The costumes in Denis Villeneuve’s “Dune” tell a rich story on their own.
Jacqueline West and Bob Morgan teamed up to create the 1,000 or so looks needed for the three main worlds of the movie: Arrakis, Caladan and Giedi Prime. “For research, I looked at David Lean films — ‘Dr. Zhivago,’ ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ — [as well as] ‘Fahrenheit 451,’” says West. She says she also referenced Greek and Roman mythology because she thought there was a connection there with House Atreides and House Harkonnen. “It all seemed like a kind of a real Greek and Roman tragedy on one level,” West says. Other wide-ranging inspirations included art by Goya, Giotto and Caravaggio; the clothes of desert people such as Bedouins and Tuaregs; tarot cards; the classic fashion of Balenciaga; and the colors of the rocks and sand in Jordan, where a chunk of the action was filmed.
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But the centerpiece of the film, currently on the festival circuit and releasing Oct. 22, are the “stillsuits,” described meticulously in Frank Herbert’s 1965 novel “Dune,” and necessary to sustain life on the desert planet of Arrakis. “It was the first thing I worked on after I did general research,” says West, adding that she engaged the services of concept artist Keith Christensen (“Black Panther, “The Batman”). When Villeneuve saw one of the concepts that “really moved him,” West took it to Jose Fernandez at Ironhead Studios in L.A., where a prototype was built.
Then they took everything to Budapest, where the “Dune” shoot was based. Each suit is bespoke — “Each one had to be cut on a mold of the actors’ bodies, because the movement of the body is what theoretically activates the stillsuit and turns it into a distillery.” Both in the book and film, the suits take human wastewater and turn it into a gas, “and then that filters through all of the tubing in the suit as a coolant with gauges and regulators. And we put all that on the stillsuits.”
The team made what West called a “micro-sandwich” of acrylic fibers and porous cottons that would wick the water away from the body and keep the actors cool in the suits. “When we shot in Jordan in the desert, it worked like Under Armour,” she says.
West notes that “because of the way we ran all the tubing through all the layers of the micro-sandwich,” it looks like the suit might actually be pumping water. But they also had to make sure the costume was flexible. Each suit took more than two weeks to fabricate in the Budapest work room. “It was really a group effort of a fabulous team,” says West. “Frank Herbert said that only 15 milliliters of water escaped a day from a person wearing a stillsuit, so we had to make it believable that it would do that.”
Each world also had its own chromatic scheme. The stillsuit remained gray, per the novel, and worked almost as camouflage. The colors of the rocks in the Jordanian desert inspired West’s costumes for Arrakis, the desert planet. When the head of locations, Peter Bardsley, went to Jordan, West asked him to bring back rocks and vials of sand: “There was like a kind of coral color, a rose color, a peach color, a beige kind of tan color.” She still has the sand and rocks in her L.A. office.
West also used dyed gauze for the desert-dwelling Fremen. “I had done a gauze line years ago when I was a fashion designer for Barneys, and I remembered how you could still see people’s bodies and their shapes and their movement. And I thought, gauze shifts like sand does. I had dyed it in all these desert sand colors.” That became their palette.
Morgan notes that Villeneuve was a strong collaborator, frequently popping into the costume shop to see what was happening. “We were fortunate enough to be literally across the street in Budapest at the studio. And he could just walk over,” Morgan says. “He could see the fabric and see the texture.”