Dune has given pop culture so many things: giant sandworms, the Litany Against Fear, “spice” as a drug metaphor, and the stillsuit. One of the ideas Frank Herbert paid particular attention to detailing in his notes and his 1965 novel was the stillsuit, an outfit designed to retain and recycle the wearer’s body moisture. Stillsuits let Herbert tell a story about surviving in the most dangerous environment in his books — a merciless planet-wide desert that also gets people high. (Most importantly, you can poop in a stillsuit instead of taking it off when nature calls.)
For Denis Villeneuve’s stunning screen adaptation, costume designers Jacqueline West and Bob Morgan had their work cut out for them. Unlike much of the wardrobe in the movie — the dark wool suits of House Atreides, or the insect-inspired garb of the Harkonnen — stillsuits are a vital part of the lore, described in great detail in both the novels and in Herbert’s notes. The stillsuit was, according to Morgan, the movie’s “centerpiece costume.” It had to look good on all the cast members, and conceivably be functional enough that performers wouldn’t hate wearing it during production in the real-world deserts of Jordan.
West and Morgan pulled off the former with aplomb: The stillsuits look great onscreen. The latter, they told Polygon, got some mixed results.
“You know, I have heard different actors say different things,” Morgan says, laughing. “I heard an interview with Josh Brolin and Javier Bardem. [Bardem] was saying ‘Oh my God, I’m so comfortable. I loved it. I loved wearing it.’ And Josh Brolin says to him, ‘I don’t know which one you got!’”
According to West, creating Dune’s stillsuits was an incredibly involved process that began with long conversations with concept artist Keith Christensen and a prototype by sculptor Jose Fernandez. Teams of artists collaborated on every aspect of the final suit, which comprised 125 pattern pieces.
“It’s not like doing a fitting for a contemporary film, where Meryl Streep arrives and talks about the costume and what it might be, and is it uncomfortable?” Morgan says. “It had to fit everyone from Timothée [Chalamet] to Rebecca [Ferguson] to Jason Momoa. And so the size range is — you can see it like a sliding scale, every shape and size has to look good and be comfortable and do stunts.
“When Timothée put it on the first time, he was like, ‘Oh my God, this is amazing!’ and he got down on the floor like a spider — because he’s very fluid in his movement, and very agile. And Rebecca as well, she had to do fights, and she was immediately doing roundhouse kicks and spinning around. It helped us. We learned with them.”
Both West and Morgan emphasize how much of their idea of Dune’s future wardrobe was inspired by the past — not just aesthetically, but in the way future humans would adapt to desert life in much the same way they always have. The designers looked at how people dress for the desert in Morocco and Jordan. They looked at Bedouin culture and wardrobe, and the ways keeping cool was a matter of life and death — one that will likely be relevant to more and more people, given Earth’s changing climate.
“It was such a prophetic piece, Dune.” West says. “With all the temperatures this summer, and forest fires — you could imagine stillsuits going into production.”
Dune: Part One is currently in theaters and on HBO Max.