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Darkest Hour Interview: Costume Designer and Double Oscar Nominee Jacqueline Durran

As the Second World War blockbuster Darkest Hour hits the silver screen and tensions mount for the coming Academy Awards, Luxury London talks to costume designer and double Oscar nominee Jacqueline Durran about the city’s starring role

One of Sir Winston Churchill’s most famous quotes is ‘my tastes are simple: I am easily satisfied with the best’. Yet, less than half an hour into director Joe Wright’s new film Darkest Hour, which focuses on Churchill’s (played by Gary Oldman) first five weeks as prime minister in 1940, it is quite apparent that his tastes were, in fact, very specific and unconventional.

His unusual routine – such as his penchant for alcohol with every meal (including breakfast), and a nap at 4pm every day – plus his occasional brutish nature, made Churchill unpopular. Meanwhile, opposition from within his own cabinet about his decision not to negotiate with Nazi Germany made his job as prime minister at such a crucial time in British history even more of a struggle.

Darkest Hour dramatises Churchill’s personal battle within the wider context of the war, and explores sides that are often forgotten – such as his problems with depression. Writer Anthony McCarten (The Theory of Everything) once again brings humanity to a renowned figure, for whom myth often precedes truth.

Another reason why Churchill remains so recognisable is his distinct sense of style – although it may not have been simple, he certainly chose the best. He shopped for his attire mostly in St. James’s and Mayfair, where he conducted secret meetings in his makeshift war bunker in the disused Down Street underground station. The area became the starting point for sourcing Oldman’s wardrobe for the film, which was put together by costume designer Jacqueline Durran whose previous work with Wright includes Atonement and Anna Karenina, for which she won an Academy Award in 2013.

“I think it was about trying to make the most authentic picture of Churchill. We wanted, if we could, to tap into the skills that were there when he bought clothes from those suppliers,” she describes. “We decided right from the beginning that we didn’t want to stylise it... we wanted to keep quite close to the reality. A lot of the references were photographs of the actual people; it’s rare to work on a film where everyone is so photographed.”

While Churchill had more than one tailor, for Darkest Hour Oldman was measured up by Henry Poole & Co. The Savile Row tailor still offers the chalk stripe fabric that was made especially for the prime minister – it is even woven in the same Fox Brothers mill. Henry Poole also made Ben Mendelsohn’s costumes for the character of King George VI: the naval suit and the classic blue.

One of Churchill’s most famous garments was the siren suit he designed himself – he coined them his ‘rompers’. They were effectively boiler suits, but Churchill had them made in an array of fabrics and colours for every occasion, most notably in green velvet by Turnbull & Asser. Unfortunately, the siren suit doesn’t appear in the film, however Turnbull & Asser was called on to make shirts and that familiar spotty bow tie.

Just around the corner from Turnbull & Asser is Lock & Co Hatters of 6 St. James’s Street, which made Churchill’s vast selection of headwear. In Darkest Hour, a throng of hats is displayed beautifully on the wall in a scene where he is selecting which style to wear. Oldman’s Churchill ponders aloud which version of himself he should be that day.

Elsewhere, Breguet recreated the No. 765 pocket watch for the film, which was affectionately called ‘the turnip’ by Churchill and his family. In Breguet: Art & Innovation in Watchmaking, it is noted: “In 1946, according to the Breguet records, Breguet offered the British leader the complete refurbishment of his watch ‘in homage to the role he played during the war’. In return, Churchill gave Breguet a copy of his book Into Battle, with an inscription to Breguet by the author.”

There are few scenes in the film where Oldman isn’t smoking, or at least holding, a cigar; in fact, it is how we are first introduced to his character. He lights one up in bed and the flame illuminates his face. In preparation for the role, Oldman visited the James J. Fox cigar shop where Churchill was a regular customer, and spoke to store manager and master of Habanos, Dirk Seyfried.

“One of the customary cigar sizes for Cuban cigars is called ‘Churchill’ and the size is always a seven-inch 47 ring gauge, which is pretty big, certainly in length,” says Seyfried. “It was all about finding the perfect aesthetic of cigar size to hand, as well as the shade. The Romeo y Julieta Churchill is synonymous with the man himself, but Mr Oldman tried a few cigars with a slight variation in size. His attention to detail for the role was impressive.”

One aspect of Churchill’s costume where Durran had room to exercise some creative license was his nightwear. “In the pictures he wears a dressing gown that has a bold Chinese dragon pattern on it,” says Durran.

“We decided not to try and reproduce that exact pattern but to do something in the spirit of it, in a colour that would be more in keeping with the film. We actually don’t know what colour that dressing gown was because there are only black and white pictures.”

In the film, Churchill’s nightwear is a pale, satiny pink. When it came to introducing colour to scenes where many of the photographic references were in black and white, and in a world that was very ‘make do and mend’, Durran took inspiration from the photographer Gisèle Freund. “She had a very muted palette in a lot of her pictures, but there were some quite definite colours within that,” the designer explains.

In its entirety, Oldman’s transformation in the film is quite extraordinary. The actor approached special effects artist Kazuhiro Tsuji personally and told him he would only take on the role if Tsuji was on board. Oldman, Wright, Tsuji and Durran then spent six months experimenting and developing the various components that made up the character, before they even began filming.

“I went to America twice to see Gary before he arrived in London to start work on the film,” says Durran. “I think once we started to see the silhouette of Churchill come together – with the prosthetic, costume, stance, cane and all the other things – that was the highlight for me.”

Darkest Hour is a celebration of British eccentricity and a rousing example of how individuality and conviction can triumph, even in the gloomiest of times. In a world full of dark suits, Churchill shone magnificently

Darkest Hour is in cinemas now