The Leo Tolstoy classic "Anna Karenina" has seen its share of adaptations. In its latest turn, from director Joe Wright, the love story gets a bold, creative and visually beautiful reworking of the Russian tale with truly inventive costuming.
Focus Features' film is strikingly original in its setting — the drama is staged on a decaying theater set — which gave Wright's longtime costume designer Jacqueline Durran, (who has been nominated for an Oscar for two previous projects with Wright, "Pride & Prejudice" and "Atonement") the latitude to combine Old World antique opulence and contemporary glamour.
The film itself is set in Imperial Russia in 1873, during the reign of Tsar Alexander III (That is two more Tsar’s reigns and some 44 years before the Russian Revolution and a mere 12 years after the abolition of Serfdom in Russia.) Factor these facts in with the complexity of the Russian Noble class you get the unique insular world of Anna Karenina. Since the film was already going to be visually complex, Costume Designer Jacqueline Durran decided to simplify the period’s look by maintaining the same basic silhouette but simplifying and drawing from 1950 Couture. “[Joe Wright] didn’t really want to make it historically accurate, costume wise: he wanted to stylize it. The way he wanted to stylize it was to concentrate on the silhouette of each character and to take an 1870s silhouette, but simplify the surface details so that it really had the architectural simplicity of 50s couture. What I had to do immediately was look at the 1870s shape then strip away all the surface detail and just be left with that pure shape.” Durran says.
The film begins with Anna being dressed completely ignoring her maid as she dresses in her complex underpinnings, donning a purple silk gown that is likely the most period accurate in the film, a reflection of her role as a dutiful and virtuous wife of a high ranking official. The purple color scheme continues on to her visit to her philandering brother’s home to help repair his marriage. Anna matches Karenin in hue and simplicity at the start of the film, Karenin remains simply and clean yet symbolic of power and position in society.
After her fateful encounter with Vronksy at the train station Anna begins her path towards darker colors, towards seduction. Tolstoy describes the dress Anna wears “She was enchanting in her simple black dress, enchanting were her round arms with their bracelets, enchanting was her firm neck with its thread of pearls, fascinating the straying curls of her loose hair, enchanting the graceful, light movements of her little feet and hands, enchanting was that lovely face in its animation, but there was something terrible and cruel about her charm.” Also noticeable here and for the rest of the film is Anna’s modern jewelry, “We thought that it would be good for the characterization of Anna for all the jewelry that she wore to be real because she lives in this rarefied world of late-19th century Russia where there is just an extraordinary amount of wealth. It seemed to play into the setting of her world and also the kind of vanity of Anna as a character to have a wide range of jewelry, and to wear it extensively,” Durran says. Durran came to the decision to stick with the classically elegant pearls and diamonds and approached Chanel, whom actress Keira Knightley and director Joe Wright have an established relationship with, who gladly provided the jewelry. Countering Anna and her new temptation is the pure Pincess Kitty who dresses in a pink ensemble that is noticeably shorter than Anna’s, emphasizing her youth and innocence.
For Anna and Vronsky’s next fatal encounter at Princess Betsy’s ball she dons a rich red gown, playing up to the part of harlot ,reminiscent of Scarlett O’Hara’s red gown Rhett makes her don. The gown is off the shoulder and features a unique bell shape silhouette. “There were a few photographs from the 1870s that I found where the dresses had a simple quality that I liked and were quite clear on the structure. Because 1873, when we set the film, was the kind of transition point between the crinoline and the bustle. It wasn’t the narrow type bustle that you get later on, where from the front view of the woman it’s quite narrow over the hips and all of the extension is towards the back; it was in the middle and slightly bell-shaped, and it tipped forward a bit at the front but extended at the back, so it was growing into a bustle. There were a few photographs that showed that shape, and we decided pretty early on that that would be the shape of Anna Karenina”
After the consummation of her affair with Vronsky, Anna’s palette lightens. When alone with Vronsky her state of dress reflects the airiness of the impressionist movement. Anna even continues to add color to her wardrobe at the races when she unintentionally confirms her affair with Vronsky by wearing a pink hat. Even after her brief reconciliation with her husband Karenin and dying after giving birth to Vronsky’s daughter, Anna is dressed in a brighter blue than the races. When she finally decided to run away with Vronsky and abandon her family, her color palette begins to turn dark once more.
Anna’s push to re-enter society is symbolized in the gown she dons to go to the theater in. Wearing all white and covered in jewels and fur, Anna is the opposite of herself from when she first fell for Vronsky at Kitty’s ball. She attempts to be a bride, fresh in love but her pleas for acceptance fall on deaf ears and she is humiliated.
Durran drew heavily from a 1950s aesthetic for the elegant ivory costume Anna wears to a tearoom in Moscow, complete with custom-netted pillbox hat and 50s-inspired wrap bodice with asymmetrical button details. The cream material actually has a pale-gray stripe to it. Durran has called this her favorite ensemble of the film.
Anna begins to unravel further and further as she and Vronsky flee St.Petersburg once more, whilst she still dresses fashionably her costumes reflect her increasingly jealous and foul demeanor. Her state of dress also becomes less and less. We see Anna become addicted to morphine and her dressing gowns and robes reflects that. During her meeting with her sister in law Dolly, Anna dons the beautiful yet somber attire of a pale gray gown with black lace overlay and a black fur coat. The next red ensemble we see her in is darker in hue, a deep red in velvet complete with a matching hat with a heavy velvet rose. It is blood red in hue and looks suppressing on her, it reflects her bloody thoughts as she contemplates and finally commits suicide by throwing herself in front of her train. Anna in her final gown wears a veil that is significantly harder to see through than the first one she wears at the start of the film, signifying her increasingly clouded judgment.
By contrast, the relationship between Levin and Kitty exemplifies a well-rounded, functioning marriage. Levin and Kitty's intimacy thrives because it possesses all the things that Anna and Vronsky's affair lacks: effective communication, mutual trust, shared responsibility, and spiritual sensibility. Levin and Kitty's happiness is not easily achieved; it takes work and dedication. Levin and Kitty succeed because they are satisfied with their daily lives, their routine, and each other. Their compatibility reflects in the way they are dressed too, more simplified than Anna and Vronsky.
I recommend reading this article with original sketches of the clothing used in the film.