Interview: Jacqueline Durran – The Costume Designer Behind Anna Karenina


At the end of January on a very cold day, much like today, I got the chance to interview the uber-talented costume designer Jacqueline Durran, who I love and who has been nominated for both an Oscar and BAFTA for her incredible work on Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina, which stars the gorgeous Keira Knightley.

The setting was a very cold, very grand National Trust seventeenth century property, Ham House in Richmond, which is housing a curated exhibition of some of the gorgeous costumes from the Anna Karenina film – including the divine black ball gown from the breathtaking dance scene.

I only had 10 minutes with Jacqueline but I think I made it count, finding out the inspiration behind the costumes, working with Keira, why Chanel diamonds, and of course I had to ask what she is planning on wearing to The Oscars.

Anna-karenina-keira-2How did you research the costumes for Anna Karenina?

Jacqueline: “I read the book and I enjoyed it, but this is a great example of how quite often that the book isn’t irrelevant, it is completely relevant, but it doesn’t have to dictate the style. In the Tolstoy story there are lots of brilliant descriptions of costumes and it would be quite interesting to do a completely naturalistic accurate Tolstoy story, but that wasn’t what we wanted to do.

“Joe right from the beginning before we even knew it was going to be set in a theatre said that he wanted me to concentrate on the silhouette, so to look at the 1870s and take the kind of spirit of the period but keep the silhouette and concentrate on that and take away all the surface trivial like all the lace and buttons. And because he and I had for a previous project that never happened looked at 1950s couture, we both had the same references in our heads. 1950s couture made very simple shapes beautiful, so to take elements of that is a way of making the very plain 1870s costume more beautiful – so that was the idea behind the styling.

“Actually the two things are very similar, the 1940s/50s with the cinched I’m waists with the full skirt and fitted bodice, you can apply that easily – it isn’t a difficult fit.”

This is your third film working with Keira Knightley and director Joe Wright – did that help?

“Yes it does help, because we all trust each other, we all know that we are capable of doing a good job and if I say something that no one has thought of before and it seems like an odd idea they don’t think ‘oh god she doesn’t get it’. It is great to have that trust and that they understand what you are saying even when it is a crazy suggestion.”

Was Keira very involved in what she was wearing?

“She has a very good eye for what will look attractive and what won’t look attractive, but the thing about her is that she is serious about acting and she isn’t in any way vain so she doesn’t choose costumes on her looking her best in it. For instance with a shade of red she would be ‘I think it needs to be two shades darker’ or something like that, she wouldn’t say I am not wearing red. Her experience with costume and how she is on camera, she has learnt what will work best and she is great to work with.”

Anna-karenina-ballWhat was the trickiest costume that Keira had to wear?

“The black ball gown is very hard for her because it is quite heavy. The dresses have loads of fabric in them, by definition, for instance that dress has something like 16m of fabric, so that’s heavy and she has to dance for days and days in it with that extra weight. So those kind of things, which are unavoidable, were probably uncomfortable for her. We do try and make the underpinning as light as possibly – but the fact is it just isn’t as comfortable as dancing in a track suit.”

Similar to the green dress you designed for Atonement, is the black gown from the ball scene in Anna Karenina, the dress that helps informs the narrative in the film?

“It is in a way, but I think the thing that is important about both of the dresses and the whole idea of that in general is that the dresses themselves are just part of the image, which is created by Keira, the cinematographer and Joe. It’s created by putting Keira in a particular setting and photographing her in a particular way, and having her hair and make-up in a particular way, all of those things. The dress itself can be good or bad, but it is part of a finely tuned image, it’s all the elements together. In a sense the iconic dresses are created in the film, in a way you could pick any of them, but it is what happens in the scene, the drama that makes it.”

Did the fact that most of the film is centred around a theatre location have an impact on your styling?

“The ball is quite an interesting scene for that as there are many things going on – there’s all the dancers, her as the pivotal centre and she is in black and Vronsky is in white and then you have all the dancers around. There are 26 women who are all in shades of sour pastel and the dancers are all in light blue but we really wanted Keira’s character to standout in black. She is the only one in a dark colour so it was all about structuring it with colour as she is the centre of all the movement.”


I loved Princess Betsy’s high fashion costumes?

“Betsy is interesting and hardly anyone has picked up on Betsy, she had lots of different elements in her costumes. The first thing when we were talking about her costumes was her as a Geisha, as when you see her in those first few shots she is in the really pale costume and the crazy white costume and she has hair bleached white and her face is quite painted out and her eye brows are bleached – that is all down to the idea that she is a Geisha.

“That is part of her character, the other part is her being an absolute gossip of society, and even though you can hardly see her costumes in the film she had really 1950s stylised costumes, which you can sometimes see in the neck, more so than in Keira’s as in the interpretation she is the complete 1950s person whereas Anna in this film is the most stylish person as Betsy is kind of out-there, fashion-forward and Anna is partly like that and partly restrained.”


In Anna Karenina, the characters wear almost exclusively Chanel jewellery. How did that collaboration come about?

“Well Joe and Keira have done work with Chanel before and in conversations at the beginning we thought that it would be a really great thing, as because Anna Karenina is an anatomy of style, elegance and wealth we thought it would be really great to have her wearing real jewels. It was obviously a big ask for any company to lend millions of dollars of diamonds to anyone, but they were really fantastic and they gave us anything we wanted for the movie and we kept it for the whole run of the filming, and every morning Keira got to choose what diamonds she wanted.

“Some people don’t like the idea of the jewellery being so modern but I don’t think it matters it isn’t an accurate period film, it is a stylised period film, and the diamonds represent Anna’s luxury and I think in the ball scene you can really see that they are diamonds, they glitter like nothing else really.”

You’re nominated for both an Oscar and a BAFTA – will you be attending the ceremonies and have you already picked out what you will be wearing?

“I am looking forward to attending both, it is a great honoured to be nominated, as for what I am wearing I am making something as when you’re not a sample size it is hard to lend from designers.”

After chatting with Jacqueline I checked out the costumes up close, seriously gorgeous, incredible craftsmanship and you really can see how extremely tiny Keira needs to be to wear the gowns. If you get chance to visit I would most certainly recommend it.

ham-house Anna-karenina-exhibition-9 Anna-karenina-exhibition-11 Anna-karenina-exhibition-1 Anna-karenina-exhibition-4AnnaKareninaDVDAnna Karenina is out on Blu-ray and DVD now. The Anna Karenina Costume Exhibition at Ham House is open until 4th April,
[Pics: Film/DVD images – Universal; all others Fashionista Barbie]