Dune: The Next Generation of Costume in Sci-Fi

As the 94th Academy Awards loom just around the corner, fans and critics alike are taking a closer look at the award nominees, particularly those nominees that have been nominated several times over. Yes, you guessed it; one of those aforementioned nominees is Dune, a film that audiences have been raving about since long before it was even released, and deservedly so.  

In the running for a total of ten Oscar nominations, including that of Best Picture, Dune is most certainly a contender to look out for. Of course, we had to discuss it on The Art of Costume seeing as it’s nominated for our personal favorite award, Best Costume Design! Here, we’ll take a look at the work that it took for costume designers Jacqueline West and Bob Morgan to earn such an esteemed nomination.

With over a thousand costumes created, production in multiple countries, and over two hundred artists involved in the costume department alone, Jacqueline West and Robert Morgan certainly had their work cut out for them.

Dune‘, Warner Bros.

Based off of Frank Herbert’s book series of the same name, the intricate and mind-boggling world of Dune is set on a direct path to having a Star Wars level impact on the next generation. Though, it’s said that Star Wars actually drew inspiration from Frank Herbert’s Dune. So, how much influence did the novel have on the costumes of the film?

In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter Jacqueline West stated that, on past projects she would rely on written descriptions of clothing worn in the time period. However, aside from the stillsuits, Herbert didn’t go into that sort of descriptive detail with the costumes throughout the novels, so she was forced to look elsewhere for her inspiration. West stated that Hebert “created a feeling. That feeling is so deep in Denis’ gut — he has such a strong, intimate feeling for this prophetic masterpiece. So Denis became my barometer.” Denis being the eminent director, Denis Villeneuve, of course.

While Dune is based ten thousand years in the future, Villeneuve wanted a costume designer with experience designing for period films. He saw Dune, not as your typical futuristic sci-fi epic, but as something that could pull inspiration from historic influences to create a philosophical experience, which is exactly what West did. And with an estimate of the costumes in Dune being several hundred, West decided to bring on co-designer Robert Morgan. Given Morgan’s exponential experience and having collaborated with one another numerous times in the past, their co-designing for Dune went seamlessly.

Top: Lady Jessica, ‘Dune‘. WARNER BROS. // Bottom Left: Paul Atreides, ‘Dune,’ WARNER BROS. // Bottom Right: Leto Atreides I, ‘Dune‘. WARNER BROS.

West stated that she began her design process with Lady Jessica and was inspired by painters such as Goya, Caravaggio, and Giotto. While for the Bene Gesserit she was inspired by ancient tarot cards such as the Golden Tarot and the Marseilles Tarot. The costumes of each House were inspired by a different period in history in order to help reflect the storyline of that House. The formal attire of House Atreides and the men of Caladan, for example, were inspired by the Romanovs, which worked to reflect the downfall of the Atreides monarchy.

Left: Bene Gesserit Reverend Mother, ‘Dune‘. CONCEPT ART DRAWN BY KEITH CHRISTENSEN, WARNER BROS. // Top Right: Bene Gesserit, ‘Dune,’ WARNER BROS. // Bottom Right: Paul Atreides & Bene Gesserit Reverend Mother, ‘Dune‘. WARNER BROS.

As for the Harkonnen, West referred to them as “the Nazis of this universe”, saying that Herbert had left hints to that several times throughout his work. Much of her inspiration for the Harkonnen, however, came from medieval drawings of insects, particularly spiders, ants, praying mantises, beetles and even lizards. West had read in some of Herbert’s notes, that Baron Harkonnen’s mother was often referred to as “The Black Widow” – not surprising, given the feeling of absolute disgust anytime Baron Harkonnen made an appearance – which aided in her decision to pull influences from insects. The resemblance is certainly noticeable when looking at textures, as well as the inky black of the uniforms.

The Harkonnen, ‘Dune‘. WARNER BROS.

Ahh yes, the beloved Baron Harkonnen, who doesn’t love this guy?

Many of Baron Harkonnen’s costumes appear relatively simplistic in design, and there’s a reason for that. Baron Harkonnen is a character of indisputable power, so where many characters might flaunt their supposed power even further through an extravagant show of dress, The Baron doesn’t feel the need for such useless flaunting, he demonstrates his power in other ways. Like by killing thousands of people.

A concept drawing of Baron Harkonnen, ‘Dune.’ CONCEPT ART DRAWN BY KEITH CHRISTENSEN, WARNER BROS.

All of these costumes and we have yet to discuss the most recognizable costumes of Dune! Whom do I speak of, you ask? Why, The Fremen of course. As mentioned earlier, The Fremen’s iconic stillsuits were the one costume that Frank Herbert described in minute detail throughout the novels. Being a key asset to the Fremen’s survival on the planet of Arakis, Morgan and West knew that they had to get the stillsuits just right. In getting the suits right, not only did they have to make them look like a functioning suit of armor that was flexible enough to comfortably maneuver in, but they also had to make sure that they looked good on every actor that wore them, no matter their size or stature. To assist in the perfection of the stilllsuits, Morgan and West brought in Jose Fernandez, a sculptor and designer of Ironhead Studios.

The Fremen, ‘Dune‘, Warner Bros.

Because of the lack of water on Arakis, in the book as well as the film, the stillsuits serve the purpose of recycling bodily fluid waste, such as sweat, tears and urine, as potable water. In real life, they may not have recycled bodily fluids, but they did function to keep the actors cool while filming in the deserts of Jordan.

For the creation of such an intricate and technical costume, there was definitely a process involved. First, West created four concepts of the stillsuit, and her and Morgan chose one of those concepts to take to Fernandez, who made a prototype of the look. Then, while she finished the rest of the costume designs, Morgan took the prototype to Budapest, where they would be filming some of the Arakis scenes. In Budapest, he hired a crew who then helped him to create the 250 stillsuits needed for filming. Because they were so form fitting, “they were made individually for each body and each one took two weeks to create,” said West. Not an easy task by any means, but they pulled off impeccably.

The Fremen, ‘Dune‘, Warner Bros.

With over a thousand costumes created for Dune, production in multiple countries, and over two hundred artists involved in the costume department alone, Jacqueline West and Robert Morgan certainly had their work cut out for them. Yet, amidst all of that chaos, they created a vast universe of stunning beauty, “mod-ieval” fashion, and philosophical wonder. And above all of that, they made the fans of the books happy. As a book lover myself, I can say that is an impressive feat.

Lady Jessica. ‘Dune‘. WARNER BROS.

Want to learn more about the iconic costumes of Dune? Check out my sources!


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