Keira Knightley’s emerald green dress in Atonement is one of those costumes that fashion lovers see on screen and just lust after. Fashion editors at Vogue at Vanity Fair had their eyes on it and it was even voted the best film costume of all time, coming ahead of Audrey Hepburn and Marilyn Monroe. It is a gown that looks modern and fresh, despite being from far in the past.
The green silk fabric is barely there as it skims over her body, dipping right down to the base of her spine; the perfect dress for a ‘perfectly’ remembered 1930s summer evening before the fall. I’ll discuss this dress, and Keira Knightley’s costumes, in more detail further down this post.
Adapted from the Ian McEwan novel, Atonement is a tragic tale of love and war; divided between the hottest day of 1935 and the grim reality of war-torn London and France.
“The main goal in designing the costumes was that there had to be a distinguishing palette between the 1930s section and the 1940s section,” costume designer Jacqueline Durran told me, in an interview.
Jacqueline Durran’s costumes reflect this division, from light and floral on a blissful summer’s day, to heavy and cumbersome during the war years.
Inspired by the 1970s interpretation of the thirties, particularly Bertolucci’s The Conformist (1970), she and production designer Sarah Greenwood layered pattern upon pattern for kitsch, rich textures in the costumes and sets. The 1940s scenes were starker, and with a heavier palate. “This was unconventional because in reality it was the opposite,” said Jacqueline.
This heightened, stylised depiction of 1935 conveys a child’s remembered time of an idealised summer’s day, where the heat stifles the characters, resulting in repressed actions and imagined truths.
Because it was this perfect, remembered past, the clothes were to look pristine and new. Rather than finding vintage items, almost each item of clothing was custom made by Durran to look attractive to the modern eye, in shades of rich yellow, greens, soft pinks, beige and creams.She used a modern tailor on the men’s tuxedoes and day suits, to avoid a scruffy, period look.
Joe Wright wanted to have visors incorporated into their costumes, even though the only reference to visors Jacqueline could find was for playing cards. “Little period touches were discovered during research, such as using a tie as a belt, for Paul Kennedy’s character,” she said. Men wore higher waistlines in the 1930s; a style that wasn’t particularly comfortable for the actors, who “kept trying to pull them down.”
Depicting the Second World War
“I worked on Vera Drake which was very similar so I had a good knowledge of the 40s, but that was post-NHS while Atonement was pre-NHS,” said Jacqueline. “I looked at photos from the Blitz, and employed someone who was an expert military uniforms.”
1,000 World Ward 2 British uniforms were made in Poland, and once they were shipped back, they were dampened, aged, sanded and painted with oily soot, as if from tanks and bombs. “When you see the men on the beach, you’ve got to understand they’ve been wearing them for months,” said Jacqueline.
While original nurses’ uniforms were lilac, Joe was insistent that they be made blue, making them the most challenging to construct. Linen and cotton fabric had to be specially woven, while Polish antique bed sheets were used for the aprons.
Rich, beautiful Cecilia is a vain and idle Cambridge student, with the clipped tones and repressed air of Celia Johnston, and a patronising way of speaking to the hired help. Knightley is a somewhat old-fashioned film star, she has the classic beauty and haughty demeanour, and in the same year as Atonement she played another 40s heroine in The Edge of Love, finding love in the rubble of the Blitz, all red lips and cigarette smoke.
“The whole idea of Cecilia’s costume was that I wanted to give her the aura of a butterfly, something really light and transparent,” said Jacqueline. “They would be the lightest, thinnest things she owned: the kind of thing you’d wear on the hottest day, when you have the feeling she would rather be naked.”
From the silk slip she strips down to at the fountain, to the white one-piece bathing suit and swim cap, made from stretchy fabric instead of traditional stiff wool, her clothes are as light, and as close to naked as possible.
Jacqueline’s favourite costume was the sheer floral-print shirt, tucked into a printed silk shirt, worn against the chintz interiors and as she marches with an antique vase to the fountain.
“It was so hard to achieve, much harder than the green dress. I needed two patterns that went together, but there were no thirties references for this, so the skirt fabric was printed especially.”
In the war years, her clothes are starker and more tailored, from her regulation nurses uniform to the tailored navy blue, double breasted coat. Green is not a usual colour for a dress on screen, although it was a favourite of Hitckcock’s, possibly to make his audience ill at ease. But in Atonement Keira wears two; the dazzling evening gown, and the dress in the final scene in the tube station. There were two versions of this final costume. A lighter fabric was used when she drowns in the tube station so that it would have a floating effect as she is submerged in water.
The green evening gown
The famed emerald green dress is a risqué, silken Jean Harlow style creation, worn on the fateful summer’s evening. As Robbie types the letter, and keys in that word, Cecelia pulls the gown from her wardrobe and slips it on, letting the hem fall to the floor. McEwan described her as a “mermaid” in the gown, linking in with the themes of water throughout the tale, from the fateful fountain scene to Cecelia’s watery death.
Joe Wright was definite on how the gown was to look, in particular during the scene in the library which he referred to as “The fucking insects shot.” He imagined that when she lifted her knee up, the dress would just fall away.
Jacqueline went through many images from that period, picking out the elements she liked, and what would look good on Keira. She gave the gown a wide hem line to allow it to billow and glide as she walked, while a pattern was laser cut into the bodice to make it more revealing.“Normally I wouldn’t make a modern dress, but it didn’t have to be authentically accurate, as it was remembered by someone old, with an impression of a perfect day.”
The shade of green was vital. Wright wanted it to be rich, deep and modern; and quite shocking for 1935. While the colour green can mean many things, for Durran it represented temptation. The hue was a composite of lime green silk, black and green organza and green chiffon, and the fabric was so delicate and fine that it would tear easily. “We had three or four skirts and 10 bodices and when they tore, we would quickly repair them,” she said.
The popularity of the dress came as a complete surprise to Jacqueline, but she said “it really worked because it was part of a collaboration between me, the director, director of photography and Keira, who looked beautiful. It was the way it was shot, not just the dress on its own.”
As the hero of the film, idolised by Briony, Robbie had to look attractive in costume, from his work clothes to the soldier’s uniform. He also had to look distinct, to show his separation from the upper middle class characters.
“I wanted to make him look great in his work clothes, so tried out things on James, such as what shirt sleeves would suit him,” said Jacqueline.
In the early evening light, he skips over the fencing in his tuxedo, on his way to the fateful dinner. “We got him a nice tuxedo, not cheap or ill-fitting, which would have been more likely, but we wanted him to look good, rather than sticking to character.”
Three actresses played the character of Briony at different ages – Saoirse Ronan, Romola Garai and Vanessa Redgrave – and they were linked together through the same hairstyle, shape of lips, a mole on the cheek, and style of costuming.
If Cecilia seems to be connected to green, then Briony’s character is linked with blue. “We wanted her clothes to be pale, but white was too harsh, so I gave it a pale blue wash,” said Jacqueline, of young Briony’s loose frocks. “This suited Saiorse’s eyes and it was also a pure, simple colour.”
The theme is carried through to the blue and white nurse’s uniforms worn by Romola Garai, who wanted Briony “to be weird, and not sexy.” Vanessa Redgrave’s blue dress in the third section had elements that were similar to Briony’s childhood costumes.
Jacqueline said “Joe told me he wanted the nurses’ uniforms to be blue, not lilac, and I said that was good because that meant that Briony’s palette was linked through the film; she stays in blue.”
In the opening scenes, Briony rushes around in a loose, short sleeved, low-waisted dress. “Briony was very busy that day, so the dress would have been one she possibly wore the day before. It was loose, not too hot and she would have just thrown it on,” said Jacqueline.