The passion of Ammonite creeps in. When we first meet Kate Winslet’s Mary Anning, you can almost feel the water splashing your face from the beach and you can feel the weight of wet wool on your body and the coldness of the wind. Michael O’Connor’s costuming does an incredible job of shading the suppression of these women but the colors can indicate loneliness and passion.
I was surprised to discover how much O’Connor worked with director Francis Lee on the color scheme for the characters. Certain colors would “belong” to a character and her journey and as the relationship grows between Winslet and Saoirse Ronan, the dresses would open up and the colors might merge.
O’Connor’s costuming is a beautiful and clear example of the emotional journey of the characters of Ammonite. You could look at photos and understand the emotional well the actors are pulling from.
Awards Daily: Did you make everything?
Michael O’Connor: Everything was made for the principles. For the crowds, here and there, there are some pieces from costume houses. Everything for Kate [Winslet], Saoirse [Ronan], Fiona [Shaw] was made for them specifically.
AD: I wanted to talk about our introductions to each of these women. Mary wears a lot of blue throughout, and I wondered if you wanted to connect her to the sea? I like how we can feel the weight of her costumes.
MO: They’re practical clothes. She has things left by other people who worked around the sea or by the sea like naval jackets or fisherman sweaters. She wore her father’s old shirts and naval trousers and obviously she has a traditional country style. She has two check dresses. A full one as she is presenting the shop and then she has the check or gingham skirt. The idea was that it was a skirt leftover leftover from a dress where the bodice was tarnished and she can wear under a jumper. It adds an element of femininity. It’s quite a normal thing for coastal women of that class to be wearing those kind of clothes. Mary is practical so she would wear a coat from someone who she may have known or someone who passed away.
AD: That makes sense.
MO: Everything had a sense of history about it. The blue is a very typical of that period. It’s very naval and very nautical so you’re right in the theming. I kept it like that to have a sense of reality. I also wanted to say that this was Mary’s color. There is the scene where she goes to Fiona’s party and she has a periwinkle or a mussel purple blue. It also comes from Francis [Lee] because he was quite clear on using certain colors. No yellow or reds or even browns. We were avoiding those things. So greys and blues and in the knitwear that Kate wears underneath her jackets. The only time that there is a hint of red is when it’s suggesting passions.
AD: I thought that was very deliberate. We see red later in the film.
MO: We see it when Mary sees Charlotte in London and she’s wearing a reddish dress and cloak and Charlotte has red piping and trip to connect them together. Those are particular things that came from Francis at the beginning of the film. Blue and grey for Mary at all times.
AD: That red bow that Charlotte wears really jumped out at me. Seeing them in the same frame really took me there.
MO: It’s not a strong red, but it photographs quite dramatically. When we were discussing the development of Mary, I knew it was a moment to use the red. Once she took the cape off, it’s a stronger red. Francis wasn’t sure of the bow at first, and I told him that it was a very graphic, typical thing for the time. I pointed out that it would pick up the symmetry between them and he really liked that. The bonnet, which Mary doesn’t wear a lot, is sort of a denim-y color that’s in her normal scheme but it’s trimmed with red ribbon.
AD: I literally have a note here that says, ‘Let’s talk about bonnets’ so I noticed both of her colors in that one.
MO: Yes (laughs).
AD: A character that I was really drawn to, especially by her clothes, was Fiona’s character, Elizabeth. The first time we see her, she’s in her backyard and she looks very striking and sexy and at the party her presence is very social.
MO: With Francis’ brief, there was no yellow or red to use and it was typical to see them together. Mary had the blue, so we had this sort of purple-y color so there are notes of passion. With Fiona’s character, there is a suggested relationship between her and Mary, and she didn’t want to make her a dowdy character. The word we used was ‘celebratory.’
AD: Oh, I like that.
MO: She wanted it to be lively and alive. When we first glimpse her, she’s in the village and Mary’s mother sees her down the street. Her and her partner in the film are seen in their Sunday best. Fiona didn’t want her to be a widowed spinster but you wanted a lot of joie de vivre. She couldn’t be miserable. Fiona is happier and content and then you see her in the garden and that’s her place. She’s half-dressed in the garden so you see her corset so she’s only put her underwear on basically and then a typical gardening jacket. That’s all from reference. She’s in her domain and no one knows she’s there. Then you see her in the party in the evening and she’s in this big Balmoral. There was this big revival of that so there was a lot of plaid everywhere. It was this kind of high fashion and indicates how she spends her life. We didn’t want to put her in lace cap but keep it open to keep it celebratory.
AD: I love that.
AD: The first time we see Saoirse Ronan’s Charlotte, she looks so delicate that she could break.
MO: She’s just lost her baby. The thing is that it’s black and imagine in the real time there were a hell of a lot of people would’ve dressed in black if they knew someone who had a stillbirth. So when we first see her, she’s still in mourning.
AD: When we see her on the beach for the first time, you can tell, just by their costumes, so much about them and how they are different. I love Charlotte’s journey through her dresses. She opens up as time goes on and she moves away from that mourning period. In the scene where she falls from getting the coal, she’s wearing a green dress just off her shoulders.
MO: She has several black dresses and you’re not supposed to notice how they are different. If you’re going to spend six months in that state, you need to have more than one black dress. She had a kind of off-black dress with a cape and then she had two different bonnets. One is quite dramatic that we see on the beach. It was all about the conversations with Francis. There are some points where we don’t see her face but then if she doesn’t wear one, she doesn’t have anything to take off or put on. There’s no drama then. I don’t say where to wear the bonnet. Mary doesn’t ever wear on–she has two in the whole film. If she went to London by herself, she would wear one. I don’t say she wears one always. We are doing everything to be respectful of the period in terms of the production design and the performances, and we have to make sure we do the same when we do something as small as a bonnet.
MO: Charlotte has that black costume and it has a cape with it and a big bonnet which I scaled down. They used to make these things with a seam around the bicep and they used to have dresses and then add a long sleeve onto them. The dress would be off the shoulder which is very real of the time. You’ve got to imagine a person being rained on the the dress being pulled from underneath them. Pulling it and pulling it and pulling it until it gets so low on the shoulders that there was a suggestion that she couldn’t lift her arms. And why would she when she has things to do that for her? The hair is in ringlets so it’s like being rained on and then we put on a cape that covers their chest and their shoulders. It would become a day outfit.
Ammonite is available to rent on Amazon and Apple.