How The 'Murder on the Orient Express' Costume Designer Outfitted Daisy Ridley and Michelle Pfeiffer in Authentic '30s Clothing

"Each character is dressed to express who they are or who they are pretending to be," says Oscar winner Alexandra Byrne.
By Fawnia Soo Hoo ,

Chances are, you read the Agatha Christie detective novel back in the day or have watched one of the numerous "Murder on the Orient Express" adaptations on the big- and/or small-screen. (David Suchet as mustachioed sleuth Hercule Poirot plus an early-career Jessica Chastain and "Downton Abbey"'s Lord Grantham in the 2010 TV version is a personal favorite.) But on Friday, mega-director Kenneth Branagh offers his own blockbuster take on the '30s whodunnit set on a snowbound luxury train waylaid from Istanbul to Calais. And he has his own take on the role — and famous facial hair — of the world-renowned Belgian detective. So even if you're familiar with the mystery's big reveal, the, um, ride is totally worth it, especially for the period costumes by Oscar winning designer Alexandra Byrne, who also designed Chris Hemsworth's original red caped armor Branagh's "Thor." 

Hercule Poirot costume sketch by Alexandra Byrne. 

While this "Murder on the Orient Express" update feels modern — Branagh's silver-'stached Poirot is remarkably agile, engaging in action fight scenes to boot — the costumes are completely authentic to the film's setting of 1934. But most of the pieces in the movie were custom-built by Byrne and her team to ensure impeccable condition and precise detail, as Branagh filmed the movie on 70mm film wide high-resolution film (like Christopher Nolan's sweeping "Dunkirk"). In other words, the audience will be able to see fabric, texture, print, color and embellishment that jumps off the screen. 


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"Thirties pieces are now over 70 years old, so are often frail or faded," explains Byrne via email while multitasking on the U.K. set of "Mary Queen of Scots," about her process. She did, however, source original '30s pieces from a vast amount of "costume houses, vintage fairs, markets and dealers" to meticulously reference with Poirot-level scrutiny. 

"Because so much of the film takes place against a background of snow, I made very specific choices about color," she adds. "I used original fabric sample books and unpicked seam allowances on original garments in order to understand the period colors, as they were made before fading through wear and exposure to sunlight." Byrne also scoured shops for authentic fabric from the '30s to design original period pieces for the cast.

Mrs. Hubbard (Michelle Pfeiffer). Photo: Nicola Dove

True to Agatha Christie mysteries, an ensemble cast of characters — or suspects, rather — populate the murder mystery and their backgrounds, stories and juicy secrets are slowly revealed through dialogue and costume clues. Rich American widow Mrs. Hubbard (Michelle Pfeiffer) probably brought the most suitcases to transport her outfits that are just as loud and bold as she is — which understandably was enjoyable for Byrne to design. 

"It's a challenge to create looks that have too much going on without making the character comical or unsympathetic," she explains. "With each costume we worked with a gentle balancing of hair, make up, jewelry, costume, handbags and shoes."

Mrs. Hubbard's standout looks include a slinky jewel-toned, bias-cut gown and lavish layers of printed knits, collars and ruffles, brooches and chunky necklaces, carefully tied silk scarves and loads of fur, including a stole that sexily drags along the floor to accessorize said evening gown, a pink and wine-detailed shearling coat I'd wear right now and a fabulous fur-paneled, houndstooth and peg-legged pantsuit coordinated with a Missoni print knit neck scarf and rugged lace-up boots.

Mrs. Hubbard (Michelle Pfeiffer) in a dress with Syrian embroidery. Photo: Nicola Dove

"She is a husband hunting, East Coast tourist," Byrne explains. "Christie described her as 'a woman who walks too loud.' Michelle [Pfeiffer] and I worked on the idea of Mrs. Hubbard dressing as the seasoned tourist. Each outfit has something to do with her previous or upcoming destination. She travels from the East in a dress with Syrian embroidery and she travels into the mountains wearing a ski suit — always distrusting the saying that 'less is more.'"

On second thought, refined Princess Dragomiroff (Dame Judi Dench) might have more luggage, since royal European etiquette requires her to have the most outfit changes throughout the day, including sumptuously gold-embroidered and sequined Deco gown and a plush, voluminous velvet skirt suit perfect for hiding evidence and as much extravagant jewelry as possible, layers of precious bejeweled necklaces, chandelier earrings and an eye-popping statement ring on each finger.

Maide Hildegarde Schmidt (Olivia Coleman) and Princess Dragomiroff (Judi Dench). Photo: Nicola Dove

"Princess Dragomiroff is a Russian princess living in exile in Paris," explains Byrne. "She is described as wearing a 'knuckle duster' of rings. We chose rings from Tsarist Russia, and her clothes are influenced by Jean Lanvin's work in Paris."

As Poirot's only friend (and non-suspect), dandy train director Monsieur Bouc (Tom Bateman) says to the detective early into the train ride: "All around us are people of all classes, of all nationalities, of all ages. For three days, these people, these strangers to one another, are brought together." Filling out out the rest of the socioeconomic spectrum on the Orient Express sit Spanish missionary Pilar Estravados (Penelope Cruz) and English governess Mary Debenham (Daisy Ridley), who probably fit her functional and pared down collection full of earth tones, natty checks and wooly textures into one suitcase.

Mary Debenham (Daisy Ridley). Photo: Nicola Dove

"Mary Debenham is a young single woman who needs to work to support herself," Byrne explains. "She wears sensible clothes, and has quite a small wardrobe. When the train is stuck in the snow and the heating system fails, she has to layer up to keep warm and puts clothes together to be practical rather than a coordinated look."

Unsurprisingly, Byrne's dashing menswear is just as rich in detail (and hints) as the womenswear. For instance, the less-refined and definitely shady American Ratchett (Johnny Depp) wears his printed ties loose and wide, in comparison to the other gentlemen, like Poirot, Dr. Arbuthnot (Leslie Odom, Jr.), Austrian professor Gerhard Hardman (Willem Dafoe) and Ratchett's assistant McQueen (Josh Gad) opt for tighter (and on-trend) Windsor knots — while Cuban American car salesman Marquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo) prefers a bow-tie. Some of the men's suiting was specially woven for the film by a Scottish mill and Dafoe, as Hardman, enjoys the privilege of wearing an authentic vintage vest in ond scene.

McQueen (Josh Gad) and Ratchett (Johnny Depp). Photo: Nicola Dove

"Thirties menswear is very elegant. It was interesting to research the differences in tailoring and style between America, England and Europe," Byrne explains. "Each character is dressed to express who they are or who they are pretending to be, with integrity as to how they put their assumed looks together." So, even if you know what twist is in store, you'll still feel the surprises and thrills of the classic murder mystery through the exquisite detail in the costumes — and a few stunning punches and kicks from the new kick ass Poirot.

"Murder on the Orient Express" opens on Friday, November 10.

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