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At Louis Vuitton’s fall 2012 show, models emerged from an old-fashioned train car onto the runway, uniformed porters following behind with their luggage. Fashion’s obsession with railroads hasn’t waned since: Brands ranging from Bebe to H&M to Lacoste have all shot recent campaigns in or around trains.
Despite the current state of the MTA, there’s still something so glamorous about railway travel. For further proof, consider the stunning period costumes in Murder on the Orient Express. Based on Agatha Christie’s 1934 murder mystery novel, the film follows a group of passengers on the iconic Orient Express as it hurtles through snowy mountains. When one turns up dead, everyone becomes a suspect, and it’s up to mustachioed detective Hercule Poirot (director Kenneth Branagh) to crack the case.
Each key player’s look is noteworthy, from Judi Dench’s ornately attired Princess Dragomiroff to Daisy Ridley’s more practically dressed Mary Debenham, and the characters’ clothes reflect their outsized personalities. For costume designer Alexandra Byrne — who also worked with Branagh on Hamlet, Thor, and more — finding the right wardrobe involved extensive research and lots of planning. In fact, the outfits themselves are part of the mystery; look closely, and you might notice clues hidden in the clothing. Below, Byrne discusses the particular challenges of ’30s costumes, the tricky issue with shooting movies in the snow, and why designers are so darn obsessed with trains in the first place.
What was your starting point for designing the costumes for this film?
I started the way I always do: with the script. I read it, I cross-referenced it, and I got into detective mode. Then I got together with Ken and talked about what stories we wanted to tell [through costume].
The majority of the characters, when we first meet them, are not dressed as who they really are; they’re pretending to be somebody else. So I wanted to do sort of a practical map of [everything that happened from] before the murder so that I had a backbone to find how they would dress as this other person they’re pretending to be.
I wanted people to believe in these characters until we get to the end of the film, to the reveal. How I dressed them had to have integrity and credibility, so that if you wanted to backtrack through it, it would all make sense. It was quite complicated to work all that out.
Did any characters prove especially challenging to work out?
It was all challenging! Because it doesn’t just stop there, with the research. By that time we knew what most of the casting was going to be, and that brings a whole other set of components in terms of defining the character.
I started to pull together racks of early 20th-century pieces because I wanted the actors to try them on. When they start putting things on, you learn about the actor, about their shape, their proportions, their coloring, what sort of patterns they can wear. It becomes a very organic process both through research and me gathering images and actually beginning to define the character with the actor. I think the real challenge was making it work for all these characters to be in this confined space together and work with the story, so we’re not giving distracting information. There’s a subtlety as to how to put all the information together and tell a balanced story.
Did you source the final pieces or make them yourself?
We were always planning to make most of them. Most of the existing pieces are around 70 years old, so there are some [vintage] pieces we used, but they’re mainly the accessories and jewelry. And people have different shapes today. We tend to have a different physique. We found that a lot of the items were a little bit tired or a little bit faded. So much of it was cut on a bias, so it’s all changed its shape. These older pieces ended up being more useful for giving us information on how the garments worked, how the proportions worked, how shapes and tailoring worked. In most cases we made things, especially since it had to be such a balanced composition.
And you had some of the fabrics specially made, correct?
Fabric is always the greatest challenge. I’m going to get very detailed and boring here: Some of the men’s suits, we had them made because there’s a difference between English and American and European tailoring for men. It has to do with the cut, but also with the type of cloth. A lot of English tailoring is made in quite a heavy wool, and to get a wool at that weight would be quite dense and thick. You can’t get that kind of wool to behave the way you want it to. So we did have some of the suits made in Scotland.
And with the women’s dresses, finding rayons and crepes that were the right weight and held the right drape was difficult too. So again, we made them. We dyed them and we printed them.
That’s a lot of work!
It was a lot of work. But it’s good work. You can find yourself just getting overly involved in the detail. I should also mention that one of the challenges of this story is that people are confined in a railway carriage — and because it’s winter, the background is snow. So they’re against a predominately white background a lot of the time. That means there’s a very particular use of color. I was being very specific about colors, which is why we dyed and made a lot of the fabrics. With the white background, color becomes very, very important.
In terms of inspiration, did you look to any specific designers from that time period?
There are so many pieces of imagery you can find from the time, like fashion illustrations, and you can also find general photographs. We had that sort of divide like we have today, with fashion versus real clothes. That was very interesting. I looked at a lot of designers, but I also looked at a lot of archived photographs as well.
Caroline Hubbard’s (Michelle Pfeiffer) look is so striking. Tell me about designing her character.
Christie described her as a “woman who walks too loud.” She’s a little bit too much, which is quite a difficult thing to do on camera. I wanted the audience to like her and not to laugh at her; that’s a very fine balance. I worked very closely with her hair and makeup team as well. She’s an actress, so she’s very used to wearing clothes as a performance.
We came up with this idea that we would make her the professional tourist. Everything she wears has something to do with where she’s been, or where she’s traveling to. When we meet her in Istanbul, she’s been traveling in the Middle East, so one of the dresses she wears on the train is decorated with Syrian embroidery.
Are there any clues hidden in the film’s clothing?
I think my aim was that the details and the clues, if any, would [be revealed] in the denouement. People could flash back and go, “Oh, I remember she wore that earlier!” Like Pilar [Penelope Cruz], who’s wearing a crucifix when we’re introduced to her character. It’s a kind of layering of information. That was my intention. Whether it worked or not, I’m not quite sure!
A lot of fashion designers have shot campaigns on or around trains, or taken inspiration from these classic railroad travel looks. Why do you think that is?
Obviously this film is a very different time in train travel, when it was glamorous and expensive. Certainly traveling on trains in England now isn’t glamorous. But I think there’s a sense of event with traveling to a new destination. We all know that feeling of entering a tunnel: It’s dark, and then you emerge. There’s a sense of adventure to it, I think.
Do you think the aesthetic of a film like this has the potential to ripple out into the mainstream?
That's a difficult one, since I’m working from the other direction; I’m designing a period film that’s very much living in the world today. If you look at some of the older films about Elizabeth I, you can more or less guess which decade the film was made in. There’s always the flavor of the [current] era that’s influencing the period.
Whether the film itself will influence fashion, though, I don’t know. It would be nice to think it did. I will say the ’30s are one of my favorite periods. It’s very flattering both for men and women because it was the beginning of the bias cut. And I will say that when you work on a film for this long, the period does subtly influence how you’re dressing yourself.
Murder on the Orient Express is out now.