Dunkirk: Costuming one of the darkest hours of Britain’s history

Dunkirk is one of those films that everyone should watch. Christopher Nolan, masterful architect of mind bending movies such as Inception and Interstellar, has turned his deft hand to the devastating events of the Dunkirk Evacuation of May and June 1940. A colossal number of British, French and Belgian troops were cut off and surrounded by German troops in the small town and beaches of Dunkirk. It’s a story that’s previously been covered in films; see the 1958 film Dunkirk and the beautiful 5-minute tracking shot from 2007’s Atonement. However, nothing has quite matched the scale of Nolan’s Dunkirk, telling the story of land, sea and air battles over a period of a week, a month, and an hour. I actually won tickets to see the movie, courtesy of the lovely guys at Perpetually Pensive (check out their awesome podcast here!), so I had the chance to do a little bit of research beforehand. I also found out that my great-great uncle was an R.A.F pilot who assisted with the Dunkirk evacuation, after talking to my grandmother. Turns out this really made the emotional impact of the movie hit that little bit harder; I was on the verge of tears more times than I could count, and cried a few times. It’s hard not to, with such an intensely emotional movie, and I was at the edge of my seat for the entire film.

First of all, the sound design in this movie is absolutely incredible. I know this blog is here to focus on costume, but it couldn’t go unsaid; the sound designers of Dunkirk are artists. The screaming of the fighter pilots, the crashing of the waves, the men’s shouts; it’s such an intense experience, that’s definitely best watched in a cinema. Hans Zimmer composed the music of the movie, using Shepard Tone’s – creating palpable tension throughout the two hour run time.

And now – onto the costumes. Dunkirk was designed by Jeffery Kurland, a previous collaborator of Christopher Nolan’s, who also designed for the 2010 mindbender that was Inception. It’s easy to assume that this design task was an easy feat – after all, it’s a movie based on a real event, with massive amounts of reference material. Also, most of the men in the movie wear the exact same uniform. So it’s easy to assume that it wasn’t too much of a feat. However, this would be wrong. The wardrobe supervisor in me squealed every time a battalion of men went into the water – yes, it was dramatic, but all I could think of was the sheer number of costumes needed for this movie, not to mention the countless doubles needed after submerging the actors in salt water. My suspicious proved true; Kurland noted in an interview with Clothes On Film that the costumes all had to be made specifically for the film, due to the sheer number of costumes needed. They also couldn’t rent, as the costumes would be essentially ruined at the end of each shoot.

British soldiers right before a bomb hits.

However, Kurland did a beautiful job costuming the soldiers; designing each of the leads in such a way that they remained distinguishable, yet tied together. When costuming a cast of this size, in essentially the same outfit, it can be a huge challenge to give these men faces and stories, when on the surface, they’re a sea of brown, green and beige bodies. However; every lead wears their costume in a different way; Tommy, played by Fionn Whitehead, wears a huge coat throughout, differentiating his silhouette, and to me, emphasising his youth and fragility. The coat looks huge on him. Gibson, played by Anuerin Banard, wears a costume that’s slightly ill-fitting, and the reason for this becomes apparent throughout; he’s actually a French soldier, hoping to escape with a British uniform and name tag. Small, subtle details like this are an area that Kurland excels in; and the fabrics used are so  perfect you can almost feel the rough wool of Tommy’s coat, or the hand-knit pullovers of the civilian rescuers.

Harry Styles as Alex, Anuerin Banard as Gibson, and Fionn Whitehead as Tommy.

Another area in which Kurland excelled was making the civilians so realistic – and so British. These men, the heroes of the story, are kitted out in knitwear that’s clearly handmade, with dropped stitches and completely believable ageing. It’s clear to the audience that the civilians are living in a time of rationing and of hand-me-downs; when’s the last time that the heroes of the story arrive in hand-knit jumpers on little tiny tugboats? Kurland noted that the knits were all provided by one woman from Surrey in England, and were knitted at home in her little bungalow. It’s all of these small touches and loving additions that make Dunkirk such a pleasure to watch as a costume designer. It would have been easy for the costumes to be unremarkable; the very standard 1940’s designs that we’ve all come to recognise, but they really do stand out. It’s a wonderful example of how clothes tell stories on film, and how they weave the character’s narratives and personalities into every little detail.

Tom Glynn-Carney as Peter and Cillian Murphy as ‘The Shivering Soldier’

A final note on the costume design; colour is used beautifully in Dunkirk. It’s easy for the eye to get bored with seas of one colour; but the believable ageing of the soldiers uniforms provided so many different tones and textures, that your eye was always draw to the screen. We were shown soldiers at different stages of undress, with different coats, hats, bandages, ect. They were all the same, yet all different. The colour palette of the film was clear; the blues, greys, greens, and browns of the beach, sea and sky were all completely cohesive, but the rich warm interiors of the boat, combined with Peter’s red jumper, provided a different world for us to step into – a little taste of home, just off the coast of France.

I loved Dunkirk – I can’t recommend it highly enough. It’s not a comfortable watch, or particularly even an enjoyable one, but it really makes you feel so many things. Despair, sadness, grief, and loss, yes, but also hope, happiness and pride. It’s so moving to think of what these men went through, and I’m so glad we now have an adaption of events that seems to truly convey the triumphs and horrors of war. Amazing – and go while it’s still in the cinemas; it’s an experience that I don’t think will have the same impact on the small screen.

Well done, Christopher Nolan and Jeffery Kurland.

Till next time,

Liz xo


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