Dune: Part Two | Why Jacqueline West was born to design the sci-fi epic’s costumes

Jacqueline West Dune
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Oscar-nominated costume designer Jacqueline West talks about her stunning work on Dune: Part Two – and how her connections to Dune go back to the 1960s.

Incredibly, costume designer Jacqueline West nearly passed on the chance to work on Denis Villeneuve’s Dune movies. Previously better known for her Oscar-nominated costuming in such period pieces as Quills (2000), The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button (2008) and The Revenant (2015), she initially said to Villeneuve, “I don’t do sci-fi.”

“He kept saying the reason he wanted me was because of my background in historical work,” West told The Hollywood Reporter in 2021, around the release of Dune: Part One. “And he had read some quote Brad Pitt once gave saying that I was a ‘method costume designer.’ It was all very flattering, but I just didn’t think I could do it.”

Thankfully, the persistence of Dune producer Mary Parent eventually convinced West to listen to what Villeneuve had in mind for his adaptation of author Frank Herbert’s grand sci-fi fantasy. Although set in the distant future, Villeneuve’s Dune is essentially a period piece – a saga of betrayal, conflict and revenge that, sci-fi trappings aside, could as easily have been set 2,000 years ago.

“All of the worlds have a basis in reality,” West tells us, “So I decided to go into the past… As Frank Herbert says, ‘To understand the future, look at the deep past.’”

Across 2021’s Dune: Part One and this year’s Dune: Part Two, that’s exactly what West did. Aided by Bob Morgan on the first film and an army of artists, designers and assistants, West crafted thousands of costumes and pieces of armour – all inspired by different periods in human history. The indigenous Fremen, dwellers on the desert planet Arrakis, were clothing inspired by earthly tribes in the Middle-East; the despotic Harkonnen were imagined by West as “somewhere between the Nazis and the Romans.”

Dune Part Two details
Feyd-Rautha (Austin Butler)’s look, and the Harkonnen in general, were inspired by Nazi and Roman outfits. Credit: Warner Bros/Legendary Pictures.

The first film alone was a vast undertaking, with some 2,000 costumes to design and realise. Dune: Part Two was even more intimidating in scope, with around 4,000 costumes.

“I had suppliers, buyers from various parts of the world,” West says. “I had a friend in Italy weaving all the cloaks. I had a room of 80 people working full-time. We had whole factories to make more stillsuits because so many got damaged in Part One in the fight scenes, so we had to reproduce them. They’re all bespoke, because they’re moulded to the actors’ bodies. We had an armourer working on an island on the Danube, who made all the Harkonnen armour. It was really massive. It takes an army to make an army.”

West’s work on 2021’s Dune earned her a deserved fourth Oscar nomination; it’s likely she’ll get the same plaudit (perhaps even a win…) for Dune: Part Two. Her costumes for the Dune movies add texture and history to Villeneuve’s world-building, with each outfit revealing telling details about the characters that inhabit them.

“I’ve always thought that costumes are the bridge from the actor to the character,” West says. “I like to see when you put a costume on a good actor like Austin [Butler] or Timothée [Chalamet] or Zendaya, that their body language changes. They become these intense characters. And if you don’t see that, you have to keep working.”

The Fremen’s outfits are “the colours of the rocks in Jordan,” says West. “The Stillsuits are the rocks and the cloaks are the sand.” Credit: Warner/Legendary Pictures.

It could be said that West was born to design Dune’s costumes, then – and in fact, her connections to the saga pre-date her career in the film business by several decades.

In the 1960s, West lived in the same part of San Francisco as Frank Herbert did as he was writing Dune; when the novel was published in 1965, it quickly went from obscurity to must-read staple, its ecological themes and consciousness-expanding drugs perfect for its era.

“I lived in Berkeley, and there were Tarot readers up and down Telegraph Avenue,” West recalls. “Spice [the drug described in Dune] is symbolic of LSD and awareness, and it was a very revolutionary time. There’s quite a revolutionary theme in Dune.”

She didn’t know it at the time, but West lived only a few yards away from Herbert as he was writing what would become his magnum opus. “I lived on a houseboat in Sausalito Harbour in the 60s, and Frank Herbert was working at The Chronicle [newspaper],” West tells us. “And he would come write Dune on [author] Alan Watts’s houseboat about 30 feet from my houseboat. And there were big psychedelic parties that everyone would get invited to that lived at Campus Six. I lived at Campus Six. So I probably crossed paths with Frank Herbert and didn’t know it at the time!”

West also recalls just how ubiquitous Dune became later in the 1960s, when seemingly everyone in San Francisco owned a well-thumbed copy.

“It has all of that significance of enhanced awareness through psychedelica,” she says; “Revolution and ecology and warnings. Everybody had it in their book bag – it was like The Bible. Then came the Whole Earth Catalog [counterculture magazine], which Steve Jobs described as ‘the first Google’. We would all consult it. It was a how-to about surviving in the future. It was about being conscious ecologically, and mindful, revolutionary, embracing other cultures. All of that was very omnipresent there at the time when Herbert was writing this. It was all an influence on me.”

Dune West Jacqueline West Costume Designer
Austin Butler as Feyd-Rautha and Lea Seydoux as Lady Fenring. Credit: Warner Bros/Legendary Pictures.

By the 1980s, West was a highly successful fashion designer, with her own store on Gilman Street in Berkeley, San Francisco. Coincidentally, her shop was next door to a restaurant owned by the partner of film producer Tom Luddy. As a result, people from the film industry would often shop in West’s store – including Philip Kaufman, director of such movies as 1978’s Invasion Of The Body Snatchers and The Wanderers, released the following year.

“Phil and his wife used to shop in my store in Berkeley,” West recalls. “They used to buy my clothing line at Barneys. I got to know them that way. He’d bring a lot of actors and writers into my store, and I got to know him.”

One day, Kaufman dropped by with a suggestion. “You know,” he said, “You should be in the film business.”

When West expressed her doubts, Kaufman replied, “You can run this huge company that’s worldwide. I want you to do my next movie.”

Dune West Jacqueline West Costume Designer
Florence Pugh as Princess Irulan. Credit: Warner Bros/Legendary Pictures.

Jacqueline West’s career in the film industry therefore began with Kaufman’s drama, Henry & June, shot in Paris and released in 1990. West wasn’t credited for her work as a creative consultant on that movie, and she hinted in an interview with Deadline that she wasn’t even paid. Still, it was a valuable first experience, and West worked again with Kaufman on the 1993 thriller Rising Sun and 2000’s Quills, the latter earning West her first Oscar nomination.

From there, West got ever more work as a costume designer, and she’s since worked with such respected filmmakers as Terrence Malick, David Fincher and Martin Scorsese.

All of which led to West’s fateful meeting with Denis Villeneuve and their collaboration on Dune.

“Your life is so much easier when you work with a director who has a vision,” West says of Villeneuve. “Because they can be frank. What I like to do is show Denis a lot of things, and what he doesn’t respond to is almost more informative than what he responds to. And I know that until I hear the words, ‘I deeply love it’, I have to keep working. Because he’s been living with Dune since he was 13, 14 years old.”

Dune West Jacqueline West Costume Designer Denis Villeneuve
Jacqueline West and Denis Villeneuve on the set of Dune: Part One. Credit: ©Academy Museum Foundation.

West also sees parallels between Villeneuve and Kaufman. “They’re actually very similar in their take on things,” she says. “They’re serious, they’re readers, they’re smart. They really understand character… They’re kind of mavericks in their hearts. They’re both visionaries. I love working with both of them.”

During the making of Dune: Part One, Villeneuve mentioned to West that The Right Stuff, Kaufman’s 1983 epic drama about the early days of the US space program, was “one of the reasons he got into the film business.”

“I arranged for Phil to meet Denis at the Korean Film Festival up north [in Montreal], because Phil lives in San Francisco,” West tells us. “They had a great meeting and they sent me pictures. Phil brought me into the film business. He took me away from fashion.”

West’s work on the two Dune chapters has allowed her to dig deep into her own fascination with the past (she studied art history at university) as well as her connections to Herbert and the psychedelic scene of 1960s San Francisco. The extraordinary costumes worn by Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) and the rest of the Bene Gesserit order are inspired by the Tarot readers and the occult cards she saw all those years ago. (“Somehow I just love those costumes – they look age-old,” West sighs. “A lot of the Bene Gesserit feeling was based on Tarot cards.”)

Dune West Jacqueline West Costume Designer
Rebecca Ferguson as Lady Jessica in Dune: Part Two. Credit: Warner Bros/Legendary Pictures.

The ochre-coloured, airy fabrics worn by the Fremen are similarly inspired by the ecological movement of the 1960s. “I felt they were the people, in the Darwinian sense, who would make it to the future and be able to survive on Arrakis, because they knew the desert. They were eco-sensitive; they knew how to use desert power without pillaging it. Conserving it.”

Towards the end of our conversation, West mentioned another surprising connection between her and Frank Herbert’s work. “One of my best friends is an ageing countess, she’s 99. She lives in the South of France. She’s my daughter’s grandmother – my daughter lives in the South of France. And I was telling her the story of the movie I was working on, and she said, ‘Oh, that’s my lover’s movie.’”

It turned out that the countess had once been in a relationship with Alejandro Jodorowsky, who famously made an attempt to make his own adaptation of Dune in the mid-1970s. For West, it seems, all roads led to Dune.

Dune: Part Two is out on 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray, Blu-ray and DVD now.

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