One wouldn’t know from watching the film Ammonite, which is set in the 1840s, that costume designer Michael O’Connor had to make a case for the characters’s collection of elaborate bonnets. Inspired by British paleontologist Mary Anning’s life, Ammonite—which was released theatrically on November 13 and will be available on premium on-demand on December 4—tells the story of an affair between Mary (played by Kate Winslet) and Charlotte Murchison (Saoirse Ronan). Charlotte has been left in Mary’s care during a bout of depression. Her mood is reflected by a dark wardrobe topped with a black bonnet embellished with heavy bows, the first of many elaborate hats to come.

Directors and actors don’t like hats because of their tendency to obscure faces, says O’Connor. “But I love them,” he adds. “I could make them, and make them and make them forever.”

O’Connor is known for his work on a number of period films, including Jane Eyre, The Invisible Woman and The Duchess, for which he won an Academy Award and a BAFTA for best costume design. The costumes in Ammonite are O’Connor’s ode to the mid-nineteenth century, and to the two very different main characters. Practical Mary, who is independent and cerebral, gets fisherman’s sweaters, warm jackets and plain dresses. Melancholic, sophisticated Charlotte, prefers detailed dresses, sometimes in eye-catching shades of green. Director Francis Lee had instructed O’Connor not to use red except for “moments of passion.”

“Not even a tiny dot of it, which was very difficult because Turkey Red [a shade of crimson typical of the era] at the time was very much a fashionable color,” he says. Viewers should keep an eye out for the color’s eventual appearance.

Here, O’Connor tells WSJ. about his mood board, the whimsical names some clothing items used to have (like monkey jacket, which was a short, double-breasted, close-fitting jacket worn by sailors, or pelerine, a cape that covers the shoulders) and how to dress like a modern-day fossil collector—even if you’re not going on digging trips any time soon.

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