You might not know costume designer Jacqueline Durran by name, but if you’ve seen a movie in the last 20 years, you probably know her work. The iconic green Atonement dress? That was her. The WWI trench coats in 1917 and man-who-came-in-from-the-cold greys of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy? Also her; Pride and Prejudice, too.
But the two-time Oscar winner — for 2012’s Anna Karenina and 2019’s Little Women — faced an entirely new challenge with Pablo Larrain’s feverish arthouse biopic Spencer (in theaters Nov. 3): how to represent a real-life icon without losing the movie’s surreal sense of mystery — or the essence of the American actress portraying her. EW spoke to Durran about sourcing vintage Chanel, granting Stewart’s wildest pirate-sailor dreams, and other to-Di-for looks from the film.
Diana’s style is so distinctive, and so documented. What kind of directives did Pablo give you from the beginning?
Well, there was the overall idea of the movie, where we’re investigating the idea of a princess who appears to have the perfect life but in fact doesn’t. And then there was the way in which he wanted to create that story within a very designed space — he wanted our costume choices to all be very intentional, and then he also wanted to use strong colors. So there’s an endless amount of research.
It’s a fact that everyone mentions, but [Diana] absolutely was the most photographed person I’ve ever come across. I mean, if you go onto any search engine, there are thousands and thousands of pictures. And so it was a matter, really, of picking out the direction from within this huge range of options. And we also narrowed it down by having a time frame, which ran somewhere between 1988 and 1992.
There were certain outfits that I recognized, and then other ones where I wasn’t sure if they were replications of looks that had existed or if they were more like interpretations.
There’s one costume which is as much a replication as we could make, which is the red polo-neck and the dogtooth skirt that she wears the second costume into the movie. There’s also the bomber, the blouson jacket that she wears at the end. I couldn’t believe that I’d actually found one identical to the one she wore, [by a brand called] Mondi. I mean, it’s the same! So that was sort of amazing.
The idea was that we were never slavishly replicating all of Diana’s looks, but we were definitely riffing on the idea of them. So we were quite consciously not trying to do the closest version we could in every instance. But in some places we used things that were exactly her style and then other places we drifted off. We bought a retro pair of jeans, and the sweaters weren’t made by us, obviously. But a lot of the pieces were made.
Is there a Diana scarcity now when you go shopping for vintage, because of shows like The Crown and their influence, and the general revival of interest in those styles?
It’s a bit harder because it’s more fashionable and more people are interested in buying it. But then again, if people are interested in buying it, then dealers have more of it and you just have to pay more for it. [Laughs]
But most of Diana’s wardrobe was made for her, so we should touch on the question of Chanel. Her main Chanel period was later in her life, but there was her visit to Paris, which I think was in 1988, a [famous] red coat, which we then had replicated for Kristen by Chanel.
There are so many looks in this movie; more than you would think for a film that takes place essentially over just three days. What was the process of that like?
Pretty early on was we had an enormous fitting. It was with Kristen, Pablo, and myself, and we just went through the whole movie and kind of allocated ideas and looked at each costume.I knew that for instance, there is the montage of clothes that she needs for Christmas that’s laid out, not all of which she ends up wearing.
And then there’s the montage scenes where they cut away to her at different moments, which also isn’t part of the kind of linear costume story. So those were clothes that I continued to look for right through shooting.
The interesting thing to me was just the mix of late ’80s into early ’90s with the sort of strictures of the royal family — which is so timeless on the one hand, but also a little stuck in maybe like, the ’50s, ’60s, and a lot less organic to her.
That’s exactly what we hoped would happen because in theory, all of those clothes that you see her when she’s got her kind of official linear story is all stuff that’s been prepared for her, that’s just part of the formality of the situation. So that’s great that you got that from watching.
And how did you guys make Kristen look so tall? Because Diana had a good five or six inches on her.
It was a lot to do with how she was shot, I think. But we were just conscious in the fitting — if tweaking something, raising a waistline, moving a bust, changing the proportion of the clothes slightly, if that elongated her, then we would do that. We didn’t make huge changes to anything particularly in order to achieve it. But we avoided things that kind of highlighted the fact that she was shorter than Diana.
Were there looks that Kristen particularly loved or hated?
She absolutely loved the Mondi jacket, the bomber. But you know, I can’t speak highly enough of her. She is the most fantastic actress to work with because she is completely dedicated to throwing herself into the creation of the image that you’re searching for. And she’s totally willing to try anything, but at the same time, she gives great notes on what she thinks works and what doesn’t work. And she’s got such great style. Unbelievable! It’s so different to Princess Diana’s, but that kind of shows how great her talent is.
Did you ever feel, as sort of the resident Brit — you have a Chilean director and an American actress who didn’t really grow up with Diana — like you were speaking for the record, or for England, when it came to accuracy?
At the beginning, I was quite obsessed. There was a thing in the ’80s in Britain, I don’t know if you’ve heard of it, called Sloane Rangers. [Diana] was the archetypal Sloane Ranger, so I was talking to them a lot about that, but in the end that wasn’t really the movie we were making. We were making Pablo and Kristen’s movie. So I didn’t feel the weight of the resident Brit too hard.
Let’s talk about the wedding gown. It’s not actually so much like the famous real-life dress, really, that giant poof.
The wedding gown! It didn’t feature in the main movie, it’s [only] in the montage. And we just didn’t have the money to make a Diana wedding gown for something that wasn’t even part of the main story. So we just adapted a wedding dress to be an approximation of it.
I’m under no illusion that there were differences between Diana’s dress and the dress that we made. But it was a kind of the spirit of the dress, rather than an exact replica. If you are not making The Crown, and if you are making artistic decisions on what you can and can’t achieve, I think you just have to do those things sometimes.
What about the yellow sailor look? That has to be a favorite.
That was based roughly on something Diana wore. She went to review the Navy, I think, in Portsmouth. Pablo and Kristen loved the idea of her wearing a pirate hat, so we made the pirate hat and we made it in yellow and it was a sort of floating costume because we weren’t really sure where it was going to fit, but it had to go in somewhere. And then I think it found its place. [Laughs]
There’s a gown she wears to a formal family dinner early on with a pearl choker that Charles has given her as gift, and the whole look seems in a way like golden handcuffs — it’s technically gorgeous, but she hates it.
It was classic, I think, and quite simple. It was just an instinctive choice. That one was one we made. And the pearls, yeah, exactly that! They were beautiful and oppressive at the same time.
Just like her life.