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Meet the Woman Behind Keira Knightly’s Anna Karenina Costumes: Jacqueline Durran

While actors, directors, and sets are pivotal players in the formation of a film and its characters, it's the costume designer who truly brings these characters to life by transforming them through beauty, splendor, and art. Think about it: would Keira Knightly's character in Atonement reflect the same emotions and tragedy if it weren't for that gorgeous 1920s-inspired silk green dress she wore that unveiled the storyline? What about the provincial dresses the Bennet sisters wore in Pride & Prejudice? Would their story still resonate had they been wearing different costumes? As the saying goes, the clothes really do make the man — and in this case, the woman too. 

We had the pleasure of speaking with Oscar-nominated costume designer Jacqueline Durran, who collaborated with director Joe Wright and star Keira Knightly for a third time for the film Anna Karenina, in theaters November 16. Read our delightful interview with one of the most celebrated costume designers in the industry as she speaks to us about the fashion in Anna Karenina as well as working with Keira, that iconic green dress, and the beauty of Chanel diamonds. 

The Fashion Spot: Similar to the green dress you designed for Atonement, is there an iconic dress in Anna Karenina that informs the narrative in the film?

Jaqueline Durran: The book was not followed stylistically as it doesn't really describe the costumes. We aren't doing an actual version of the 1870s, but a stylized version instead. However, the one thing Joe (the director) was concerned about following was the ball dress because in the book the ball is so significant and Anna wears black. In the film we frame her by having all the dancers around her wearing identical dresses but in 25 different colors so she, Anna, stands out in contrast. All of the times in the movie that society is around her, those identical dresses are used to signify that Anna is always in contrast to the color of society. 

TFS: As a costume designer, what do you think it is about Keira that makes her such a great choice for period pieces like Anna Karenina and Pride & Prejudice? 

JD: Keira is such a great actress and it's so rewarding to work with her. It also helps that she is so stylish as she makes things work that wouldn't necessarily work with other actresses. There are moments in the film where she is so astoundingly beautiful, that she brings Anna and her aura to life. She really is a timeless beauty and that helps significantly when working on a character from different time periods.

TFS: When designing a costume for Keira, do you collaborate on the idea or theme beforehand?

JD: Before I begin working on the costumes, Joe always gives us a fundamental brief since he already has such a strong idea of the visual style of the film he is about to make. In Pride & Prejudice, he told us to think about the daily provincial life. For Anna Karenina, he told us to concentrate on silhouettes and to think about 50s couture and how that period mixed together with the 1870s. Then I work with Keira, in collaboration, to get a sense of how she views the character and what will help her in the interpretation of the character. It's much more interesting to make a costume for a character if you have a good repertoire with the actor.

TFS: In Anna Karenina, the characters wear almost exclusively Chanel jewelry. How did that selection come about and what type of pieces are to be expected? 

JD: The three of us discussed  the possibility of having a lot of diamonds and a lot of fine jewelry to make the costumes real for the actors and director in the interpretation of the characters. Keira and Joe have a great relationship with Chanel and they were extremely happy to help us get the pieces we needed. I chose pieces that had a baroque and timeless elegance — for the most part, nothing too modern. However, there is one obviously modern piece she wears to the ball at the Opera that I used because it gave her that aura of opulence that is so astounding and beautiful that you don't even worry about the modern aspect, but just see Anna in all her glory. Chanel's jewelry really gave the film this significant energy that magnified the aura and splendor that is Anna Karenina.