The Real Anna Karenina

The new adaptation of Anna Karenina came out two weekends ago. Costumed by Jacqueline Durran, the film strays wildly from what people wore during the 1870s, in which the book was set. Durran has admitted she didn’t try for an authentic adaptation, encouraged by director Joe Wright, and her inspiration came from 1950s Dior couture.

Forgive me a moment while I shudder. The modern jewelry, very low neckline, very narrow sleeves, and messy hair above are all based on 20th century fashions.

Anyway, maybe you’re curious what this film would look like if artistic liberties weren’t so off base from the true clothing of that period. So here I present to you a brief overview of the 1870s.

Let’s begin with the undergarments. First, a lady would have worn a chemise closest to the body and a corset over it. On top of the corset would have been a corset cover. On bottom, a cage crinoline or bustle would add fullness specifically to the back of the skirt (instead of fullness all the way around the skirt like during previous decades).

cage crinoline, 1870s | bustle, 1870s, both from Metropolitan Museum of Art

petticoat, 1870s, from Metropolitan Museum of Art

Over the cage or bustle would have been a petticoat. Note the room — extra folds of fabric — at the rear to accommodate the bustle while the front is flat.

For day, the dresses above and below would have been quite appropriate. The dress above dates from the early 1870s, near the start of Anna Karenina, while the dress below would have been from the mid to late 1870s, the latter part of the story.

dinner dress, late 1870s, from Metropolitan Museum of Art

I am simply smitten with this stunning red dinner dress from the late 1870s. See how narrow the dress appears from the front while the rear of the dress has a large bustle and a bit of train. This narrowing of the skirt on the sides happened throughout the course of the 1870s.

ball gown, 1876, from Metropolitan Museum of Art

For evening, women would have showed off more skin in a ball gown (but not as much as the film would have you believe). Lower décolletage and off the shoulder sleeves would have been common. Both the white and red gowns here would have been stunning in their day.

ball gown, c. 1875, from Metropolitan Museum of Art

hat, by William Charles Brown, c. 1870 | hat, 1870s, both from Metropolitan Museum of Art

To top it all off, a hat would have been appropriate for day, or a woman could pick a pretty bonnet for day or evening.

bonnet, c. 1871 | bonnet, c. 1870, both from Metropolitan Museum of Art

Too Early, by James Tissot, 1873 from Guildhall Art Gallery

So how did these ensembles all come together? It’s worth looking at artistic renderings by painters of the period to see how women might have looked. Above is a famous painting, Too Early, by James Tissot painted in 1873. Here we see women with large bustled gowns (fullness in back), bonnets, gloves, and fans waiting for the rest of the party to arrive.

Evening, by James Tissot, 1878, from Musee d'Orsay | The Warrior's Daughter, c 1878, from City of Manchester Art Galleries

And later in the decade, James Tissot captures the ball in 1878 in Evening and outerwear in about 1878 in The Warrior’s Daughter or The Convalescent.

Lastly, it’s rare to find a photograph of a woman in evening wear from the 1870s, but I was able to find this great image of Princess Pauline of Waldeck and Pyrmont by Gösta Florman. Here you can see the very most accurate depiction of the 1870s — her tight chignon hairstyle, off the shoulder sleeves, low neckline that shows the tiniest bit of cleavage, and a large bustle with flat skirt front.


  1. Elissa says:

    This was fascinating. I work near Rockefeller Center in NYC, and the Banana Republic there has a few of the original costumes from the movie displayed in its windows. They’re lovely, but it’s interesting to learn that they’re not even slightly historically accurate. Disappointing, really.

    • jacqueline says:

      There is some odd collab between the movie and Banana — but in my opinion the clothing on sale at Banana looks like their regular stuff with fur added. So I’m not surprised they have the costumes in the windows.

      Is there anything in the windows indicating that the movie/costuming is based on fantasy and not reality? Still, I’m sure they are cool to see in person.

      • Elissa says:

        They aren’t presenting the costumes as being from any historical era but rather are focusing on the movie and story itself. They show pictures of the actors in the dresses and then have dress forms with the garments in a few of the windows. They look great, but I agree: the clothes they’re selling as part of the collection are pretty boring. I thought the BR collaboration for Mad Men was much more effective.

      • Sarah says:

        The interview you linked mentioned the Banana items. From what she says, they gave her several of their current collection items and asked her to style them in a way she felt reflected her costuming. So, they really are just the normal Banana offerings, but branded.

        I find it interesting to hear that, considering how often Banana does themed “collections”.

  2. Mom says:

    Did they only wear the cage crinoline when they were planning to stand and dance? Or were they able to sit while wearing one and if so, how?

    • jacqueline says:

      The cage crinolines are collapsible for sitting. However, one wouldn’t really be able to lounge in them. With a corset and bustle, one would be forced to perch with very upright posture on the edge of her seat.

      • DAVE says:

        Would love to aquire a crinoline cage from Anna Karenina. Could you point me in the right direction?

        • jacqueline says:

          Dave, not sure if you are looking for historical pieces or reproduction. For a historical piece, you can check eBay or auction houses that specialize in vintage clothing. Not sure where you can get a reproduction piece, since that is not something I’ve ever purchased myself. But I’m sure theater costume design websites my have some leads.

  3. Elissa says:

    Whoa, that was trippy, seeing my name up there (that’s not me! I’m a different Elissa!)… anyway, this was such a cool read.

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