Jacqueline Durran, who earned her sixth Oscar nomination in January for Little Women, has designed some of the most memorable costumes in movie history.
Take Keira Knightley’s much-lauded—and even replicated—green dress in 2007’s Atonement. Jacqueline never predicted it would resonate the way it did, but she was very intentional about the impact it made onscreen.
“The dress appears at a pivotal point in the movie, so it carried a lot of weight,” she said.
She scoured London for the perfect fabric and tone to make this one-of-a-kind piece.
“The color was a very important part—the vibrancy of the green—and we spent a long time working out the exact tone. In the end, it was a kind of combination of three fabrics piled on top of each other to build the intensity. I bought white fabric from a supplier and then had it all dyed to that tone.”
“The dress tore a lot, which meant that I had to have loads of versions of it,” she added. “I was using such a fine silk to get the dress to represent the heat of a summer evening. I wanted it to be as light as it could be.”
The film earned her a Costume Design Oscar nomination. In 2013, she received the award for her work on Anna Karenina: “It was terrifying and amazing in equal parts. As soon as the terror subsided, it was just sort of thrilling and unbelievable.”
Jacqueline’s process on Little Women began as a conversation with writer-director Greta Gerwig and producer Amy Pascal. They unpacked Greta’s vision for the movie, the atmosphere she wanted to create. “It was about a real feeling between the girls, a kind of uninhibited freedom,” Jacqueline said. “We would understand these girls to be the same as us, just 150 years ago.”
Her task was “not to make it modern in a reductive sense, but to make it identifiable. It was about capturing that spirit and combining it with the fact that the film was set in 1862.”
Following these initial talks, Jacqueline began researching the period. “I used a lot of photographic references and paintings and anything that I could get my hands on,” she said. “I looked specifically for pictures of people that were living an unusual life or an artistic life or a radical life. I was seeking out people that may not have looked like [they came from the] mainstream Victorian world that we know.”
She put together mood boards for each character, and met with the actors to talk through the references and her ideas for each one.
“Everything is a conversation with the actors. I propose an idea and then they agree or disagree and we talk about it. We discuss whether they like it, how they feel, what they think it should be, and then we just work to create the costume.”
The problem-solving task on this specific film was to combine elements from the period with a sense of freshness.
“I was particularly pleased with the atmosphere of the scene on the beach because of the sunlight and the freedom of movement and how unrestrained the action was, and how the clothes fit into that,” Jacqueline said. “I was pleased with the whole way that image gelled together.”
Growing up, Jacqueline had no idea costume design was even a job. “I didn’t know what I wanted to be, but I thought as far ahead as going to university, where I studied philosophy,” she recalled. After leaving university, she held various jobs, first at an academic bookshop and then running a store in Portobello Market.
“I was an uninitiated movie viewer,” she said. “I had no idea how films got made.”
Until one day, while watching television, “I suddenly realized that this wasn’t just a thing, it was created,” she said. “That was the moment I realized that costume existed as a job.”
“One of the movies that made a really big impact on me was The Gospel According to St. Matthew by Pasolini. I can remember watching it and being absolutely amazed by the way the story was told cinematically. Even as a casual viewer, you knew that you were watching something amazing in the way that the story was told through images.”
By 22, Jacqueline already knew she was fascinated by vintage clothes and styles. The turning point came when an acquaintance in the art department for a commercial recommended that she find work at a costume house. She landed at Angels Costumes as a trainee. “I got the job mainly because I could date clothes from the 20th century,” she said. “That was the test.”
Over her two-and-a-half years there, she gained experience working primarily on film and TV projects. She also met designers who would be very influential in her career, like Lindy Hemming (who won an Oscar for her work on Topsy-Turvy in 2000).
After pursuing a master’s degree at the Royal College of Art in London, she went to work for Lindy, where she assisted with designs. “Lindy was the one who said, ‘You’re just going to have to go and design something yourself now,’” Jacqueline recalled.
“I was quite resistant. I hadn’t started the process of thinking of myself as a designer. I started because I loved the whole idea of costume. I loved clothes and fabrics and everything to do with it. I hadn’t made myself a big plan for where I was going.”
Lindy left a strong imprint on her. “She was the person with whom I had the longest relationship as an assistant. I now have a method to the way I work, which I learned from her.”
To this day, Jacqueline gets inspired every day by fabrics, old clothes, garments from different countries, trimming, color, paintings… “Everything sort of feeds into your idea and makes you want to experiment,” she said. She’d like to continue exploring different forms of cinematic storytelling.
“I think that in other cultures, cinema operates in a different way,” she said. “Costumes and sets and realism are dealt with differently. It would be great if we opened our eyes a bit more to the possibilities. I think it's a very broad spectrum and, at the moment, we’re operating in quite a narrow space.”
These possibilities are a source of excitement.
“We tend to think of costume as a naturalistic way of storytelling and we tend to think that it’s subservient to character. That’s very limiting. We must remember that there are many more ways into it and many more ways of approaching costume that we shouldn’t reduce it too much.”
With over two dozen credits to her name, there are still new worlds Jacqueline would like to explore. “There are lots of historical periods that I haven’t done,” she said. “Also, I’d like to try and work on a world that I haven’t seen before, a new world that’s been written.”
No matter the era, her interest in the fabric and the character-building will always draw her back.
“Fundamentally, I can be exhausted and I can be fed up, but I will always become interested again. I can’t help it,” she said. “And when you think that maybe you won’t do a job for a while, someone rings you and it’s just so interesting, and you want to be part of that investigation and that creative process. You realize how fun it would be to tease out that story.”