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The Past Made New

'Atonement' costume designer Jacqueline Durran evokes a remembered time.

December 12, 2007|Elizabeth Snead | Special to The Times

IF the '30s costumes in "Atonement" look a little too good to be true to the period, Jacqueline Durran has done her job well. A far cry from a stuffy period drama, "Atonement," based on Ian McEwan's novel, opens on a singularly sweltering summer day in 1935.

What happens that night in the dimly lighted library of the Tallis family estate -- filtered through the prying eyes of a fanciful young girl -- irrevocably alters the lives of childhood friends-turned-lovers Cecilia (Keira Knightley) and Robbie (James McAvoy).

But director Joe Wright didn't want a faithful re-creation of the fashions of that day. Durran, whose groundbreaking costume design on Wright's "Pride & Prejudice," which also starred Knightley, earned her an Oscar nomination, explains why.

"When we first started talking, Joe was clear that he didn't want it to look pristine or to have the patina and age you usually associate with that era. When you look at photos of upper-middle-class British families from the '30s, they look rather scruffy, clumpy and lumpy.

"That's real, but it's not what we wanted because the film isn't based on reality. It's more of a dream, a remembered past, a child's distant memory of a perfect day before everything went horribly wrong."

Durran talks about where she found inspiration (and fabrics) for the realistic segments of the film, the challenges of designing clothing based on a child's memory, making original World War II uniforms and the secret of Knightley's irresistibly tempting green silk gown. --

How is it possible to make a period film feel so modern?

We used a modern aesthetic with '30s shapes. We literally made everything for the '30s scenes, finding original costumes and using shapes from that era remade with modern fabrics. What proved really hard was finding the right patterns. In most cases, we had to make patterned fabrics in our color palette.


Why was Keira/Cecilia's evening gown such an unusual shade of green?

Joe said he wanted a green dress. Green is a very symbolic color, but I never wanted to pin down exactly what green meant to him. It's an open-ended symbol that means many things to many people. I think of green as temptation but that's just me.


Was it hard to find the perfect green?

Oh, yes. We didn't! We found all the green silk and organza fabrics in London and ended up with three green choices: a lime- green silk, a black and green organza and another green chiffon. Then we took the swatches to a master dyer in London and had him special dye 100 yards of plain white fabric into that rich green. The dress was the composite of those three hues.


What else had to be considered for that pivotal dress?

Joe wanted the gown to have a wide hemline so that it moved beautifully when she walked. He knew he was going to shoot the ground and the dress billowing. It also had to be a dress that she looked almost naked in, as fine a fabric as possible, and loose-bodied.

Instead of traditional '30s beading on the bodice, we used laser-cut patterns, so it's even more naked.


It also had to survive a secret rendezvous on a bookshelf!

Well, we had lots of the gowns. The fabric was so fine that the bodices kept tearing. We had three or four skirts and 10 bodices and when they tore, we would quickly repair them. But it only took about a day to shoot that scene.


Tell me about the British army uniforms in the Dunkirk beach scenes.

I had a very good military costume advisor. They're a breed unto themselves and know everything about every rank's uniform. The hard part was that there are not many uniforms left in existence. And we had 1,000 soldiers and not enough originals, maybe 20 to 50 in the correct color. So we had both the fabrics and the uniforms made in Poland because it's so much cheaper there. We ended up with 250 soldiers dressed just as we wanted and the other 750 we had to compromise.


Are the British nurses' uniforms based in reality?

Yes. The nurse uniforms are my favorite in the film, and no one ever mentions them. They were quite hard to do. The original was a striped dress and a white apron. We changed the stripe from the real lilac and white to a pale blue and white. But we couldn't find any blue-and-white stripe fabric that wasn't polyester/cotton. So we had to have the linen and cotton fabric woven for us. For the aprons, we ended up using Polish or Czech antique bed sheets because of the weight and weave. They made great aprons.


Elizabeth Snead writes the Dish Rag blog at

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