Tinkering with a spy's tailoring

The devil is in the detail and the suit when designing costumes for spies. By Philippa Hawker.

The devil is in the detail and the suit when designing costumes for spies. By Philippa Hawker.

MEN in suits. That's what the brief was, for costume designer Jacqueline Durran when she signed on to Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, the film adaptation of John le Carre's celebrated novel of espionage and betrayal. Suits are a far cry from the period flourishes of Pride and Prejudice, for which she was nominated for a BAFTA and an Oscar, and there's no chance to design anything like the emerald green dress that Keira Knightley wore in Atonement, another of Durran's projects.

Yet it was the constraint, she says, that made it interesting because of the narrow spectrum, the differentiating detail became vital.

Durran came to her career indirectly. She studied philosophy at university before realising, in her mid-twenties, that she wanted to be a costume designer for film. She knew no one who worked in the area but eventually got a start assisting costume designer Lindy Hemming, who worked for English director Mike Leigh. And a few years later, when Hemming couldn't do Leigh's 2002 film All Or Nothing, she recommended Durran for the job.

You could be forgiven for thinking that Leigh, with his stark, often downbeat and dour embrace of realism, would not spend much time thinking about costumes. But you would be wrong. Leigh, says Durran, is "very interested in the idea that the way someone looks reveals the character". What's more, Leigh's painstaking, often improvisatory methods of preparation enhance this further.

"Because the actors work on their characters for a long time, and it's such a precise portrayal, the costumes can be extremely precise as well."

She has had the experience, she notes, of being an assistant on films in which the directors are not particularly interested in what their characters are wearing, and it's a miserable task.

The costume designer's job, as far as she is concerned, is completely focused on giving the director what he or she wants. And if they don't really care, there is almost nowhere for you to go.

The director of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Swedish filmmaker Tomas Alfredson (Let The Right One In) is an example of someone who cares, she hastens to add.

For the central character of George Smiley, a former agent who comes out of retirement to hunt down a highly placed mole inside British intelligence, Alfredson gave her a specific brief.

He handed her some photographs of author (and sometime spy) Graham Greene "that he felt were very Smiley. That was how he imagined him. And it mainly had to do with his reversible mac." She went to the traditional firm Aquascutum, who remade one of their archive styles for the production.

Smiley is played by Gary Oldman in a performance of wonderfully recessive intensity and restraint. Oldman worked with Leigh, very early in his career, in Meantime (1985), and Durran says it's quite likely that this influenced Oldman's approach to what he wears as an actor.

"Gary is interested from the character point of view in the thing being right, not in style for style's sake." It was Oldman who tracked down an accessory they spent a long time searching for a key element of his character's self-presentation his spectacles.

The figures of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy are almost all men of a certain class and age. The film is set in the 1970s, but the principal characters were not slaves to fashion: they were the sort of people, Durran says, who wore the same suits for many years. To create their wardrobe, she went to a Savile Row tailor who made costumes based on original sample suits from the 1950s.

Her task was about limitations, she says. "You're not making bold statements or great dresses or anything eye-catching." But small things are being conveyed, all the same. That Toby Esterhase (David Dencik) wears a bow tie with his suits, she says, tells you he is not English. And that Bill Haydon (Colin Firth) wears red socks is an equally clear signifier. "It's an upper-middle-class English thing, the red or yellow sock."

But one of her greatest challenges was getting bespoke suits made, with duplicates, by Savile Row tailors working not to their own timetables, but to the imperatives of the film industry. In fact, she says, "it was a nightmare trying to get them to do in three weeks what they will take two months to do".

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