Quite a bit has been written about the emerald green dress actress Keira Knightley wears in Atonement, the twisting, romantic drama released on this day in 2007. Costume designer Jacqueline Durran was nominated for an Academy Award for her efforts (she lost to Alexandra Byrne for Elizabeth: The Golden Age), and journalists quickly performed linguistic back-flips to describe the filmy slash of jeweled color Knightley wears as she is deflowered against a library bookshelf (my personal favorite line comes from a reviewer at the Washington Post who wrote, “Cecelia’s clinging green chemise…makes her look like a pinned insect”). To boot, the results of a poll conducted by Sky Movies and InStyle UK magazine went viral after readers voted the green dress the Best Costume in Film History, even beating out iconic mainstays such as Marilyn Monroe’s razor-pleated white dress from the Seven Year Itch and Scarlett O’Hara’s “curtains gown” from Gone with the Wind. A new generation of moviegoers have embraced Knightley and the green dress as the Audrey Hepburn and Breakfast at Tiffany’s LBD of their era. But while there’s a lot to be said about the green dress—and I will get there—all of the costumes throughout Atonement are remarkably well thought-out and beautifully constructed and deserve discussion.
The plot line of Atonement—and its costuming—is divided in two parts. The first half of the film occurs on a posh English estate on a sweltering summer day in 1935. The mood feels idyllic and carefree until the moment 13-year-old Briony Tallis sees her older sister Cecelia (Knightley) impulsively disrobe on the lawn in front of Robbie, a family friend. It’s a fleeting act of flirtation and power that Briony misinterprets to disastrous effects. The latter half of the film takes place in London and France during World War II. Life has changed considerably for the Tallis sisters, with both working in the city as nurses, and Robbie, now a low-ranking soldier separated from his troops. Likewise, their costumes have altered dramatically. At the estate, the trio wear light, bright and airy garments that reflect the earlier mood of the day. During wartime, their clothes take on a utilitarian and somber appearance; bulky sweaters and stiff uniforms serve as protection from the reality of desperation and separation.
As the film’s romantic love interests, Knightley and James McAvoy, who plays Robbie, are the stars, but the story is centered around Briony, who is portrayed at ages 13, 18 and, finally, toward the end of her life, by three different actresses. Durran, along with hair and makeup stylist Ivana Primorac, created three distinct looks for each stage of Briony’s life. Always in shades of pale, her garments illustrate the evolution into an adult, one consumed with guilt and atoning for decisions made as a child. But her clothing maintains identifying features: the childish collars, tucked shoulder seams and pale, innocent tones. As an adult, Briony’s skin remains free of makeup and her hairstyle barely wavers from a youthful bob. It’s as if Briony grew in height but was sexually stunted at age 13.
For her part, Cecelia appears lofty and untouchable in the first half of the film. No conversation about her filmy and diaphanous costumes can be had without acknowledging Knightley’s remarkably angular figure. The actress is always skinny, but in Atonement her frame seems especially frail and vulnerable. The comparison to Audrey Hepburn, who also made a particular dress famous despite her unfashionably sharp elbows, pointed shoulder blades and nonexistent hips, is not surprising. But in Knightley’s case, the costumes in the first half of the film wear her, rather than the other way around. She is a fitting hanger for these props that speak a language all their own. The green dress, especially, is the choice of an inexperienced, young woman who wants to appear devastatingly beautiful—and she does. But the dress is the seductress, not the woman; Cecelia follows along and submits to the effects of its powers. After she moves to the city, her costumes—and her body language—change. She is stronger now, and her fitted suits and bulky sweaters create a confidence and, surprisingly, sex appeal that comes from embodying those qualities, despite the fact that none of the latter garments have the showstopping appeal of the green dress. Now, she wears her clothes, and commands her destiny.
In a number of interviews, Durran says that director Joe Wright dictated everything about the costumes: the color, cut, silhouette and movement. For Knightley’s now-famous dress, Wright insisted that the costume be green. Adds Primorac, “Joe is very, very particular; he has a lot of style and a good eye. He knows more about fabric than anyone I’ve ever met.” To create the deeply saturated jewel tone Wright envisioned, Durran sourced three sheer fabrics in varying shades of green and layered them. Wright then sent the improvised swatch to a dye specialist, who, Durran says, “created the perfect green.”
The dress had a big job: It needed to portray grownup sexuality as imagined by a still-unsophisticated young woman, endure an erotic deflowering—while standing up, no less—and hold its own as the mood of the day darkens and the family’s future is swiftly shattered. “Making a dress that works while having sex standing up—it’s a bit tricky,” Wright told the Los Angeles Times, “I always had this idea that when Keira lifted her knee up, the dress would just fall away.”
The backless design came about because Wright wanted to shoot Knightley from behind, and the fluidity of movement comes from the bias-cut bodice and a straight-cut skirt. Forget the little black dress—the bias-cut is a style every woman should have in her closet, preferably in as many styles and colors as possible.
The result is a costume that is emotionally aspirational, exactly the kind of dress that captures the fairytale fantasy for a contemporary woman or girl. It is the same effect Hepburn’s LBD created in 1961, and it has fittingly become the fantasy for today. —Ali Basye
Cinemode is OTDIF’s ongoing compilation of the world’s most stylish films, a must-see list for fans of fashion. From Klute to Breakfast at Tiffany’s to Shaft, some of the greatest style inspiration comes from the characters and costumes in film. Bookmark Cinemode and check back often to read the growing list. The reviews, written with an eye specifically toward fashion, are added to On This Day In Fashion on the anniversary of the film’s release date.