Oscar-winning costume designer Jacqueline Durran (“Anna Karenina”) says it was a balancing act dressing the much-loved March sisters in director Greta Gerwig’s new adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s novel “Little Women.”
In the film, Durran intertwines a free sartorial spirit with the traditional Victorian stiffness for sisters Meg (Emma Watson), Jo (Saoirse Ronan), Beth (Eliza Scanlen) and Amy (Florence Pugh).
“For me, it was all about capturing that free spirit [of the March women] and working out how much you could let go and how much to keep back — all within the mid-19th century period framework,” says Durran, who created about 75 costumes for the four girls and their mother, Marmee March (Laura Dern).
After finishing the film, “I went directly to [costuming] ‘1917,’ and it might just be the biggest jump in my career — going from all females to all males in the midst of a war,” she laughs. “It’s always an adventure.”
You said your aim in “Little Women” was “to create period-specific costumes for the sisters that did not necessarily feel period-specific.” Can you explain?
I tried to make things period-accurate — so that the clothing exists properly within a period — but I let the girls wear it how they wanted to wear it. There wasn’t a stiffness and perfectness to the costumes; we eased up. I let the actors live and be in their clothes the way they wanted to live in the clothes, and also how Greta wanted them to live and be in the clothes. I hope I pulled it off.
So it’s period-accurate but is more clothing versus a proper Victorian costume per se?
Yes, that’s correct. For example, the Alcotts lived somewhat radically, and the character Marmee was a true radical and a noncorseted woman. If we infer Jo was Louisa May Alcott, I think Jo’s character would never historically have worn a corset. So while Jo’s clothes were period-accurate they didn’t have that stiffness we associate with the Victorian period.
I understand you used Winslow Homer’s paintings as an inspiration. Why?
I love Winslow Homer. He was so tied to the location where we were [in the Northeast] and had the spirit of freeness inside his paintings: The way people lived in the landscape wasn’t the stereotypical way of the Victorian countryside. It was liberating to look at his paintings as they have a different prism of freeness within them you don’t sense in other paintings of the time.
Did you use more modern colors and patterns in your accessories — such as checks, stripes and paisleys in the scarves, hats and capes — to modernize the costumes?
Yes, though it’s not wholly incorrect to have checks, stripes and paisley elements in that period; it’s just they’re being used in a different way than traditionally. Victorians used a lot of checks and paisleys. The way we use them [in the film] is slightly off-period; it’s “not quite,” which can make it seem a bit more modern. I think the closest thing I’ve done similarly before was “Pride & Prejudice.”
The color palette is somewhat “not quite,” as you put it: maroon instead of red, chartreuse instead of green, mustard instead of yellow, or mauve instead of purple. Did this also modernize and loosen the costumes?
Yes, but we also had a palette for each girl running through everything. Jo’s color is red mixed with indigo so it was a kind of blue-red combination. Meg’s color is green, but because we wanted to soften it we used green and lavender. Beth we settled on a kind of brown tone and Amy is always blue. It comes from Marmee’s gifts to them on Christmas morning. That way we kept a kind of color arc for each girl, though I wouldn’t want the colors to be too scripted or over-labored.
Meg’s pink frilly ball gown in Boston was very Tara-esque.
I wanted to distinguish between the film’s three balls. The first, which you don’t see much of, is a very rural dance: Local farmers and well-to-do countryside people come together for a Christmas dance. So it’s supposed to have a festive, Christmasy feel: all checks and patterns and a pretty country-girl kind of look.
Then we’re in Boston at the highest of American society, and everyone’s primping in pastels, and it’s a kind of magical world of pretty young girls. And then when Amy goes to Europe, there’s another whole level of ball chic, so chic it doesn’t even care about being pretty anymore.
Jo and Laurie (Theodore “Laurie” Laurence played by Timothée Chalamet) were both somewhat androgynous characters. How did that play into the overall costume concept?
We wanted them to swap clothes, though it didn’t happen that many times. We made a waistcoat in both Laurie’s and Jo’s sizes to look like they were wearing the same item and had just switched it back and forth, but because of the continuity in the editing I don’t think you realize it in the film. But they were meant to wear some interchangeable clothes, yes.
Meryl Streep plays Aunt March. How involved does she get with her costumes?
I’d never worked with her before and, as you would imagine, she’s amazing and has the clearest eye looking at period costume and the best kind of instinct. I was lucky enough to have her costumes made by someone she’s had a long history with. She had four changes total — all dark, which would have been appropriate for a woman of her age and formality.