Dunkirk: Interview with Costume Designer Jeffrey Kurland

Amongst staggering aural and visual assault, perhaps one of the quietest aspects of Dunkirk (2017, directed by Christopher Nolan) are its costumes – and this is to its credit. Dunkirk is the type of film that requires you to engage quickly with everything you see on screen. Jeffrey Kurland’s costume design is masterful in this regard. A sea of subtly differentiated green and brown with the pop of naval uniforms and briefly glimpsed civilian wear. This is 1940 at its most spare and rudimentary.

Here, Jeffrey Kurland chats exclusively to Clothes on Film about his process for creating the world of Dunkirk:

SPOILERS THROUGHOUT

Clothes on Film: How did you go about researching the many uniforms seen in the film?

Jeffrey Kurland: As I normally would do. In the beginning it’s kind of a one man job. I trawl the internet, I go to libraries – I actually have my own library I use. I bought old magazines and coverage from Dunkirk. Everything I could. In fact my house was starting to smell like wet newspaper with all these old pieces from 1940. Then I got started with my team. We were looking at fabrics and old uniforms – actual uniforms I had seen. They were destroyed so couldn’t be used, but I could feel the texture. It is very difficult to recreate what you have just seen in a photo. By holding something in my hand I could feel the weight and examine the construction. There were so many elements to these uniforms, like the gas cape the soldiers carried with them at all times. The fabric for the uniforms I had made because you just can’t find it like that anymore. There is a specific tonality and texture that needs to be recreated perfectly.

CoF: Of course, the uniforms couldn’t look too new either?

JK: We did so many tests on the fabric and then filming with the camera, in sunlight, under artificial light, to see colour wise how we were going to create that distinct tone you eventually see on screen. It’s a gentle mix of brown and green. The uniforms have a slight glow to them. I wanted them to stand out that way.

CoF: How did achieve this ‘glow’?

JK: To be honest, I don’t want to tell you because someone will steal it! My head ager / dyer Jack Taggart had a process. I described it to him and through manipulations of the fabric with heat, steam, fire, all sorts of ways, he got it down to a certain nap that I was looking for. The fabric needed to be battle worn but not decimated with holes. That wouldn’t have been realistic. They had not been fighting long enough for that to happen, but they were in foxholes, in the dirt. It’s a very delicate process.

Fionn Whitehead as Tommy. The central cast of boys are each introduced with a slightly differentiating silhouette. Tommy, for example, is the ‘coat soldier’.

CoF: With such a similar uniform being worn by most of the central cast, were you concerned about differentiating the characters?

JK: They all wear the clothes differently. If you look you’ll see that Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) has a particular coat – he’s the guy in that coat. There’s a little more going on than everyone else. Alex’s (Harry Styles) jacket is a cutaway jacket, which was also part of their uniform. It’s a subtle difference between the two – a shape difference. Also Gibson’s (Aneurin Barnard) jacket is not actually his own. I made it purposely too small for him; the sleeves are too short and it’s just a little tight. I wasn’t afraid that they’d all meld together, but I did want a certain everyman quality. They are just faces in a crowd.

CoF: Wasn’t this the first time British soldiers had worn a separate ‘battle dress’?

JK: The soldiers were wearing battle dress in the thirties. In 1942 they changed uniforms; they replaced wool with cotton. All that heavy wool was from World War I. These guys were sweltering in the old uniforms. In fact World War II began at such a pace that uniforms worn during WWI were being repurposed. It was always a two piece though up until ’42. Then they changed it into something that wasn’t really a jumpsuit, but more like a coverall. I did so much research on everything. Even the gloves that you see Tom Hardy wearing in the plane. In 1939 or 40 they changed the zipper on the gloves, but I was putting him in clothes that would have been from 1938. Also the seaming on the back of his urban flight jacket was different from the mid to late 1930s. Early in the forties it was changed to only have one seam, but earlier it had three seams. It was important to me to get the realism perfect. I’m making the jacket anyway, so why not make it as real as possible?

Tom Hardy as Farrier. Hardy was wearing a full RAF uniform over a turtleneck jumper and under his fur-collared leather urban flight jacket, which adds the crammed claustrophobia of the Spitfire cockpit scenes.

CoF: Did you know the jacket was going to be seen in the film? That spectacular reveal when Tom Hardy climbs out of the plane?

JK: I knew from the start. It was always there in the script, exactly how he would be seen. That’s the beauty of working with Chris Nolan; he is very clear and his script tells you everything. I think the urban jacket works really well with the framing inside the cockpit. All that heavy wool and the turtleneck. You realise how hot it must have been in there. Under that jacket and over his turtleneck, Tom is actually wearing his RAF uniform. You can see when he gets out of the plane.

CoF: You specifically said you made the jacket, but presumably you had to make everything?

JK: Everything was made. We had to. We could never find the amount of stuff we needed and also we couldn’t do what we needed to it. Out of the water, in the water, salt water – there is no way you could rent the costumes for something like that. You couldn’t return any of it – it’d be ruined. I had the uniforms made in factories in Poland and in Pakistan, where they actually loomed the fabric. When you read about the confusion of Dunkirk these uniforms were being taken off, chucked around, left here and there. I used that. The uniform could be the full five pieces or just parts. Some guys were just walking around in their army issued underwear and a coat and helmet. There were a lot of people on that beach; I dressed 1,500 guys on one day. I didn’t have a big crew – it was a great crew, but not big. A lot of hands on work.

CoF: Was there ever a point that ‘the enemy’ would be seen in the script? Did you start researching German uniforms?

JK: Well, they are seen. That silhouette over the ridge after Tom Hardy crashes his plane. The silhouette is so important; you get it from the German helmet. You know immediately who it is. It’s like Darth Vader, I hate to say. I always knew they were going to take him away like that. Chris never wanted to bring the Germans into the story so we just silhouetted them.

CoF: Can we talk about your use of colour in Dunkirk? There is the red fisherman’s knit jumper worn by Tom Glynn-Carney as Peter. We also see splashes of that colour on other civilian characters as their boats pull up to the beach, and on their sails, too.

JK: That came from discussions with Chris. The army is the army and that’s the colour we have to use. We could play with it to a certain extent, such as different tones and textures and the ageing, but not change it. The civilians offered hope. Chris and I thought that just a little bit of colour would reinforce that. There are some yellows and greens in there, too. Sharper tones than the uniforms. It was our way of saying that hope is on the horizon. I’m partial to a maroon red. I’m not normally big on blue reds but the red in Dunkirk did have a blueness to it. The sweaters worn by Peter and George (Barry Keoghan) on the boat were specially chosen to pop against the sea and the sky. They had to say what I wanted them to say for a long time, as there are no costume changes until after the evacuation. There is the slight exception of Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance), whom I wanted you to know had come out of work to do this. He keeps his shirt and tie on but wears his jumper over the top to captain the boat. I wanted a feeling of hurried desperation. It’s the same with George in his Fair-Isle vest that is slightly too small for him – he could have been wearing that for a couple of years. I wanted to show his journey of going from a boy to becoming a man, but sadly never getting there.

Tom Glynn Carney as Peter and Cillian Murphy as ‘Shivering Soldier’. Costume designer Jeffrey Kurland used specific colours sparingly in Dunkirk. They are seen as a symbol of hope.

CoF: Was your research process the same for the civilian clothing in the film?

JK: Yes, it’s the same process but you just switch over to civilian wear. However it’s not as straightforward as just saying ‘we’re doing 1940’ and that’s it. What we are really doing is the 1930s. Ordinary people had gone to war and weren’t out buying clothes. Also the British sense of style was very different to the Americans, there is a whole different ideology. It’s more waisted and not a lot of frivolity, whereas the Americans could get away with more. I needed multiples so again I had to make everything.

CoF: That Norfolk style jacket worn by Tom Glynn-Carney at the end of the film is just beautiful.

JK: I love that you picked up on the jacket. That was one of the things I didn’t need a multiple for. That’s actually an original jacket I found from 1935. It was a bit of a mess so I over-dyed it to take the tone down and repaired it. You can see in the movie a leather elbow patch and if you look when Peter hands that photo over to the newspaper, there is a leather binding around the cuffs because they were so frayed. Everything was handed down back then. Peter talks about his brother and I like to think that the jacket came from him. I love that jacket. It’s very nipped in at the waist and shaped over the hips with this beautiful pleating in the back. It was nice that I could use an original piece.

CoF: You do realise that you are going to kick off a knitwear trend with Dunkirk, don’t you?

JK: I’m so happy about that! You know all of the knitwear was made in England. A lady named Jane Whatley knitted them in her home in Surrey. I travelled to her cottage and showed her what I wanted, the colours and that when she knits it needs to have a roughness. Drop a stitch here and there as they needed to look homemade. With Mr. Dawson’s sweater especially, she was knitting in certain flaws. She did it so beautifully. It feels so appropriate for the film that the sweaters should come from the hands of an English knitter. Really I’m so proud of the film. It’s a gift for the British.

With thanks to Jeffrey Kurland.

Dunkirk is currently on general release.

© 2017, Lord Christopher Laverty.

  • dinosaur detective

    Why, in the poster is Styles (Alex) wearing a US Army Helmet. Dunkirk was in 1940? The US entered WW2 in 1941.

  • trixie

    Could Jane Whately make her patterns available , perhaps via Ravelry? There has been much talk about her knitwear and I’m sure the patterns would sell, especially the vest

    • Paul Tancock

      Check out the V&A museum website. Many patterns on there for free

  • Graham Bandy

    I’m really interested in this cotton coverall uniform that came for the British Army in 1942…I have never come across such a thing…unless he means the airborne Denison smock… But that was specialist airborne.. And they still wore BD trousers…

  • Paul Tancock

    What the hell is an “urban flight jacket”?
    There are so many flaws in the “research” I don’t know where to start.
    This seems to be part of a current trend of “it’ll do” or “who cares?”
    2/10 for research matey