Russian high-society in the late 19th century was lived “as if on a stage,” as noted by historian Orlando Figes. This is the vision reflected in director Joe Wright’s daring production of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, the classic tale of passion blossoming into full-fledged madness. As fitting of the grandest stage production, one of the most important elements of storytelling here is costume. And like Anna, costume designer Jacqueline Durran embraced her role in a frenzy of both passion and madness.
Durran had collaborated with Wright on his last two films, both of which earned her Academy Award nominations: Atonement (2007) and Pride and Prejudice (2005). She was involved with Anna Karenina from its inception. The first great challenge presented itself weeks into pre-production when the director decided to stage the film in a theater instead of the original settings. Durran had to acquaint herself with this new direction and re-imagine the characters she was dressing in their new setting. “When you can’t quite imagine what the environment’s going to look like, for some reason it’s difficult to design the costumes… because you just can’t picture the scene,” Durran said.
The highly stylized film features exquisite costumes that stayed true to the director’s vision rather than the more traditional approach of maintaining historical accuracy. “[Wright] wanted me to concentrate on silhouette. He wanted me to make the costumes a combination of 1870s and 1950s couture. He wanted me to take away the perfect detail of 1870s and concentrate on silhouette by applying the vigor of 1950s couture to that shape,” Durran explained.
Period paintings and photographs from the 1870s and 1950s Balenciaga, Dior, and Lanvin collections served as inspirations for Durran when she went to work creating the countless costumes. Dark jewel tones and black drape over the passion-swept Anna (Keira Knightley) as she falls for Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and betrays her husband, the highly esteemed, Karenin (Jude Law).
Working on a tight budget and schedule made the already daunting task of creating Anna’s stylized world even more demanding. “The sheer number of costumes we had to make was a challenge,” Durran said. For just the stunning ball sequence, when Anna begins to court danger with the irresistible Count Vronsky, there were over 65 costumes to make for the principal characters and the crowd. “Normally, one wouldn’t make so many crowd costumes, particularly on a relatively small movie. It was a panic to get [the actors dressed and] ready in time,” Durran continued. The ambitious project echoed Anna’s life. The passion and pursuit dominated over everything else. ”It was one of those films that takes over your life for six months.”
The characters spin, dance and freeze in magnificent costumes as the drama tumbles toward the inevitable, ill-fated end. Of Wright’s audacious vision and all forays out of the ordinary, Durran said, “It was all leap of faith. The whole way of imagining was something new.” In the case of Durran’s leap, the risks gave way to a passionate collection of costumes that set the operatic stage for the classic tale.