How Dune’s Costume Designers Created the Definitive Sci-Fi Fashion Fantasy

Film costume departments regularly bring new worlds to life, but when Jacqueline West and Bob Morgan began work on Dune, they had to create an entire galaxy. Denis Villeneuve’s adaptation of Frank Herbert’s seminal science-fiction novel introduces a complex extraterrestrial kingdom where a multitude of planets—each with their own culture and social structure—play a key role in the narrative.

Herbert was known for his intricate world building, and the book doesn’t lack detail, so when Villeneuve decided to bring the story to the big screen, his cast and crew knew they had their work cut out for them. “It took an entire city, but it was thrilling,” says West over the phone from California. “Denis forces you to give the utmost to achieve a vision, and he felt so profoundly about this book. We had such an amazing crew of artists and talent working together, all there with the best of attitudes and ready to collaborate.”

Dune’s story of feudal monarchs, psychedelic drugs, and sandworms is a true original. The tale charts the journey of the Atreides family as they move from being nobility in their lush home on Caladan to taking stewardship of Arrakis, a desolate planet whose deserts are the only source of the galaxy’s most valuable commodity: the spice melange. Yet while the book has influenced everything from Star Wars to Mad Max, it wasn’t a surefire choice for adaptation. Despite its outsized impact on science fiction, Dune was for many years considered unfilmable. Filled with exposition and inner monologues, the 15 books (six written by Herbert and nine completed posthumously by his son Brian and writer Kevin J. Anderson) have a breadth that doesn’t necessarily lend itself to a visual medium. Multiple studios tried (and failed) to adapt Dune faithfully; David Lynch disowned his 1984 attempt, while directors like Alejandro Jodorowsky and Ridley Scott came close to production only to see their projects fizzle. When the announcement came in 2017 that Villeneuve was working on his version, then, its success was by no means a sure thing.

Chia Bella James

Aware of the project’s challenging history, West knew it would take a special director to do the books justice. Encouraged to meet with Villeneuve by Mary Parent, vice chairman of worldwide production for Legendary Studios, she connected with him over Skype and was immediately sold. “I loved his passion,” she remembers. “From the beginning, he had a very grounded take on everything, and after speaking with him, I thought to myself, This guy is going to make the real Dune.” Having brought tech-bro realness to David Fincher’s The Social Network and provided The Revenant’s tale of revenge with period-accurate grit, West had proven her versatility in costume design for a wide range of genres; still, she had reservations about taking on a sci-fi epic. “When I spoke to Mary, I told her that it wasn’t my genre and I had never done anything like this before,” she continues. “She, of course, assured me that was precisely why Denis wanted me to work with him.”

Though the plot takes place ten thousand years in the future, Villeneuve wasn’t interested in rehashing the standard sci-fi motifs. The austerity and sleekness that Hollywood uses to denote steps forward in time would have been antithetical to Herbert’s vision. In the book, Dune’s worlds are modeled after the feudal courts of medieval Europe. “Denis wanted to create a world that felt different from existing sci-fi films, so [there are] no aliens, no silver gadgets. Instead, you have a philosophical experience,” says West. “It’s a futuristic take on the past and immediately made me think of medieval references, ancient tarot cards, and alchemy. We went back to Greek tragedy, [as] I felt there was a correlation between the house of Atreus and the house of Atreides. Our references were primarily historical, and Denis loved that.”

With estimates for the number of costumes required to bring Dune to the screen in the hundreds, West enlisted Morgan to codesign. Friends and collaborators for years, they were able to work together seamlessly. Morgan’s experience as costume supervisor on blockbusters like Inception and Man of Steel also meant he knew what it took to work on the epic scale Dune required. “In our department alone, almost 200 artists came in, all for the love of this,” says Morgan. “Jacqueline and I know each other so well that everything ebbs and flows, and that’s important. We were constantly bouncing ideas off each other, and communication was crucial because of the scope of everything. There are hundreds of small decisions that have to be made [on our end] and with Denis, who gave us a wonderful framework and let us be creative within that space.”

With production in multiple countries—Budapest, Hungary, Jordan’s Wadi Rum valley, and the Stadlandet peninsula in Norway all stand in for Dune’s various planets—the logistical challenges were unique. “We were all Zooming before Zoom became a thing,” says Morgan. “We kept leapfrogging because it was so important to have a designer present in several places at one time to look at things as they were being drafted and draped.” Having worked as a fine artist in addition to his experience in costume design, Morgan compares the behind-the-scenes process to painting. “You start by yourself alone in a room, then there is that aha moment when you reveal everything in a gallery,” he says. “We’d been working for months, and though you have people checking in, there’s still that feeling when it’s all revealed. Suddenly there are hundreds of people all in costume coming together to film this big scene, and it’s so impressive to watch.”

Chia Bella James

The first costumes to come to fruition were Dune’s iconic stillsuits. Worn by the Fremen, the original inhabitants of the planet Arrakis, the suits are meant to repurpose bodily fluids like sweat into drinking water and are necessary for surviving the desert. “Stillsuits are a central element in the books, so we knew we had to get them right,” says Morgan. “[Ours] also had to fit a lot of different people and look as good on Jason Momoa, who is six feet four, as it does on Rebecca [Ferguson], who is petite and five feet five.” To perfect the concept, West and Morgan enlisted Jose Fernandez of Ironhead Studios. A sculptor and designer, Fernandez created Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman armor, Ben Affleck’s batsuit, and a host of other memorable superhero costumes. For Dune, his challenge was creating a practical piece that was still aesthetically pleasing. “The [stillsuits] are essentially survival gear for the harsh environment on Arrakis, [but] we were also filming in extreme temperatures,” says Morgan. “So they have to look like a functioning water distillery while allowing the actors to move and do their choreography.”

©Warner Bros/Courtesy Everett Collection

The final design, a greige jumpsuit with built-in body armor and an ease of movement inspired by tactical gear, was a hit. “The first time we had everyone try them on was just incredible,” says West. “Timotheé [Chalamet] started crawling on the floor and doing his sand walk, then Rebecca [Ferguson] was practicing her jiujitsu. It was so gratifying to see not just how great they looked but also how their body language changed once they were wearing them.” When Paul and his family touch down on Arrakis, meanwhile, they’re dressed to reflect their noble status. Fittingly, West looked to real-life royals when plotting out the costumes for the Atreides clan and their entourage. “We’re dealing with the downfall of a monarchy, so the Romanovs were the obvious reference,” she says. “Their uniforms were so elegant, and I referred to that for Paul, Duke Leto, and all the men of Caladan.”

As the son of a duke, Chalamet’s Paul leads a life of privilege, albeit one that is disrupted upon his father’s death. Illustrating that change through fashion was essential. West found inspiration in the films of British director Sir David Lean, whose historical dramas Doctor Zhivago and Lawrence of Arabia informed the character’s wardrobe. “When Paul is still living in the palace, he has this very pared-down Zhivago-inspired jacket—clean lines, no buttons as I didn’t think buttons and zippers would make it into the future,” says West. “Instead, we gave him medallions made from rare-earth metals and magnets so he could flip his collar closed when he needed to be formal. Gradually everything he wears is pared down, and when he moved toward living in the desert and becoming the leader of the Fremen, it was more Lawrence of Arabia. Those epics were such [important] resources because I knew that Dune was also that kind of movie.”

©Warner Bros/Courtesy Everett Collection

Wardrobe changes add another layer to the story for audiences and the performers themselves. “Costume is the bridge from actor to character,” explains West. “Great performers appreciate that first fitting so much [because] it allows them to slip into a different guise and try out a new attitude.” Access to the costume department and the wealth of knowledge they provide is another plus. “The costumes gave me everything,” says Ferguson, who plays Lady Jessica. “Jacqueline is such a rock star, and her knowledge about fashion and its history goes beyond anyone [I’ve met]. Listening to her speak about fabrics and references is incredible because everything she creates has a specific reference point. Learning that history and understanding the purpose and logic behind each outfit allows you to merge with every detail and immerse yourself.”

©Warner Bros/Courtesy Everett Collection

Part of capturing Jessica’s unique mix of vulnerability and strength came via the costumes that West and Morgan dreamed up. The black gown that Jessica wears in early scenes proved especially thought provoking. “There was one dress that was like a shell of protection,” says Ferguson. “[Its shape] was almost like a black sock, and when you pulled its hood up and backed into a corner, it allowed you to be completely hidden. During fittings, I tried it on to make sure it would be comfortable, but once I did [I saw] how that represented who Jessica is within the court on Caladan. She’s someone who stands in the background hidden and reads everyone’s emotions, and she knows the truth and is whispering it in her husband’s ear.”

For Ferguson the masks, veils, and bejeweled finery that Jessica wears during the film’s first half illustrate her position as a concubine, not a noble. “She gets to wear the regal clothes, but when we meet her, she’s still in chains,” she says. “There is still a big hierarchal difference between her and the men making all of the decisions. She has this eye pendant that is a wonderful symbol of that and is paired with a gorgeous veil. Jessica gets to be in the big room, but there are no other women there. Still, she has power and can kill anyone with a snap of her fingertips.”

When it came time to prove those combat skills, Ferguson did so in one of the Fernandez-designed stillsuits. “I loved them and the fact that they’re just there to serve a purpose,” says Ferguson. “No matter who is wearing it, we all look the same—the suits [represent] humans adapting to nature and finding new ways to survive. People ask me why these kinds of films do so well, and I think it’s because, at heart, it’s just about human beings surviving, loving, challenging each other. They struggle, gain and lose power, the outside changes, but it’s the same universal story.”

With the film breaking box-office records globally, everyone can share in that message—something Ferguson, West, and Morgan are unsurprisingly excited about after the release was delayed multiple times as a result of the pandemic. Still, while it’s currently available to stream on HBO Max, they recommend getting the full experience in Imax. “I don’t want to sound like a cheerleader, but you need to see it with an audience,” says Morgan. “It’s incredible in the theater, the scope and size of everything, and the beauty of Denis’s vision. I had to sit for a minute and take in after it was over because my heart was pounding.”

Ferguson agrees that seeing the film on the big screen for the first time was impressively transportive. “You read a script and have your vision of how things might look or what the cinematographer might do, but I found the final product so much more riveting than I ever could have imagined,” says Ferguson. “Seeing it with an audience and feeling the energy of the room is such a cool experience.”

But for West, her first viewing simply brought her back to her childhood. “It’s an honor to have been a part of this because this was the kind of movie I remember seeing on Saturdays when I was a kid,” she concludes. “My parents would give us a couple of bucks, and we’d go down to see some great big epic. You watch, and you’re just enthralled, fixated on every moment.”

Katheleen Knopf

Next Post

Serendipity Boutique opens Nov. 6 in Sleepy Eye | News, Sports, Jobs

Wed Nov 3 , 2021
Submitted photo Crystal Ibberson at Serenity Boutique. SLEEPY EYE– One of Downtown Sleepy Eye’s most prominent buildings prepares to reopen this week as a destination for clothing, gifts and accessories, just in time for the holidays. Serendipity Boutique will open Saturday, Nov. 6, at 101 West […]
Serendipity Boutique opens Nov. 6 in Sleepy Eye | News, Sports, Jobs

You May Like