characters, Levin is clad in peasant-style clothing for scything scenes in the countryside – and a more polished look for his brief excursions into the societal whirl. “For the peasant wear, there were some book references,” says Durran. “We did take license and mix northern Russia with southern Russia, a slight hybrid that stayed true to Levin.”
“For the ladies, there were all these bustles,” recalls Kelly Macdonald. “When my character was pregnant, I was gliding around like a snail. At least I didn’t have to wear a corset because when you do it’s, ‘I won’t be having quite so much at lunch.’”
Ruth Wilson muses, “These characters are being stretched and pulled, and the outfits indicate that as well! Jacqueline and Ivana and I discussed how Betsy was this submissive yet manipulative woman. With her look, she is being more dramatic than everyone else in the room.”
Betsy stands out from the other female characters with elaborate hairstyles and make-up engineered by Primorac and her department, while Durran “was given a brief by Joe of, ‘Let’s investigate the idea of geisha for Betsy.’ So we converted 1870s shapes into Japanese ideas, and there came again our marvelous link to 1950s couture because Balenciaga was always playing with the kimono neck. It was like a continuous circle.”
The female dancers who recur on-screen throughout the society scenes, at the ball, and at Betsy’s soirée, were dressed in distinct pastel colors with a tainted tint symbolizing the decay of the society they are a part of. Durran explains, “These particular sour pastels are reused scene after scene because within the theatrical environment, they become like a chorus. Had we filmed this conventionally, in stately homes, you might have thought, ‘Why are those dresses out again? Too lazy to go get some more [, Durran]?’”
Primorac’s department was tasked with conveying each and every individual’s place within society. This was no mean feat, given that the production called for dozens of speaking parts and hundreds of extras. She notes, “You have to give the characters a background that shows the viewer who they are and where they come from. The worlds of the rich and the poor are portrayed in this story, but you have to provide character traits atop that, and there were different groupings to tend to separately. Joe wanted the different levels of society to be visually accessible, so that meant coordinating everything from color palette to style of beards to buns on hair.
“Fortunately, the Russians embraced photography when that came in, so there was a lot to draw from; it was a very beautiful period to research. Some books were brought back to us straight from Russia. There were photographs of different levels of society.”
Domhnall Gleeson recalls, “I’d see extras in extraordinary hair and make-up by Ivana and her team – and some of them would look wonderfully silly, because their characters were trying to be ‘men about town.’”
The male dancers, as in a company during a theatrical performance, appear in various roles throughout the movie, sometimes in quick-change mode rivalling a stage show; green jackets are worn over their costumes when they are the clerks in Oblonsky’s office, typing in choreographed unison, and they then swiftly don aprons to become waiters.
The servants, played by both male and female dancers, transition from scene to scene silently as an almost invisible presence, as their class was in society; they are costumed in period Russian style and in shades of dove gray, from torso to foot.
Durran feels that “the costumes combined particularly well with the choreography to convey the servant class as a whole fleet of people constantly looking after the Russian aristocrats.
“This shoot was a revelation. I’d have prepared a scene, then go onto the theatre set and be amazed at it unfolding as something beyond what I’d imagined.”