There's nothing I love more than cozying up and watching a good ol' romance film. Whether the plot is a fan-loved enemies-to-lovers scenario or a story of secret love, there's something so thrilling about watching a relationship unravel. In this case, it's the latter and also happens to be a period drama set in both the '60s and modern times. In The Last Letter From Your Lover, the story follows journalist Ellie Haworth (Felicity Jones), who comes across letters sent from a handsome reporter to upper-class wife Jennifer Stirling (Shailene Woodley), who's in an unhappy marriage. While the hidden romance that brews between the two keeps you on the edge of your seat, it's the fashion that heavily caught my eye.
The '60s were a pivotal time in fashion, and that shines thoroughly throughout the film. Think coordinating ensembles, pillbox hats, and gloves galore. In an effort to hear the story of how the costumes were chosen, I reached out to the costume designer herself, Anna Robbins. Having two Emmy nominees and the costume design role for Downton Abbey under her belt, Robbins is no beginner when it comes to picking out clothes that tell a story of a different time. Below, you can get a peek into the genius mind of Robbins and learn how she told the story of forbidden love with costumes.
For those who aren't familiar with your work, can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your career?
I am a Scottish costume designer based in London. I've been designing for about 16 years now. I studied costume design at Edinburgh College of Art. I ended up in the world of film and television, working predominantly in the U.K. I work in contemporary and period dramas within film and television.
Costumes for period pieces are obviously more difficult than those of the modern day. Having experience in the genre, especially with Downton Abbey, how do you approach planning and sourcing attire to resemble a different decade?
When you're designing for a new era, your research starts from scratch. There's a process of general research into the decade and then the fashions and dress code of that period before you get into the character research, where you're getting deeper into the story and the script requirements. For Downton Abbey, it was nice that it's a repeating series because you have a shorthand, but with this film, it was a new decade for me, which was a lovely challenge and quite refreshing to explore a new world and time period.
What specifically about this project inspired you to take it on?
As soon as I read the script, I was totally captivated by it. I love the romance and the two female characters in both time periods. I love the way Ellie and Jennifer were written and the contrast between the two. Jennifer is slightly trapped in a marriage and the world she exists in. Ellie is freer and deals with the modern issues that a young, successful professional still has. They complemented each other. The other draw was that I was able to work with both worlds of modern and period. I loved that it was 1965 and it was a look at the '60s that still had very much '50s influence, and the typical '60s look you see on magazines with loud prints didn't emerge yet.
Did you have any style icons or specific sources of inspiration you kept in mind while styling Shailene Woodley's character, Jennifer?
I looked a lot at fashion designers from the time and their illustrations, whether that be on catwalks or editorial. There are definitely the vibes of Jackie Onassis and Audrey Hepburn. The pillbox was definitely inspired by Jackie O., and there are a couple of films that I reference. There's a film that Chanel costume designed for called Last Year in Marienbad, which was filmed in 1960. I loved the way Chanel used texture and silhouette in the construction of the costumes, so there were definitely pieces in there that I was inspired by.
We looked at a lot of Dior, Balenciaga, Lanvin, and Courreges. I ended up shopping a lot for vintage couture and was lucky to incorporate that into Jennifer's wardrobe.
How did you incorporate Jennnifer's personality into the "structured society wife" costumes?
She was a wife first and foremost within that society, so she is always immaculately dressed and very coordinated. There was a part of her that wanted to break free, so it was about finding those moments where she wanted to do that. When she was in the Riviera, she was really happy, so for that short period of time, it was about using color and carefree shapes. We used cutaway bits of the dress that showed a little bit of skin and were playful. The colors in the Riviera were more light and bright. I used a more stripped-back palette for her. I took away prints and patterns and did a lot of color-blocking. We saw a lot of pinks, blues, and yellows. The pinks were quite bubblegum pink, and the yellow was sunshine yellow… When we were in London and her story arch is less upbeat, there were more dark greens, aubergines, and a lot of blacks or whites. It's always interesting to use color in clothing to enhance the mood of the scenes. It definitely helped bring out more of her personality in times we wanted it to shine.
Did you pull a mix of vintage and current designers? What is your favorite part about playing with vintage designers vs. current collections?
While I do love many modern-day designs, I love the construction of period pieces, even back in the '60s. There's just clever construction that is fairly timeless. I always find pieces you can quite honestly wear today. There was an elegance to them. The quality and fabric are really great. We do a lot of bespoke work to complete the wardrobe alongside the vintage couture, and finding the fabrics in the modern day that look and behave the way vintage fabrics do, it's quite challenging. I also think it's in the accessories. We used a lot of vintage gloves, bags, jewelry, and shoes where we could find them. That gives real authenticity to her look and ties it all together.
How did you connect the feel of the '60s to the modern-day character, Ellie?
I didn't want the 1960s section to seem typical, so we removed prints and patterns from there. We used more textures and embellishments. In the contemporary part of the film, we used more prints, like little florals on Rory's character. For Ellie, there was a slight '60s vibe to some of her looks. She wore these lovely little vintage shoes that sat better in her wardrobe than with Jennifer. So there were little nods. I wanted to have fabrics and colors that linked the two of them. I liked the idea of creating a thread between both worlds, making it feel more connected and like one film rather than two stories being told alongside each other.
What would you say are the main differences between fashion in the '60s and fashion now? Do you think there are any similarities?
Coming back to accessories again, I feel like in the '60s there was a way of putting together an outfit that felt more complete. There was often a bag, a pair of gloves, and a hat that went with the outfit. A lot of people that watch something period say they wish they still wore gloves and hats. There's more layering in contemporary clothing; in period times, it's more about shapes and individual pieces.
I also think in the contemporary world there aren't huge, sweeping trends that pick everyone up and carry them. There's room to pick from trends depending on whatever you're into. Back then, there were a singular set of trends that everyone subscribed to, and now, there's more room to form your identity and have more personal choice with style. In some ways, that's wonderful, and in some ways, you can lose having a specific vibe.
Do you have a specific look that is a personal favorite you'd like to talk about?
My favorite costume was the pink chiffon evening gown Jennifer wears in the Riviera at the dinner party. I had a clear idea in my mind of the pink with bluish tones to it and how that would be offset by the inky, dark night of the Mediterranean and the color and lighting of the villa. To me, that was a really successful and beautiful look. Equally, I loved the dusty-pink cashmere I made with a matching pillbox for the scene where she bumps into Anthony again.