11/23/2012 05:00 EST | Updated 01/22/2013 05:12 EST

`Anna Karenina' costume designer puts 1950s twist on 1870s Russian style

TORONTO - Jacqueline Durran painstakingly pored over paintings and photos from the 19th century to prepare for designing the elaborate fashions featured on the big screen in "Anna Karenina."

But the costume designer said director Joe Wright had his own take on interpreting 1870s Russian style for the film adaptation of the classic novel — and exact fashion replicas of the era weren't chief among them.

"The only costumes that are really an attempt to be accurate of the period are the Russian peasant costumes; the other costumes are all stylized," Durran said in a phone interview from London.

"Joe particularly wanted me to concentrate on the silhouette of each character, and that's what he thought was important to bring out in our interpretation."

To best illustrate his vision, Wright encouraged Durran to embark on a fashionable flash-forward, particularly for the costumes worn by the title character portrayed by Keira Knightley.

"He wanted me to reference 50s couture — which has a very strong silhouette — and combined that approach with the 1870s shape," said Durran, who combed through the style archives studying pieces from famed labels like Balenciaga, Christian Dior, Jacques Fath and Lanvin.

The onscreen results showcase a series of jaw-droppingly lavish dresses befitting Russian aristocracy, with a succession of fluid yet fitted floor-sweeping gowns.

Yet while drawing on decades-old styles for fashionable inspiration, there's a timelessness to the luxe furs, trimmed coats, lace veils, feathered headpieces and asymmetric detailing on dresses that seems quite in step with contemporary fashion.

"Joe's very much interested in that. He's not particularly interested in historic recreations," said Durran. "He's interested in taking a style and making it believably of a period, but making it accessible to a modern audience."

Durran previously worked with Wright and Knightley on "Atonement" and "Pride & Prejudice," earning costume design Oscar nods for both period dramas.

For "Atonement," Wright was equally vocal with input on and specifics for the famous silk emerald-green dress worn by Knightley in the film.

"He wanted it to have a very full hem and a low back and all those things," Durran said. "Even though all the elements in the dress are from the period, when you re-combine them in a different way, you're not making a period dress. It would look completely out of place.

"It's the same with this (film), really," she added. "You're combining elements and you're mixing things up; and if you actually put them next to a period costume, they look completely modern, but they have the spirit of the period."

Durran said her style vision for "Anna Karenina" was centred on conveying a sense of elegance, opulence and wealth. That could also explain the integration of millions of dollars worth of Chanel baubles to accessorize the luxurious on-screen looks.

"That's what I took from 50s couture, really, is that you can take away all of the surface detail and just be left with this really strong silhouette, which is so chic, so accomplished, so sophisticated, that I kind of thought that was what was an aspect of Anna."

Also key to the lead character was showcasing her sensuality and sex appeal, as the film finds Karenina caught between commitment to her stern yet devoted husband Alexei Karenin (Jude Law) and passion for her playboy lover Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson).

Durran said conveying that aspect of the character through costume was "important to the idea of Anna."

"There's a mention in the novel about how her dress frames her beauty rather than it being about the beauty of the dress," she said.

"I think I kept that in mind quite a lot, because it was about revealing her beauty more than anything. And she's a very sexual person in the film, so the two things probably go together."

"Anna Karenina" opens at theatres across Canada on Nov. 30.