When I finished the dress, I just thought, Oh no, it’s all wrong,” says Atonement costume designer Jacqueline Durran. “Why didn’t I change the shoulder, or the draping? But you just get to a point where you can’t bear it anymore, and you let it go. I’m completely amazed by the way it turned out.” Durran is speaking, of course, of that dress, the exquisitely draped, bias-cut, vibrant green, turn-Keira Knightley-into-a-screen-goddess dress that Durran created for the scenes in which Knightley sees, falls madly for and has steamy library sex with her housekeeper’s son. (It’s also the dress that helped garner Durran her second Oscar nomination.)
The opening segment of the film consists, Durran notes, of perfectly remembered moments as a woman looks back on her life; the green dress, therefore, was to be contemporary in its style, and not necessarily historically spot-on. “I like things that are puzzles, and I tend to think of costume design as a puzzle,” says Durran. “You’re taking fabrics and a time period and a color scheme, and putting them together in a way that, presto, makes sense visually.”
For Durran and two other red-hot costume designers, Mary Zophres and Karen Patch, the work of outfitting casts for movies is less about creating a general aesthetic tableau and more about finding and designing thoughtful, specific looks. Call it the character-driven approach to costuming: Think Jeff Bridges, as the Dude in The Big Lebowski, shuffling through a grocery store in shorts and a bathrobe—an ode to slackers that Zophres came up with in a fitting. Or, as in The Royal Tenenbaums, a heavily kohl-eyed Gwyneth Paltrow swathed in a fur coat, which Patch chose after watching The World of Henry Orient, a Peter Sellers film in which a young girl scampers around New York in, yes, a fur coat. “I approach my movies from the point of view of the characters, to help tell their story,” says Durran.
“The clothing should never distract from the actor or the plot,” says Zophres. “I love clothes, but I love movies and telling stories more.”
For Zophres, who costumed the cast of this summer’s Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, the key to creating appropriately clad characters is all about collaboration. She has worked frequently with Steven Spielberg (those pillbox hats and nipped suits in Catch Me If You Can are hers) and Joel and Ethan Coen (remember Catherine Zeta-Jones’s curve-skimming red dress in Intolerable Cruelty?). She’s also designing the costumes for the largely male cast of The Trial of the Chicago 7, Spielberg’s feature about the riots at the 1968 Democratic National Convention, due this fall. “I think I’ve been a successful designer because I work closely with directors,” she says. “With directors, you always have to give them a choice—something to say no to—and lead them in the direction that you think is the right way to go. But you’re serving their story, so they are the ones making a decision.”
Like Durran and Patch, Zophres studied art in college; on day one of her first film job, as a production assistant on Born on the Fourth of July, she was asked to separate a giant pile of clothes into eras—Fifties, Sixties and Seventies—and bingo, a career path was found. After her mentor, the late Richard Hornan, fell ill (he designed the costumes for Raising Arizona and Barton Fink, among others), Zophres was tapped by the Coen brothers to do Fargo, set largely in wintry Minnesota. “What we like about Mary is she reads the script and she goes, ‘Okay, it’s this story; it’s these characters,’” says Joel Coen. “It’s not like she brings some signature thing. What she brings is a sensitivity to what [the story] should be.”
“The first thing I said to them was, ‘I think this movie is beige,’” says Zophres of Fargo. “There’s nothing exciting about this place, and it’s a lot of coats. The main silhouette that stuck in my mind was a puffy jacket. So everyone who belongs in that environment, like Frances McDormand’s character, wears one. The ones who don’t belong wear something else, like Steve Buscemi, who wears some impractical shearling. I started that movie like the others, heavily researching it. I found a great book on small towns in the Midwest.”
After poring over a script, Zophres typically scours costume-rental houses and thrift stores (“I’ve been a thrift-store rat my whole life”) and “builds,” in costume-speak, specific outfits for each character. She takes into account not just the director’s vision and the film’s era but also the actors’ personalities. “In No Country for Old Men, Kelly Macdonald, who plays Josh Brolin’s wife, is at the bus station and she has on this beige floral dress that has this muslin quality,” says Zophres, who designed that film’s costumes in addition to those for the Coens’ upcoming feature, Burn After Reading. “The dresses we found from that time period, the Seventies, were really kind of grotesque, so I designed one. Kelly is very sweet and genuine, and you couldn’t put her in anything trashy or too Seventies. It’s a very subtle dress, and it needed to have those qualities. Sometimes you have to costume based in part on what’s written on the page, and in part based on what the actor they cast brings to it.”
And what if the actors are, well, literally plastic? Karen Patch encountered that dilemma when she costumed the humanesque puppets of Team America: World Police, the wickedly funny send-up of action flicks directed by South Park’s Matt Stone and Trey Parker. “Everything just got incredibly scaled down,” says Patch, who, like Zophres and Durran, often turns to photographs and old movies for touchstones of what a particular character should be wearing (a certain perfectly aged button-down here, a dyed-four-times bias-cut evening dress there). “I treated the puppets as if they were real actors. It all had to be real—the patterns on the fabrics, the tiny pinstriped suits. The difficulty was finding buttons and zippers to use. It would take two hours to dress one puppet, and we had over a thousand costumes. It was an engineering feat.”
A self-described fashion obsessive whose collaborations with Wes Anderson include Bottle Rocket and Rushmore in addition to The Royal Tenenbaums, Patch has a quirky, often referential taste. For the upcoming Mike Myers vehicle The Love Guru, in which Myers plays an American maharishi-type raised abroad, Patch kitted out the fitting rooms like mini ashrams—curtains, candles, music—all to give the actors “an idea for the world their characters live in.” She also had Myers wear the very American footwear of Crocs, though she embellished them with embroidery. Similarly, in the comedy Drillbit Taylor, out in March, she had Owen Wilson, who plays a war veteran, don a cap that evokes Robert Duvall in Apocalypse Now.
“In every film there’s a place to make a character stand out in an iconic way, but you have to find the right place,” Patch says. A party scene in How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days provided the perfect opportunity to sheath Kate Hudson in a lemon yellow silk gown Patch designed herself. “The palette of the rest of the party in that scene was very controlled, so we knew she had to stand out,” Patch explains. “You have to be careful because a year after you design something, when the film comes out, a look could be over. So you want to do something quite classic.”
That timelessness was precisely what Durran had in mind when she went about constructing the aforementioned emerald number. “I know quite well that I didn’t make a Thirties dress,” she says, noting that she had been instructed by the film’s director, Joe Wright, to make a backless green frock that would float behind Knightley as she walked. “We were creating a remembered moment of someone else, so I pulled details I liked from the Twenties and Thirties and worked out which ones would combine together to make something that suited Keira.”
Durran, whose first break was as the wardrobe mistress on Eyes Wide Shut, is currently working on her third collaboration with Wright, a contemporary film called The Soloist that is set on Los Angeles’s skid row and based on real-life events. An aesthetic leap following Atonement and 2005’s Pride & Prejudice (a film for which Durran says she maintained the mantra “provincial, provincial, provincial”), The Soloist requires Durran to capture the worn, downtrodden look of the neighborhood’s residents while avoiding anything that smacks too much of fashion.
It’s the kind of challenge that all three designers say is at the heart of their work: how to make the clothing an authentic, evocative component of the film’s characters while making sure not to distract from the characters themselves. “It’s a tricky line,” admits Zophres. “But it’s the most rewarding part of the job, when actors put on a pair of pants or a shirt and their walk starts to change, or their posture starts to change. You can tell their heart rate starts to go up, and you can tell they get it.”