How to Clothe 6,000 Men

44 FEA War Horse Benedict Cumberbatch H
DreamWorks II Distribution Co. LLC

Costume designer Joanna Johnston worked with Poland-based Hero Collection to make uniforms for actors including Benedict Cumberbatch. "The original is now so precious, it shouldn't be used on film," she says.

Veteran costumer Joanna Johnston, the descendant of a grenadier, describes her work as "a military operation. I was scared going into it."

Costume designer Joanna Johnston had a personal connection to World War I that added emotional resonance to War Horse: "I had an ancestor named George Cecil -- whom we have a painting of at home -- and he went to war in the grenadiers on horseback," says the British native. "He was 18 when he went and within six months he died."

This added intensity to the vast task she plunged into, with just months to do massive research and make 1,200 to 1,400 uniforms, as well as dress almost 6,000 extras. For help, she turned to costume supervisor David Crossman, a military expert. "He went to the Imperial War Museum in London. You can see the detail of the lining and the insignia and personal applications men added so often -- compasses and lighters and lucky pennies were a big thing." Such items were sometimes purchased, along with some helmets, which weighed around 1.5 pounds. "We used some original silver bracelets, because they're very durable, and often they would have the men's names on them, or little messages."

But the clothing itself largely was made from scratch. Johnston handled every costume with different degrees of detail, depending on whether it was for an extra or a principal and their rank. "Infantrymen got their uniform off a shelf," she explains. "But if you were an officer, your tailor would have made your uniform for you -- you'd choose your cloth, you might want a pocket in another place."

What struck her most was how these gorgeous uniforms changed over the war, like the men themselves: "At the beginning, there was all this optimism, and then this slow drip of horror. I found it absolutely heartbreaking."