It's rare that a single garment in a film takes on an iconic status independent of the character or performer wearing it, yet such was the case five years ago when British designer Jacqueline Durran created That Dress for Keira Knightley in Joe Wright's “Atonement.” I needn't describe it: the shimmery emerald number launched a thousand prom-night knockoffs, has entire blogs devoted to it and is currently on display in London's Victoria & Albert Museum. Durran may have lost the 2007 Oscar to “Elizabeth: The Golden Age,” but it turns out there's more than one way to reward great costume design. 

Intricately in-period, yet subtly, flexibly modernized, Durran's creations were a vital collaborative element in Wright's first two films with actress Keira Knightley: two years before “Atonement,” she earned her first Oscar nod for her youthfully mud-splashed Regency garb in “Pride and Prejudice.” 

But for her third go-round with Wright and Knightley (though she's worked on all five of Wright's films), the stakes were raised somewhat. The eponymous heroine of “Anna Karenina” doesn't merely require That Dress, but one for virtually every scene – and that's to say nothing of the other characters in Leo Tolstoy's swirling 19th-century study of sartorially advantaged St. Petersburg society. It's the biggest project Durran has ever taken on, and yet also one of the most playfully quirky: what appears from a distance to be a resplendent diorama of ribboned and ruffled Russian finery turns out, on closer inspection, to be alive with witty character details and calculated anachronisms. 

When Wright first told her of his intention to take on Tolstoy's doorstop, Durran initially limited her research simply to re-reading the novel: she admits it rather passed by her by as a university student, though this time she found herself “bowled over by the richness of the text.” Further preparation, she explains, can be futile when working with Wright. 

“With Joe, I kind of don't have too many ideas in advance of our first meeting, because he always has an angle that he wants to investigate in the piece. And he thought we should look at 1950s couture as a way into reinterpreting the 1870s. He was interested in reducing everything to the barest essentials. “ She pauses. “He says we thought this up together. I'm not sure!” 

Whether this 20th-century infusion was Durran's idea or not, the designer found herself increasingly excited by it. “I tried to mesh the two things together, so I took very sparse details from the 1950s, the architectural simplicity of that era's couture, and transposed those to the 1870s silhouette. So the buttons, some of the neckties, some of the sweeps around the shoulders, the use of asymmetry, are all very Fifties. It brings a modern kind of perspective to the 1870s.” 

In some areas, meanwhile, the influence was even more modern than 1950s couture: the glittering jewelry on display in the film, Durran tells me, is entirely 21st-century. She explains: “In early discussions, we thought we really should use real jewels for Anna, because she is slightly about vanity and glamor and opulence. By being part of Russian society, she would have been living in a completely opulent and privileged world. So the fact that we were committed to having real jewels meant that we'd have to make a different decision in terms of their style. “ 

The determining factor was the involvement of a certain iconic French fashion house, with whom Knightley was already closely associated. “Chanel volunteered to be involved in the movie, and for us to use all their diamonds and pearls and everything else,” Durran says. “So I went to Paris and chose the things which I felt would be in keeping with the piece, even though they're completely modern. And personally, I don't feel it detracts. Having taken the step into stylization anyway, you just buy into the fact. And the glory of the diamonds outweighs anything else about them.” 

I remark that the catwalk-ready quality of these accessories actually enhances the film's characterization of Tolstoy's taboo-breaking heroine as a woman substantially ahead of her time. Durran agrees, contrasting her costuming of Knightley to the more demurely updated styling of the virginal Kitty (played by Alicia Vikander), whose romantic arc runs counter to Anna's. 

“Kitty we made quite 1950s, but in much less of a high-style way,” she says, before bringing another period reference into the mix. “The white dress that she wears to the ball a combination of a Fifties ballgown and a Victorian-era children's outfit: a bodice with a skirt that's slight short. It also has elements of a ballet dress – an underlying theme to everything, really, because of the choreography of the film.” 

Guy Lodge is a South African-born critic and sometime screenwriter. In addition to his work at In Contention, he is a freelance contributor to Variety, Time Out, Empire and The Guardian. He lives well beyond his means in London.