The Uniforms and Uniformity of ‘Dunkirk’

Costuming soldiers create an effectively anonymous atmosphere.
By  · Published on July 24th, 2017

Costuming soldiers create an effectively anonymous atmosphere.

In Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk (and in the real World War II evacuation it’s based on) hundreds of thousands of British soldiers are isolated and trapped on a French beach, achingly close to home. They’re young, expendable, and completely interchangeable – something the film emphasizes by downplaying the characterization of its leads. Sometimes it’s unclear which soldier is doing what, who’s escaping and who’s struggling. It’s a chaotic creative choice that can be just as disorienting as Nolan intends. It replicates the flattening of wartime experience that occurs when panic and mayhem cause us to revert to primal, simple sensory interpretations of events. It’s all noise and color, light and dark. We are either above water or we are drowning. While there’s a lot of different departments and decisions that go into creating this atmosphere, the costuming choices and how the camera utilizes these costuming choices helps direct the audience’s emotions.

Jeffery Kurland’s costume design is easily underestimated. It’s a lot of soldiers wearing a lot of the same uniform. Yet this British battle dress is hard to nail down, especially when there are officers, pilots, and the French peppered in among the British infantry. It’s here that British wool becomes a small comfort in a warring world. Here, in a movie that very meaningfully frames its soldiers from above, looking away, so they become a sea of helmets and meek shoulders, the woolen serge of the green-brown jackets become a mossy haven of life floating in a lifeless blue-grey sea.

Here this woolen uniform and the visual uniformity in brings to the screen is both comfort and danger. The typical way we as an audience know who to value in a narrative is visual differentiation. A soldier doesn’t wear a helmet, letting us watch the movie star’s face while faceless extras drop like flies around him. Here, we’re offered none of that guidance. Soldiers shuffle through, separated from their companions only by their ambitious movements through huddled crowds of people that look just like them. But more than that, in this environment, blending in is strategic.

Gibson (Aneurin Barnard), a French soldier, changes into the British uniform to increase his likelihood of evacuation. Its circumstances are callous and horrific, but ultimately understandable as we watch he and Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) undertake increasingly risky maneuvers to escape the deathtrap of the beach. Keeping your head down and adopting the role most likely leading to survival (by, say, helping move an injured soldier to a packed boat only boarding medics) comes as much from looking the look as it does walking the walk.

There’s safety and comfort in anonymity just like we as moviegoers know there is danger and expendability. In this movie of necessary simplicity – for much of the runtime, it’s almost like a silent film – clothing is just another way of conveying status. These soldiers get by without the need for explanation, because what and who are they besides the cause denoted by their uniform? Sometimes it’s not even that, in the case of Gibson. When nobody questions your anonymity, one can pass with nothing but cloth communication.

This isn’t just a plot point for its soldier protagonists, but a symbolic piece of decision-making when we see the costuming choices of those in the Little Ships of Dunkirk that came to the force’s aid. Wool speaks volumes to this culture, whether as the sign of a friendly face on the battlefield or as a comfort from home in the form of a Fair Isle Shetland sweater vest. The fair isle – a distinctly British knit – of the teenage George (Barry Keoghan) and the comfortably neppy shawled knit of Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) promise the comfort of home to all the stranded soldiers that swear they can see their country just beyond the horizon.

The sweaters, the sheer Britishness of it all, represent the “Dunkirk Spirit” as much as their owners’ enthusiasm to contribute to a dangerous rescue mission. The stoic principles of Rylance’s character and the stiff-lipped volunteerism of Keoghan’s manifest in their traditional knitwear. They wear signs of a simpler time, symbols of what the soldiers are going through all this grief to protect. Attached to these garments are an underlying patriotism that continues through to this day. Look at the racks of our consignment shops and thrift stores: military peacoats and older fisherman sweaters have a much higher pedigree than most high fashion labels. There are construction standards and material comfort in these goods, but as a society, we often value the comforting knowledge of history over clothing without meaning.

Nolan saturates his movie with the duality of dependable comfort coming to save a paranoia-inducing uniformity and the dangerous, glorious intersection at which they meet. The film’s climax – where faceless hordes board a naval menagerie of fishing vessels, pleasure yachts, fireboats, and more – sees a beautiful reversal of military wisdom (trusting unorganized civilians over uniformity) and a confirmation of heretofore ignored cinematic language (faith in the importance of individuality). Nolan’s soldiers may often be faceless, lost in the broad strokes of their uniforms, but his saviors are unique interpretations of the same patriotic spirit.

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Jacob Oller writes everywhere (Vanity Fair, The Guardian, Playboy, FSR, Paste, etc.) about everything that matters (film, TV, video games, memes, life).