Part of the mission of the costume designer Jacqueline Durran, who has been nominated for an Academy Award for “Little Women,” is to make vintage clothes look covetable to the modern viewer.
About halfway through Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women,” Amy March (Florence Pugh) is standing in an artist’s atelier in eighteen-sixties Paris, explaining to her childhood crush, Laurie (Timothée Chalamet), that she must marry rich. This is not because she is a pampered prima donna, but because she desires a large life, one in which she might have some control over her path. “Don’t sit there and tell me that marriage is not an economic proposition, because it is,” Amy says, wrapping up an argument that Alcott only hinted at in the text. “It may not be for you, but it most certainly is for me.” Then she asks Laurie to unbutton her painting smock. She has to meet with a wealthy suitor.
This was the moment when I realized that something very interesting was happening with the clothes in “Little Women,” which were overseen by the English costume designer Jacqueline Durran. Gerwig zooms in on Laurie’s fingers as he slowly undoes Amy’s linen apron, then follows her as she swishes purposefully across the room in a robin’s-egg hoopskirt and flings a ruffled cream-colored capelet, with intricate floral embroidery, across her shoulders. The outfit is beautiful and ridiculous. “How do I look?” she asks Laurie, but she already knows. She looks like a cake, like a bisque doll, like a woman gallantly marching toward security. Despite the nineteenth-century setting, she also seems strangely au courant, as if she has just stepped out of one of Alessandro Michele’s Gucci shows dedicated to feathers and furbelows. There’s a modernity to this Amy, fresh as a lemon wedge. Even in a cape that should look baroque and overwhelming, she manages to look dauntless.
On Monday, Durran, who is fifty-three, was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Costume Design for “Little Women,” her seventh nomination in this category. (She won in 2012, for “Anna Karenina.”) When I met Durran for tea recently in a midtown-Manhattan hotel, she wore blue jeans and a vintage gray cardigan, her toffee-brown hair pulled back into a messy chignon. She told me that Amy’s cape is one of her favorite artifacts from the film, because it was something of a fashionable Frankenstein’s monster: Durran had bought a delicately embroidered but moth-eaten shawl some years before, and saw an opportunity to revive it when she was dressing Pugh. She hired a seamstress to graft the fragile needlework onto a new cape, a surgery that took several days. “It was painstaking,” she said.
The costumes of Jacqueline Durran, who is seen at right, feel embodied, tangible—as if her characters really live in them.
Cutting up and remixing clothing is part of Durran’s process. Although she works primarily in period pieces, she doesn’t feel particularly sentimental or precious about old finery. Her most famous creation is Keira Knightley’s Kelly-green, bias-cut evening gown for “Atonement,” a dress so unforgettable that Entertainment Weekly celebrated its tenth anniversary. Durran told the magazine that she eschewed pure fidelity to the time period in order to conjure a mood, a season, a temperature, “what you might put on if it was the hottest day of the year.” “I’m under no illusion that the dress that I’ve created isn’t a true 1934 dress,” she said. “It’s a combination of elements that has been made up by someone with a modern perspective.” The same dynamic is at work in Durran’s designs for Matthew Macfadyen’s caddish, open-chested shirts in “Pride & Prejudice,” Marion Cotillard’s Gothic pearl headbands in “Macbeth,” and the Necco-wafer-colored dystopian pastels she created with Sinéad Kidao for the “Black Mirror” episode “Nosedive.” These are costumes that feel embodied, tangible. They conjure lust, fear, sunniness followed by sorrow. They feel sweated in, rumpled, cried in.
Durran, whose work is also featured in Sam Mendes’s new film, “1917,” and in the forthcoming “Batman” reboot, with Robert Pattinson, told me that she wants the characters she dresses to look as if they really live in their clothing. Amy’s cape, for example, looks effortful and almost gaudy—we know that Amy is putting in extravagant effort to elicit a proposal—but it also moves. The cape ripples and bounces as she heaves herself into a carriage, wriggling her voluminous skirt into the tiny seat. It all looks fairly cumbersome, which is to say it looks realistic. Amy’s sister Jo (Saoirse Ronan), on the other hand, prefers writing plays in an attic to attending social dances. Instead of corsets and boning, Jo wears baggy cotton dresses and plain woolly skirts, paired with men’s waistcoats and collared work shirts. Her one concession to vanity is her “writing jacket,” a green, military-style moleskin coat that she wears as a kind of armor when she sits down to work by candlelight. Durran wanted this jacket to look like a piece that Jo had stolen for herself. “She may have worn things that were her father’s or things boys had left in the house,” she explained. “She was appropriating a uniform as her writing costume.”
Instead of corsets and boning, Jo (Saoirse Ronan) wears plain woolly skirts.
Amy (Florence Pugh) is dressed to look like a woman marching gallantly toward security.
When Durran was a child, her godmother sent her a trunk of velvet opera coats and nineteen-thirties chiffon tea dresses, which sparked a lifelong interest in vintage fashion. She studied philosophy at university and then worked in an academic bookshop in London, but she soon rediscovered a knack for hunting down coveted collector’s pieces. In the nineteen-eighties, that meant rummaging through bins and back rooms for mod minidresses and go-go boots. She started a side business running a secondhand clothing stall at the Portobello Road market; soon, she was selling clothes full time. She was watching a soap opera when it struck her that she wanted to be a costume designer—it suddenly occurred to her that someone must be selecting the outfits she was seeing on television. And she suspected that her talent for rooting out mint-condition old pieces might allow her to slip sideways into the profession.
On a whim, she called up the costume house Angels, one of the world’s largest suppliers of clothing for film, and where a young Alexander McQueen worked as a costumier. (Their warehouse features a hundred and sixty thousand square feet of tuxes and trumpet gowns and pannier skirts; they have film credits for Jedi robes and Errol Flynn’s swashbuckling garb and Victorian tea dresses from “Titanic.”) She asked for an entry-level position, and she got the job by passing a test in which she had to accurately date items of vintage clothing. Durran’s first task at Angels was selecting the shoes for extras in the bio-pic “Chaplin,” starring Robert Downey, Jr., in 1992. She then began assisting the Welsh costume designer Lindy Hemming, who won an Oscar for Mike Leigh’s Gilbert and Sullivan bio-pic “Topsy-Turvy.” Leigh continued to hire Durran, and it was their collaborations that led to “Little Women”—Gerwig is a big Mike Leigh fan.
The element of remixing that has always been crucial to Durran’s work finds a new means of expression in “Little Women” through Laurie and Jo, who swap clothing throughout the film. In one scene, Jo bends down on one knee in a mock proposal, presenting a flashy ring to Laurie, who is wearing a buttercup-colored paisley vest. Years later, as she refuses Laurie’s real proposal of marriage, Jo is wearing that same vest beneath an oversized camel blazer. It is a subtle note that says a lot: Jo’s longing to transcend the social limitations placed upon her gender; the profound closeness a person can share with another in their youth; the idea that she is walking away from Laurie yet keeping him close to her chest. Jo would rather dress like a man than be tied down by one.
The vest-swapping is just one of so many small details that makes Gerwig’s film feel both comfortable and contemporary. Durran gave the actors a lot of leeway to put together their own looks, particularly Chalamet, which often led to flyaway shirttails and artfully dishevelled neckties. She told Chalamet to research British Teddy Boys, while Gerwig told him to read Baudelaire. “He has such an instinct for how things can be worn, and he would wear it how he would want to wear it,” Durran said. “So it’s not that he’s wearing anything that is the wrong period; he just styles it his own way.”
Part of Durran’s mission is to make vintage clothes look covetable to the modern viewer. Meg (Emma Watson) has a chartreuse winter scarf that is, in its way, as surprising to the eye as the “Atonement” dress; in fact, when Gerwig saw it, she asked Durran if it might be too neon for a girl from nineteenth-century Concord. (Durran assured her that it was authentic: bright aniline dyes had just been invented, and absinthe green was all the rage. “I do think the Victorians were brighter than we thought they were,” Durran said.) And several friends have told me that “Little Women” made them desire a sontag: a crisscrossed scarf that wraps around the breasts and fastens at the waist, and that hasn’t been heard of much in the last hundred and fifty years. Durran found several patterns for woollen sontags, also known as “bosom friends,” in publications like Godey’s Lady’s Book, a popular fashion guide out of Philadelphia that Alcott and her sisters might have read for inspiration. In the wrong hands, the scarves would look dowdy, but Durran paired them with unexpected pieces—preppy plaid skirts, long crimson capes, jaunty newsboy caps—that gives them an oddball chic.
Speaking for myself, I came home from “Little Women” inspired to order two flouncy Victorian blouses with a Chalamet-esque flair. Like Amy, I suddenly knew what I wanted—to live inside Durran’s world just a little bit longer.