Oscar-winning costume designer Jacqueline Durran explains why the piece worn by Keira Knightley is so unforgettable
It’s been 10 years since Atonement hit U.S. theaters, and there’s plenty to remember about the movie: The faithful but imaginative take on Ian McEwan’s novel, the breakout Oscar-nominated performance by Saoirse Ronan as meddling 13-year-old writer Briony Tallis, the gorgeous production design and cinematography. But if there’s one thing most fans of Atonement still can’t shake, it’s that stunning, bright green dress worn by Briony’s older sister Cecilia (Keira Knightley) during the film’s most pivotal scene. Around the time the film was released, it was voted the greatest film costume ever in a Sky Movies/In Style poll. A decade later, it’s still regarded as one of the all-time greats.
The lush bare-back gown, captured elegantly and generously by director Joe Wright (Darkest Hour) and his DP, Seamus McGarvey, fits seamlessly into the film’s visual template, just as the pace quickens and the atmosphere intensifies. (Also: It looks great in a steamy sex scene.) It features elements of its period — London in the mid-’30s — and yet it’s unmistakably modern in execution, from its particular shade of green to the combination of pattern and straps. There’s also a mystique around it — fitting for a movie steeped in the summer haze of memory, and shrouded in delectable ambiguity.
To commemorate the film’s 10th anniversary, Atonement costume designer Jacqueline Durran — nominated for her work here, as well as on Wright’s Pride & Prejudice, and who won an Oscar for her work on his Anna Karenina — gave EW the backstory on how the dress came to be, why she thinks it still resonates, and whether finding the “perfect yellow” for this year’s Beauty and the Beast remake was as difficult as landing on that iconic green.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: This is one costume that people still talk about, 10 years later, as one of their absolute favorites and most memorable. Why do you think that is?
JACQUELINE DURRAN: It has unbelievably resonated. When we started making the movie, we all knew it was a pivotal moment and it had to be a memorable dress. Joe said that to me, right at the beginning, which was obviously a lot of pressure on me to try and make this memorable dress. But we didn’t know, really. It was a complete surprise how much it did resonate with people and how much it was picked out as a single look from the movie. Most of the other costumes that Keira wore are not talked about at all. It has surprised me, and it’s surprised me that people still remember it.
Replicas have sold for insane amounts of money. One went for more than $30,000.
Crazy, isn’t it? I think they sold one of ours actually. We had several. They’re quite fragile. We had quite a few made for the movie and I think one, at least, was sold maybe a year after to charity, for a lot of money — like tens of thousands of dollars. Incredible.
Do you still have any?
No, I wish I had one! But I don’t have any at all. I don’t even think I have a piece of the fabric.
How did you and Joe initially envision the dress and work on finding the right one, together?
There were things that came from Joe about the dress: He already knew that it should have movement at the hem and be quite full-skirted, because he knew that there was going to be this shot — the jewelry that falls to the ground, that Briony finds and takes it into the library — and that it would be part of the plot. He knew that he wanted movement in the skirt. He liked the idea of it being bare-backed. But really, apart from that, there was very little instruction — direct instruction — from him about what the dress should be like. He wanted it as show-stopping as we could make it, and that it should be green. The shade of green he wasn’t specific about. And there was another instruction from Joe that was really not specific to the green dress but in general, that the mood of the dress should be that it could remind the audience that it is the hottest day of the year — so, what you might put on if it was the hottest day of the year. So what I tried to do in creating this dress was to make it out of very fine fabric and make it very light and unstructured. One of the things that I thought I would, just as an homage to that idea — not that it would actually make much difference — is to lay and cut the pattern so that the pattern is small holes instead of the pattern being beading. So you’re constantly thinking about taking away rather than adding.
What I did is, I went through fashion reference books from the ’20s and the ’30s and I looked at images that I thought were appealing to me, now or whenever I made it in 2006. I pulled out all of the details that I liked and I pulled out things that I thought would suit Keira, and what sort of elements I thought the dress could have. It’s quite easy to find certain dresses that fits the fashion of that time for bare-backs. Mostly, they weren’t quite as naked as the green dress. I was changing everything to make a new dress.
I think part of its lasting appeal is that it was richly evocative of the period, but modern as well.
I’m under no illusion that the dress that I’ve created isn’t a true 1934 dress. It’s a combination of elements that has been made up by someone with a modern perspective. Any time you’re not taking elements and recombining and interpreting and creating, you’re going to move outside of what is exactly the correct period. But everything within the dress is from the period; it’s just recombined in a modern way. For sure, I think that the spaghetti straps coming out of the front of the dress and running down the back gives us a more noted back than most ’30s dresses, even though it was fashionable to have bare shoulders and back at the time.
And then I chose the way that it’s wrapped around the hips. I think it may have even been Chanel; I’m not entirely sure, but there was a way that she designed a dress that had a tight section around the upper-hip and then went fuller. I took that detail and re-interpreted it by finding the fabric around, which is probably more modern. But it just fit the way I thought the silhouette should be.
How did you decide on and execute that specific, bright shade of green?
The fabric, again to go back to the lightest thing possible, is that we have a fabric wholesaler in England that everybody goes to that sells basic fabrics. I bought this fabric and then dyed it to the green. I bought the fabric in white; it’s very lightweight, and also the other advantage of it is that you can buy endless meters of it because it’s just a wholesale fabric. I needed it in order to make the duplicates and in order to experiment with the shape. But for the color, we didn’t know what exact color we were going for. We went to all of the fabric shops in London and gathered up all of the green fabrics we could find, in different qualities — some were more transparent; some were darker; some were lighter; some were heavier — and we played around on this table with all of these green samples. In the end, we put together three fabrics — one on top of the other — which were two transparents and one solid. We piled them up and we talked to Joe and we talked about the green. We chose one of these composite colors made up of layering, which gave us the intensity of the green. We then took that and, which is a horrible thing to do to someone, gave them that composite color and said, “Can you dye this white fabric to this composite color?” But luckily he was a brilliant dyer and he managed to get the intensity and the brightness of the green into the silk. And that was how we did it. As to why that was the right color? I don’t know.
Joe often has a vision of a scene in his head, and he might not tell you the whole thing about it, but he will say, “Oh yes, it has got to be green.” And then the specific shade he may not know until he sees it, so I will then offer him up as many shades as I can and he’ll say “That’s the one!” I don’t really inquire why that’s the shade.
Well broadly, green in film costumes is not an especially popular choice.
I’ve never done a bright green dress before or after! I think sometimes you can go into very dark shades of green. Another part of why I think this green dress resonates so much is that it’s a real collaboration. The thing is, to make a dress that bold everyone has to be committed to it. Seamus [McGarvey], the DP, has to be committed to shooting that dress in an iconic way. It has to fit Keira in an iconic way. Joe has to want it to have a function like that. The real secret of the green dress is its function in the movie. If it hadn’t had that function, it could’ve been a dress that comes and goes, really. But because it has such a pivotal moment — or she’s wearing it at such a pivotal moment — and Seamus and Joe have shot it in a way, and Keira looks so good in it, I think it’s just this perfect storm of things all going right at the same time. There’s a shot of her standing, smoking outside — this side shot — and the dress is quite well laid out. It’s a great shot; it has a real ’30s glamour but it’s also a bit more modern. It just captures what we were trying to do in the movie. You can make a really brilliant dress but, and I’ve seen this in other films, the actor’s only shot from the waist up. Unless you frame it in a way that’s really going to sell it to its best advantage, it’s never going to have the impact it could have. Seamus shooting it in the full-length way and it being lit so beautifully is what sets it up.
Going into Atonement and particularly that climactic scene, what conception did you have of the movie? How did you think about it, thematically, in terms of the dress?
There’s a very strong feeling of heat and summer and dreamlike memory for the early stage. We were conscious that the early stage would be heightened by the fact that it was Briony’s memory of that time. It wasn’t particularly real; it was a memory. We had both things running parallel with that. We were watching the action as if it were real, and at the same time, it was Briony’s memory. There’s something, I think for everybody in their memory, about summertime as a child. There’s a heightened sense of a remembered summer. That was one of the things that I wanted to bring in, to 1934. I think it’s a magical thing to try and recreate that remembered summer — that significant moment when you’re about 12 or you’re just beginning to grow up.
You’ve worked with Joe Wright throughout his directing career, including on this year’s Darkest Hour. What do you like about designing for him as a director?
He’s a really visual director and he’s very interested in coming to the fittings and in knowing what he’s going to be having in front of him on camera. He’s very interested in color and he also has an instinctive feeling about color. For instance, he really wanted Churchill’s dressing gown in Darkest Hour to be pink. In most instances we were just copying or reproducing or replicating Churchill’s look — because everyone knows it so well — and we do know what his dressing gown looked like. It wasn’t pink! But Joe had a feeling about his interpretation of this version of Churchill that he was going to film, where pink would be appropriate in one part of his costume. And he had a strong feeling that Benedict Cumberbatch should wear yellow in Atonement. He has these color attachments to characters. I think that with Joe he’ll look at actors when they come on set in the morning or whenever; he knows roughly what the costume’s going to be always. When he sees you on the set, he will use it to its best advantage. He’s interested in that; he sees it. He just loves the alchemy of bringing the costumes and the set and the camera all into one room and creating something. For me, that’s fantastic, because I want the costumes to contribute.
You worked on this year’s Beauty and the Beast. Was it as challenging to find the perfect yellow for Belle’s dress as it was the perfect green?
It was quite a different experience. Finding the yellow wasn’t too difficult, actually. We still chose lots of different yellows and we chose lots of different fabrics, and we dyed the different fabrics to different yellows and camera-tested them all. We decided on one shade of yellow that we wanted. That wasn’t too hard. What was hard about the yellow dress was the degree to which I was going to create a dress and the degree to which I was going to interpret the animated dress. That was the difficult thing, and that’s what took us quite a long time. It became less about me reinventing it and much more about me augmenting it.