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Inception: Jeffrey Kurland Costume Q&A

Perhaps the most mind-churning mainstream film of recent years, Inception is testament to the power of great costume design. Not only does it look sumptuous, thanks to all those 3 pc suits and silk ties, but because of costume designer Jeffrey Kurland and director Christopher Nolan’s commitment to clothing serving an implicit function, Inception is at least partially decipherable by what the characters wear. The screen is filled with costume clues to interpret.

Jeffrey Kurland has been costume designer on thirty seven feature films, including Ocean’s Eleven (2001) and Collateral (2004), though Inception is his first collaboration with Chris Nolan. Here he explains exclusively to Clothes on Film his sartorial choices for the movie and how they integrate with the story. (Click HERE to read the follow up interview).

Clothes on Film, Chris: Was it your intention to give each character a signature look, e.g. Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Arthur in 3pc suits, or Ellen Page’s Ariadne nearly always wearing patterned silk neck scarves?

Jeffrey Kurland: I set out, as I always do, to design all of the costumes for Inception to best serve the emotional and physical needs of each of the characters.

If a signature look for each character emerged, it was not through a pre-designated plan but through the physical development of that character.

The costumes, i.e. the suits, coats, dresses, etc in Inception were all designed by Jeffrey Kurland. They were made to order.

COF: The first time we see Marion Cotillard as Mal she is encircled in an angular upturned collar, somewhat like a wicked witch. What was the purpose behind her look and how did it evolve throughout the story?

JK: When we are first introduced to Mal we wanted to stir the audience’s curiosity with a sense of mystery. As the film proceeds we find that Mal is femme fatale, mother, wife, architect and the emotional center of Cobb’s world. All of these character traits combined became the basis for her character’s design and palette.

The fabrics for all the costumes, including the majority of ties, were collected from many sources both in the United States and abroad.

COF: How much does costume reflect the inner machinations of the plot, particularly in a film such as Inception? For example, Cobb’s children are wearing the same clothes at the end of the story as they are in his dream ‘memory’ throughout the film. Is there something to be interpreted here?

JK: Costume design reflects greatly on the movement of the plot, most significantly through character development. Character development is at the forefront of costume design. The characters move the story along and with the director and the actor the costume designer helps to set the film’s emotional tone in a visual way. In a more physical sense the costumes’ style and color help to keep the story on track, keeping a check on time and place.

On to the second part of your question, the children’s clothing is different in the final scene… look again…

Each costume was cut and assembled by talented artisans: tailor Dennis Kim, dressmaker Mary Ellen Fields of Hargate Costumes, shirt maker Anto of Beverly Hills, and an army of seamstresses and finishers. Ager dyers and fabric specialists added to the mix.

COF: The male characters’ suiting is very up to date, even forward thinking, such as the peaked lapels on Ken Watanabe’s single breasted suit, or the Nehru collar and popper studs of Michael Caine’s shirt. Was your intention to create a pseudo-futuristic vibe?

JK: Not wanting to date the film, I was trying to create an upscale world of business and intrigue with architecture being a constant metaphorical thread running throughout… definitely forward thinking, without being futuristic. That enabled me to travel from reality to dreams and back, keeping a certain amount of stylization that would serve all the situations presented in the script.

Most of the footwear for the film was purchased, although some of the shoes were custom made.

COF: Ken Watanabe as Saito wears a Nagajuban under his lounge jacket at one point, a subtle blurring of East and Western culture. How detailed was your research into Asian dress traditions?

JK: I did research traditional Japanese dress thoroughly, knowing that I wanted that influence in Saito’s first costume. The scene being in a mysterious and unidentifiable place was the perfect setting to introduce a highlighted reality. Being a powerful Japanese businessman in what was eventually revealed to be a dream; I wanted to show an adherence to and a respect for the old, but still showcasing him as contemporary and cutting edge.

Tom Hardy’s watch as Eames was an antique piece.

COF: How involved was director Christopher Nolan in how the characters should dress?

JK: Director Chris Nolan was very involved, and extremely collaborative in every aspect of this film and its look. His fingerprint is everywhere. Happily, the costumes were no exception.

COF: What was the significance of Arthur and Leonardo DiCaprio’s character Cobb both wearing leather jackets for the initial ‘Inception’ sequence?

JK: Arthur’s character was a cab driver in this dream and Cobb’s character was a kidnapper/thug. To be true to the scene and convincing to Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy’s character), they were dressed accordingly. Their leather jackets were different in fit and style but still kept a cohesive look respecting the architect and the dream.

In an early scene Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Arthur wears a green raincoat. This was an original design by Jeffrey Kurland.

COF: How important was your use of colour and texture in the film, particularly with regards to the high quality 65 mm shooting format showing up every detail?

JK: All of the costumes and the fabrications for Inception were carefully chosen for their texture, patterns, and colors. Each character had a palette that was symbiotic with their character and style. I especially enjoyed working with director of photography Wally Pfister whose light and shadows complimented and defined the patterns and colors in the costumes.

In fact, Jeffrey designed every item of clothing for the principals, including a casual black and tan linen shirt worn by Leonardo DiCaprio. As with all the shirts it was made by Anto. Collar stands varied depending on other clothing requirements, e.g. necktie knots, jacket weight.

With thanks to Jeffrey Kurland. Read our follow up Inception Q&A HERE.

Jeffrey is currently working on Captain America: The First Avenger with Anna B. Sheppard, due for release on 22nd July, 2011.

© 2010 – 2018, Lord Christopher Laverty.


  • FlashFookersSqueeze

    Knowing that absolutely nothing is left to chance in terms of what appears on the screen, it is always fascinating to me to learn about the thought processes of the artisans involved, especially with things like the choice of clothing that a character wears. The devil is in the details, and little things like the fact that a character wears an antique watch, add so much to the final product.

    Thank you so much for this interview and the insights.

  • Alicia

    The children aren’t wearing the same clothes in the final scene? THIS CHANGES EVERYTHING.

  • Michael

    I was wondering about the significance of Joseph Gordon Levitt’s vest obsession. They rocked.

    • Chris Laverty

      I wouldn’t want to speak for Jeffrey, but judging by what he told me in the interview, Arthur’s dress style was entirely organic. The 3 PC suits just became his ‘look’ for the film over the course of production.

    • Jeremiah

      I also think the actor JGL likes vests. Wears a lot of dress casual clothes in 300 days of Summer. He has really good style.

  • JN

    Glad to see some official confirmation on the clothing differences (I had already noticed this, but it’s been difficult to convince people). The children are also older, BTW.

    Anyway, I mainly decided to comment because I think that Kurland nailed this one perfectly. Virtually everybody in this film looks classy, sharp and sophisticated – I’d KILL to have this guy design just one suit for me.

  • cbeanshop

    Jefferey Kurland did a beautiful job of creating a futuristic yet timeless silhouette for this film.

  • Len

    Great interview, thanks!

    However, would you happen to have more info as to the specifics of Eames’ watch and also the footwear in the film? Some really interesting choices there, from JGL’s spectator boots to the many quite unique ones worn by Eames.

    In designing a character whose dress sense could be described as eccentric, some costume designers tend to go a bit overboard to the degree that one only sees the clothes, not the performance, but here Jeffrey did a brilliant job with Eames’ wardrobe (well, obviously the other characters too, but I think Eames is the standout here). Very unique, but never did it steal the show.

    • Chris Laverty

      I’ve had a few points raised about the clothing in Inception not covered by the Q&A. I do not have a direct line to Jeffrey, but if there are enough worthwhile questions to ask I’ll get in contact again for a follow up interview. Keep posting them here and we’ll see what we can come up with.

  • Rachael

    Great interview. It’s amazing how much time, thought, and work goes into this and it really shows in the film because every single detail was perfect.

  • Kevin

    Great interview! I have got to know what antique piece Eames was wearing. Also, what were the other watches being worn by the actors? I spotted a Tag Caliber 5 I believe, and perhaps an IWC Mark XVI on JGL?

  • Mike

    Stirring the pot: Seeing the children in different clothing does not necessarily means Dom is not in the dream. (sorry, spoiler) Mal changes clothes several times during the movie, and since she’s also in his memory, she should only have one costume also.

    Given that, Dom may have just “wished” it so badly, that he was able to “alter” his memory of his children to make him think he’s out by changing their clothes!

    • Ana

      I agree. The characters constantly change clothes through the movies and Cobb already grew old and saw Mal growing old on the ideal world dream. So I still stick to my theory that Mal was right.

  • Jacky

    Jeffrey achieved the most incredible look for this film: the perfect balance of futuristic yet timeless (thank you, I would never put it into words). I love every piece of clothing in this movie, especially JGL’s gorgeous vests (the printed silk lining for the back? oh yeah, quietly stunning). Every character has such a special, unique look, and yet there’s also an overall subtleness that makes the clothes blend into the characters. Truly amazing. I am so in love with this look and I wish that someday I could maybe do the same.

  • Lana BStar

    Mr. Laverty-
    I hope you do a follow up interview! I’d be very interested to hear more about the process of custom making the clothing, choosing the palettes for each character and why he choose them, were the costume choices heavily influenced by the cast itself or more influenced by the written character, a more fleshed out description on Eames’s wardrobe (he looked fabulous,the proportions were so perfect for the actor), and how the pieces that weren’t custom made were found and chosen.

    I guess basically I would love to hear more about the whole thought process and actual production process of the clothing. The costuming really was stunningly well done, just like everything else in the film.

    If you can’t do a followup I of course understand, I’m sure you and Kurland are both very busy, and let me just say I really did enjoy this interview, it’s well done and your captions with their added bits of information are a nice touch.

    • Chris Laverty

      Thanks Lana. You raise some well thought out points I’d like to bring up in another interview. I am toying with the idea of waiting for the blu-ray though, just so I can pour over the costumes in minute detail. I’ll see. I happen to know a colleague of mine (who occasionally writes for this site) will hopefully be talking to Jeffrey about the clothes in Inception very soon. I will keep you all posted.

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  • Nikki

    Loved reading this. I didn’t notice that the children had on different clothes in the end…nor that they were possibly a bit older but this definitely has my mind churning again lol. It’s just one of those movies u have 2 see more than once. I loved the wardrobe. I really wish there was a photo up of Joseph-Gordon Levitt (Arthur) when he was wearing the suit & bow-tie. He looked so dapper!!!

  • Rob O.

    It was interesting that, while the clothing for the older men (Ken Watanabe & Michael Caine) were forward thinking, the wardrobe for Arthur (one of the younger men in the ensemble) seemed anachronistic. I suspect it was intentional to create a tension between Arthur’s age & energy versus the stuffiness of the suits & footwear that reinforced the character’s rigidity that Eames commented on.

    • Rob O.

      And another thing about Arthur’s look that struck me…

      I would not (at first blush, anyway) think this was intentional, but Arthur’s slightly stiff mannerisms, overly-formal attire, and physical prowess is very reminiscent of Hugo Weaving’s Agent Smith in “The Matrix.”

    • Chris Laverty

      I wouldn’t imagine that was intentional either, but The Matrix comparisons are all valid.

      My own personal epiphany was that Cillian Murphy’s character is the best dressed in the film (in terms of interpretation and style). I’ll write an article at some point.

  • Scarf Quest

    Totally unimpressed with the lack of answers on Ellen’s scarves. Not to talk smack, but he totally overdid the scarves to a point where it was completely laughable.

    “…to best serve the emotional and physical needs of each of the characters.”

    Really? So, she has a cold neck? Or the lack of screen time presence for her neck is a metaphor for some emotional shortcoming? I can’t remember the last time that wardrobe took me out of a film like this.

    I’m curious if it’s something he’d fix if he had a second go at it.

  • Rob O.

    I’m not normally one to even notice this stuff so much, but I’m really smitten with the navy flannel shirt that Cobb is wearing when Arthur meets him in the high-rise hotel after the initial failed mission. The pattern and/or texture of that shirt strikes me as “ruggedly elegant.” Any idea if that was also custom-made for the film?

  • Corey

    Not sure if anybody picked up on it throughout the film, but what about the presence and the lack of Cobb’s wedding ring in different parts throughout.

  • Jon

    This is probably a dumb question, but what happens to the clothes after the film? Specifically, I would pay good money for even a replica of Leonardo’s shirt and tie from the airplane scene.

    (Just watched the film again today and was struck by the elegance of the tie. From afar it looks solid, from an angle it looks like it’s striped in one direction, but only when you look at it up close do you see the intricate diagonal stripes in both directions.)

    • Chris Laverty

      Jeffrey Kurland worked with production designer Wally Pfister so I’m not surprised that clever patterns and shapes are incorporated into the accessories.

      As far as what happens to the costumes, it varies for each individual film really. I would imagine that for Inception, with the majority of the outfits being custom made, they would go on display at some point or have been retained by the actors or studio. I’m sure replicas of the costumes will show up soon enough, though likely without Jeffrey Kurland’s consent. Or maybe he will do a tie-in range like Janie Bryant did for Mad Men? I kinda doubt it though.

  • Iza

    Great interview, thank you. I have never been so impressed by clothes in any movie, so I appreciate the chance to find out a little more about it. And it is unbelievable to me that such a meaningless thing as clothing may seem to be here plays a very meaningful role. It means that the director cares about each detail of his work – praiseworthy. I am going to watch the film again next week, so probably I will have some questions then.

  • G'c

    Hi Chris! Thanks for the wonderful interview. I am a member of and we desperately wanted to know whether the leather jackets worn by both Cobb and Arthur were also, as you say, custom made, or is there a source whether the manufacturer is traceable? I would certainly want to have the leather jacket in the exact same style worn by Cobb. Thanks once again!

  • FF

    They should find an outlet that would do an ‘Inception collection’; they’d clean up.

  • Chad

    I was wondering if a film like FEDERICO FELLINI’S MASTERPIECE, 8 1/2 played into the Costume Design?

  • oliverbeer

    Awesome film and some very stylish clothes, just as a jacket obsesive myself, could someone let me know who produces the the camo ski suits, they are fantastic.
    cheers, OB

  • Mark J Belcher

    No ones talking about the white ski suits – fantastic imaging

  • laura

    im dying to know who the designer is for the navy blue long dress that one of the characters wear! Im obsessed! its the third pic! please respond! thanks!

  • mrmareca83

    I think the wardrobe was awesome especially joseph gordon-levitt and tom hardy…. I swore I was looking at pieces from fashion forward brands like Etro and some of the ties and shirts looked plain like something from Banana Republic LoL! Mr. Kurland did an absolutely awesome job with the wadrobe and costumes…. Ellen Page looked very nice also…. The new Xmen 1st class movie has costume and wardrobe set up like Inception, pieces and outfits that really jump out and catch your eye very well done

  • Em

    Yes the snowsuits are incredible, but what I particularly love was the Knitwear piece underneath the suit with the futuristic neck-covering collar. Truly inspiring piece from a knitwear perspective.
    Anyone able to find a pic of this I will love forever!

  • Koray Oba

    Hello, I am from Turkey and I have seen on Turkey’s most popular newspaper Hurriyet that the suits that the actors are wearing were all made in Eskisehir, Turkey. Here is the website:
    Also the company which is said to have produced the suits put the same news on their site:
    Of course most of you do not speak Turkish, but here it says exactly what I say: The suits of the movie were made in Turkey!

    It’s a bit weird because here it says in this site: “Each costume was cut and assembled by talented artisans: tailor Dennis Kim, dressmaker Mary Ellen Fields of Hargate Costumes, shirt maker Anto of Beverly Hills, and an army of seamstresses and finishers. Ager dyers and fabric specialists added to the mix.”

    There is something wrong or some kind of a misunderstanding going around. I hope who has a slight idea would express their opinion…

  • SA0926

    Can someone please tell me where I can find the cufflinks Cillan Murphy was wearing while in the plane? I am looking for them or at least the designer….PLEASE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • Eng Sara

    I think the wardrobe was awesome especially I swore I was looking at pieces from fashion forward brands like Etro and some of the ties and shirts looked plain like something from Banana Republic LoL! Mr. Kurland did an absolutely awesome job with the wadrobe and costumes…. Ellen Page looked very nice also…. The new Xmen 1st class movie has costume and wardrobe set up like Inception, pieces and outfits that really jump out and catch your eye very well done








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