Kirsten Dunst's Contemporary '60s Style In 'The Two Faces of January'
Her new film's costume designer, Steven Noble, talks process, inspiration and how to make period pieces feel fresh.
When outfitting the cast (and 3,000 extras) for director
Hossein Amin's The Two Faces of January, which opens today, costume designer Steven Noble considered both the past and present. Adapted from Patricia Highsmith's novel, the stylish thriller is set in 1962 Greece and Istanbul, and stars Kirsten Dunst as Colette MacFarland, young wife of Chester MacFarland (played by Viggo Mortensen). While traveling abroad, they befriend a con artist named Rydal (Oscar Isaac), and the trio find themselves on the run together following a murder. Costumes play a huge role in the film's aesthetic, mood and character. Before hopping on a flight to London, designer Noble (who also did the costumes for Under the Skin, Wuthering Heights and Never Let Me Go) told us all about his process, Dunst's signature silhouette and how to make period pieces feel contemporary.
What was your inspiration for the overall concept of the film's costumes? "I wanted something fresher, sexier and sort of more relevant to a modern audience but still keeping true to the period there as well. So that was sort of my inspiration, and I just [threw] myself onto magazines and journals and photographs of the period."
Looking at the costumes, especially those worn by Kirsten Dunst, the lines are so clean and very '60s, but somehow modern—as if we could almost wear these pieces today. How did you do it? "Yes, a lot of people have said that, and to be honest, I don't really know how! But that's what I wanted to achieve. Everything they're wearing, the three main characters, was all designed and made based on different pieces of original clothing, put together and altered. So it's hard to say, really, what makes it contemporary, it's one of those things that's come together, you know what I mean?"
Absolutely. Especially since '60s-inspired fashion is such a force in popular culture today, thanks in part to shows like Mad Men. Which of the period's design elements resonated most with you? "Well, we'd just come out of the '50s, which was all the big circle skirts and that sort of thing. So for Kirsten, [we did a] slim silhouette, which I took from the book, The Two Faces of January. There's a very nice description that [author] Patricia Highsmith gives of [Kirsten's character] Colette in the book, about her hourglass figure and the silhouettes she created in the pencil skirt. So that sort of inspired me [to do] a silhouette for Kirsten."
How about the extras? "For the extras, we had 3,000 in total, they were all dressed, I sort of thought about where we were, in rural Greece, and it was probably more fashionable in Athens, and that was slightly backdated, to have a contrast."
How did you reflect Kirsten's character, Colette, through her costumes? What's your process for that? "As soon as you read the script, you very easily—most times—visualize immediately after reading a few pages what you think they should look like. And then some actors see a completely different person to what you thought, and what you were going to do. So for Kirsten, to [take the] fashion for the time and keep it slightly contemporary, we took away quite a lot of the accessories that she should have been wearing. We just toned it down. She should have always had gloves on, a hat and stuff. So we pared everything down to make it much more simplistic."
Did you make that choice based on her character? "Well, the concept was period but modern, so [we had to consider] in the background of the film, she lives in New York and she's a fashion journalist before she met [her husband] Chester. Also [there was] the 'golden age of travel' sort of thing. You have to think about traveling abroad, how much clothes they can take with them and fit into a suitcase, and obviously, you had new fabrics being developed at that time, it was a really exciting new decade in fashion, really. So I just wanted to keep it chic and simple."
Chic and simple definitely describes much of the wardrobe's color palette—you used lots of gorgeous pale tones, cream and sand. What inspired those tones? "I went to the location before, in my prep, and took lots and lots of color swatches and fabric swatches. My original concept was to make the [costumes] a bit brighter, or colorful, to make them pop against the cream of all the buildings and the Parthenon. But once I got there and saw how beautiful the light was and the Parthenon was just mind-blowing, it was so beautiful. The pale colors looked so beautiful, so that's where that came from: the location's light and architecture and colors. And then I tried to make it go a little darker in costume as the movie goes on; it becomes darker and they sort of become darker in my clothing as well."
Is there a signature piece you associate with Colette? "There is one but we didn't use it! There's quite a big chunk in the beginning of the film that they didn't use at all, and it's so beautiful and just sums her up gorgeously. Literally when we shot it, we start off with Chester and Colette on a big cruise liner going into the canal in Athens. They're in bed, and she's got on a beautiful black lace negligee, and he goes out onto the deck to have a cigarette, and she follows him, and just puts on a fur coat on top of the negligee with a pair of sling-back, kitten-heel mules. And it just looked stunningly beautiful with the black and the color of the coat. That sums up the character for me. But after saying that, I'm still a big fan of a black evening dress she wears when she goes to dinner with Chester, Rydal and his girlfriend. It's a beautiful piece, it's slightly risqué, slightly inspired by a piece I saw by Nina Ricci."
What a fascinating example of using costumes to evoke a fantasy world and cinematic aesthetic. Do you work that way often? "What I do like to do a lot—and if you've seen any other of my films you'll probably notice it—is, I do like to take a period and create something new, [as I did with] Never Let Me Go with Keira Knightley, Carey Mulligan and Andrew Garfield. I just like to take inspiration from whatever period you're working in, but develop it and play with ideas [to create] something interesting."
Finally, how can readers take style inspiration from The Two Faces of January and translate it into real life? Any fashion advice to share? "To be honest, people have asked me be before and it's probably not the answer you want to hear, but wear what you want to wear. Be unique and don't be scared of anything!"