Oscar-nominated filmmaker Greta Gerwig is a film fan and cinephile first, so it comes as no surprise that the “Little Women” director is able to quickly conjure up some of her favorite pieces of below the line artistry with little in the way of prompting. Such is the case when it comes to the work of costume designer Jacqueline Durran, a long-time collaborator of Gerwig’s self-professed favorite filmmaker Mike Leigh, and a bonafide genius in Gerwig’s eyes. “Her work is thematic and intellectual without ever making it feel like you’re hitting the audience over the head with it,” Gerwig told IndieWire of Durran late last year. “Jacqueline does things without ever making it feel too heavy. It’s always within the context of life and the characters.”
When it came time to assembling the crew for her sophomore film, a fresh adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s beloved novel “Little Women,” Gerwig was intent on bringing Durran’s genius into her filmmaking fold. Best known for costuming period-specific features from “Atonement” and “Pride & Prejudice” to “Mr. Turner” and “Darkest Hour,” Durran was an obvious fit for a film set in 1860’s New England.
“One of the big joys of making a big movie on a big canvas is the ability to work with craftspeople,” Gerwig said. “I think she was the very first person I knew who I was going to work with, and it started really early for us. I was able to go to London and spend days with her, just poring over ideas, and researching and talking about what the feeling was and starting to develop a shared language.”
While Durran is a dedicated researcher when it comes to crafting her costumes — this is the woman you want to talk to about era-specific fabrics, when certain colors came into fashion, and how exactly the cut of a suit changed from decade to decade — many of her best ideas come through collaboration and conversation. That’s what happened with “Little Women,” which brings its characters and their world to life through deeply considered choices, all the way down to the cut of a hat they wear or the way a certain petticoat peeks out from underneath a skirt.
“Our conception of the March family was that, in some ways, they were a kind of strange, free, hippie family,” she said. “They are different from everyone else, they made their own clothes and they didn’t look like the other girls. But in order to land that, you have to know what the other girls look like, so it was about creating the world and creating these March women.”
Gerwig said she and Durran also took inspiration from the photographs of Julia Margaret Cameron (“girls who looked like girls, girls you could see hanging out at a liberal arts college”) and the paintings of Winslow Homer. “One of my favorite things she did was, we fell in love with this boy in a Winslow Homer painting who was wearing this certain kind of hat, it goes straight across and then has a little flap in the back,” Gerwig said. “She recreated that hat for Jo to wear and she wears it when she’s about to go out to the theater and she wears it again when she goes out to cut her hair. The specificity of Jacqueline recreating a hat from a painting is why she is who she is.”
Durran’s research also allowed Gerwig’s film more freedom and flexibility than the filmmaker initially expected. Take, for example, the “Jordan almond” color wheel of dresses worn by Meg March (Emma Watson) and her friends during a splashy birthday dance. Gerwig worried that the poppy pastels didn’t suit the time period, but Durran knew better.
“There were certain colors that I was wondering, ‘Are they too bright?,'” Gerwig said. “And then she told me, ‘No, no, no, in the 1850s, they’d just figured out how to dye fabric in bright colors, so some of the colors that seem too garish, in fact that’s exactly what people were wearing because they were having fun with the fact that they could dye.'”
Colors have always played a huge part in the world of “Little Women,” and Gerwig and Durran continued the tradition of assigning each of the March girls (Watson, Saoirse Ronan, Eliza Scanlen, and Florence Pugh) a color that becomes their consuming signature, with a twist. “Jo’s color is red, which is from the book, and that’s her color because it represents anger and passion and lust and ambition,” Gerwig said. “And when she’s a girl, she wears a bright red dress or she has a bright red petticoat underneath whatever she’s wearing, but then as a woman, it’s reduced to just a bright red handkerchief around her neck.”
When it came time to dress their mother, Durran wove every single color into her looks, all the better to reflect their bond. It’s why star Laura Dern wears so much paisley in the film, it’s not a random choice; it’s all part of building a full character and film experience. “That’s why Marmee ended up with all these rich paisleys, because her clothes have every single color of the girls in them too, because who she is went into each one of these girls. That was just so wonderful,” she said.
But Durran’s attention to detail went far beyond just cut, color, and fabric, she was also intent on crafting costumes that said something deeper about each of the film’s characters. One of Jo’s (Ronan) most formative looks involves the donning of a military-style jacket when it comes time for her to buckle down and write. The obvious link between military precision and Jo’s full force writing technique was built in through Durran collaborating directly with Ronan.
“Saoirse and Jacqueline are the people who came up together with this idea of when Jo writes, she wears a military jacket,” Gerwig said. “The military jacket is based on actual jackets from the 1840s that Jo would’ve gotten in some rag bag or something. She came up with the idea that, the way Jo writes, it’s like a military campaign where she’s literally taking over space.”
“Little Women” also offered Durran plenty of opportunities to dress a wide assortment of male characters, including Timothée Chalamet as the Marchs’ beloved neighbor Laurie. While even the most eagle-eyed of viewers might not be able to pinpoint why Laurie’s wardrobe seems slightly different than the rest of his peers, it’s clear that there’s something about his suits that doesn’t quite fit the mold. That’s baked in, care of Durran’s close attention to how character and costume can be irrevocably linked.
“The cut of Laurie’s suits are based on the cut of suits that would have been around in the 1840s, which is too early for the period of the film, except for the fact that he’s now raised by his grandfather and he was mostly raised in Europe,” Gerwig said. “So, he comes back to the United States having been orphaned and his grandfather doesn’t know what happened in fashion, so his suits are [from an earlier era]. The specificity of that kind of stuff is marvelous.”
Even before “Little Women” hit screens this Christmas, fans were already enamored of one of the more inventive elements of its costume design: how Ronan and Chalamet would frequently swap costumes at Durran’s urging. Turns out, it wasn’t just Laurie and Jo swapping, it was most of the cast, especially the sisters, all the better to convey a lived-in feel to each outfit.
“Laurie and Jo switching clothes? It you notice it, you notice it, if you don’t, it’s still subliminal, but that’s exactly what it should be,” Gerwig said. “Jacqueline would put clothes in people’s trailers and say, ‘Put together the outfit from what’s there.’ Everything was separate, which kind of made it feel more modern. Even if it looks like it’s a dress, it’s actually separates. There would be the tops and bottoms, and then it could be a top with longer sleeves or top of shorter, it could kind of go together. She would let the actors decide how they want to adorn themselves as their character.”
As Gerwig sees it, Durran makes “the exact kind of work” that she loves, costuming that is “so embedded in filmmaking and character that it never draws attention to itself, but is always excellent.” Gerwig added, “She also has the ability to do things that are more pushed, more heightened. … She has a way of costuming period pieces so that they look like clothes, not like costumes, which they think is a particular talent. It’s so good that it can go unnoticed, because you think it just exists.”
“Little Women” is in theaters now.