A woman wearing an empire-waisted dress made of fine, white muslin in a bonnet decorated with delicate ribbon and flowers gazing across the English countryside is the classic image of the subdued Regency-era woman we’ve all become accustomed to. It’s also the image we expect when a new adaptation of one of Jane Austen’s classic novels is announced.
While each new adaptation has taken liberties with this classic image, from the 1996 Emma movie in which Emma practices archery in a striped pink dress or 1995 Pride and Prejudice miniseries where Mr. Darcey goes swimming only half-clothed; to the 2005 Pride and Prejudice movie where deep earth tones telegraphed the gravity of every situation or 2009 Emma miniseries where costume designer, Rosalind Ebbutt, wasn’t afraid of florals. However, each strives to capture the era’s perceived simplicity through a lack of color or embellishment in its costumes.
When the first images of Autumn de Wilde’s Emma emerged, showing a vibrant and elaborately dressed Emma, it looked like de Wilde and Oscar-winning costume designer Alexandra Bryne had decided to take a lot of creative license with the period piece. With the film clearly leaning into comedic aspects of the story of Emma’s miss conceived plan to use her great wealth and influence to create an advantageous match for her friend Harriet, the exuberance made sense even if it didn’t seem period-appropriate. However, de Wilde was nothing if not thorough when researching her feature film directorial debut.
“I was really excited by how colorful the Regency period really was. Color was how you showed your wealth and your class rank…It does feel like a heightened world, but it is based on historical accuracy.”Autumn de Wilde, in an interview with Fashionista
De Wilde wanted to create a world accurate to the era but in a way that heightened and showed the complexity of the characters. The extremes of creating heightened realities or ones firmly grounded in history for the big screen are challenges Bryne is very familiar with, having designed multiple films in the Marvel universe and historical dramas, including Elizabeth and Mary Queen of Scots. This allowed her to be ready for the Historically heightened world of de Wilde’s Emma.
“I find the period interesting because fashion journals were beginning to be published. These journals and the hand-colored fashion plates played an important part in the definition of ‘fashion’ as a fast-moving, cosmopolitan phenomenon. The clothes emerging from the fashion plates depended on interpretation, ability, money and confidence.”Alexandra Byrne in an interview with awards daily
Emma Woodhouse, played by Anya Taylor-Joy, is nothing if not confident enough to wear these emerging fashions around the small village of Highbury, where her wealth and status make her an influential figure, and Bryne’s designs center around this fact. In every room she walks into, Emma is clearly the individual with the most wealth and power in the room.
The color scheme for most of the cast ranges from earth tones to burgundies, and where they fall in that range depends on how wealthy they are. The richer they are, the more burgundy tones in their wardrobe, the poorer they are, the more earth tones. In contrast, Emma’s wardrobe, filled with bright colors and pastels, is a ray of sunshine, allowing her to stand out. This distinction between Emma and those around her is most apparent when she attends her friend’s wedding. All attending the wedding are wearing their Sunday best, creating a sea of burgundy pretty much regardless of class. This allows Emma’s pastel pink jacket and bright white muslin to create a stark contrast.
This contrast is also apparent in her relationship with Harriett Smith, played by Mia Goth, a newcomer to Highbury with no family to speak of. Because Emma is convinced she is the daughter of a gentleman, she takes Harriett under her wing. At the beginning of their friendship, the vast wealth gap between the two is evident as Harriet’s wardrobe is filled the earth tones signaling her low social status and lack of wealth, while right next to her, Emma is exuding wealth and status wearing bright, rich colors. As her influence on Harriett grows, her wardrobe begins to lighten up; however, Emma’s rank is never in question as she always has more trimmings and expensive accessories.
While it’s clear that Emma is regularly the most high-ranking person in the room, there are two exceptions Mr. Frank Churchhill, played by Callum Turner, and Mr. Knightly, played by Johnny Flynn. They are her love interests in the film and her social equal which means they can afford to look as good as Emma.
Frank Churchhill was raised outside of Highbury by his rich aunt and is the son of Emma’s close friend. Like Emma, Frank is used to having the money and ability to keep up with the latest styles. He wears bright colors compared to those around him and patterned vests that draw attention to him. When he appears alongside her, there is no visual disparity allowing them to be seen as equals.
Life-long friend and owner of a large neighboring estate, Mr. Knightly is the only other character that equals Emma’s status and class. Like Emma and Churchhill, Knightly can keep up with the latest styles; however, he ops for a more straightforward refined look. Bryne used color in this simplicity to make his wardrobe complement Emma’s and creates equality between the two characters allowing them to interact on the equal ground despite his lack of fashionable additions.
While he isn’t the most fashionable gentlemen, Knightly is always well dressed with outfits that are impeccably tailored and put together. The film reveals how gentlemen of the era create this unique look when it turns the table on the typical period-piece dressing scene.
“I read a diary of a gentlemen, who explained dressing with his valet,” Byrne said. “The measure of a man in the Regency Era was about the quality of his laundry, how clean his shirt was, and how starched white the collar was.”Alexandra Byrne in an interview with The wrap
Usually reserved for showcasing the intricacies of women’s undergarments, dressing scenes have become a staple in many period films. While this scene is not generally in Austen adaptations, because of her reserved writing, de Wilde decided to add it, but instead of giving it to Emma, she gave it to Mr. Knightly.
“Autumn mentioned that we always see female characters dressing, with corsets and stockings. She wanted to push this idea with Mr. Knightley. Autumn ultimately wants the audience to understand how the clothes work and how the clothing helped compose a day for each of the characters.”Alexandra Byrne in an interview with The wrap
While Churchhill and Knightly look like Emma’s visual equal on-screen, some take the style to its extreme. Mrs. Elton, played by Tanya Reynolds, is the first person to challenge Emma’s hold on Highbury society when she moves there as the wife of the vicar. From the moment she first appears, it’s clear that she is a very fashionable woman, but she lacks the class and constant of Emma.
“Fashion can be so ridiculous — and I love that about fashion — and I love it especially when the person wearing it does not seem to be aware in how ridiculous it is.”Autumn de Wilde, in an interview with Fashionista
Unlike Emma, Mrs. Elton overdresses in an attempt to assert the position she believes she should have as the vicar’s wife. She says that she has the “greatest dislike to the idea of being over-trimmed,” however, being over-trimmed defines her style.
When she makes this statement during the ball sequence, she is very much over trimmed in a bright yellow gown with frills, beads, rosettes, a tiara with a matching necklace, and earrings. In comparison, Emma is her white gown with small contrasting rosettes that match the ones in her hair and jewelry that compliments her overall look. She is demure and refined, while Miss Elton is representing everything she claims to dislike.
While this constant over trimming adds to the general ridiculousness of her character, it’s also a reflection of how she tries to forcibly insert herself into Highbury society. Offering unsolicited help and advice to those around her. She is as forthright and abrasive as her fashion.
While it looks as though Emma’s wardrobe is extensive enough to be wearing several new and intricate outfits every day, this was far from the truth,
“I think there is a danger to over costume. I tried to counter this by giving the characters ‘working wardrobes’ so that different looks could be achieved by putting layers and accessories together in different combinations … She only wears three muslin dresses through the film, but they are played with different colored petticoats, gloves, bonnets, spencers, chemisettes, and jewelry .”Alexandra Byrne in an interview with awards daily
Bryne does this artfully throughout the film and showcases this ‘working wardrobe’ in the first ten minutes. She starts the day getting ready for her friend’s wedding in a simple white muslin dress with a sheer ruffled collar seamlessly added over the top. Emma continues to wear the muslin dress throughout the day; however, she removes the collar to create an entirely different look for the wedding. This new look is achieved by adding a light pink Spencer jacket, cross necklace, fur muff, and lavishly decorated bonnet.
At the wedding luncheon, we see the removal of her jacket and bonnet while adding gloves and a dusty rose overdress. That evening, as Emma relaxes at home, she has one accessory, her necklace, and a dark rose house jacket over her muslin. Through accessorization and layering, Bryne manages to turn a single dress into four unique, varied costumes.
Bryne creates Emma’s seemingly endless wardrobe by layering the muslin dress with brightly colored petticoats to change its color. This illusion works so brilliantly because of the muslin’s inherent sheerness, which allows the colors of the petticoats to shine through transforming the dress to fit the scene.
“So actually, Emma within the film only has three muslin dresses, but with all the accessories and the layers, because the muslin is so sheer, you can put a yellow petticoat underneath, or a pink petticoat and it changes the nature of the dress.”Alexandra Byrne in an interview with jump cut online
Byrne has taken a story that has been retold time and time again, managing to create a unique look for a beloved character and gain a much deserved Academy Award nomination in the processes. She and de Wilde have opened up the possibilities for what a Jane Austen adaptation can look like and pulled the novel into the 21st century. Alexandra Byrne’s work on Emma is truly a master class in how abundant research, ingenuity, and a focus on the character can breath new life into classics.
“It’s actually all true to period and I think there is a tendency with period, to make it faded and sepia because we think of antiquity like that. But from doing the research, both on fashion plates and looking at garments in museums – when you look at the fabric on existing original pieces, where it hasn’t been exposed to sunlight (so inside a hem or within a seam allowance) the colours are actually astounding and the colour combinations are astounding. So that gave me the courage to think; actually yes, we really can use colour and as a designer, I think colour is one of our best storytelling tools.”Alexandra Byrne in an interview with jump cut online
Want to know more? Check out my sources
Hoo, Fawnia Soo. “Autumn De Wilde on the Dreamy, Colorful and Period-Authentic Style in ‘Emma’.” Fashionista, Fashionista, 28 Feb. 2020, fashionista.com/2020/02/emma-movie-autumn-de-wilde-interview-costumes.
Underhill, Fiona. “INTERVIEW: ‘Emma’ Costume Designer Alexandra Byrne.” JumpCut Online, JumpCut Online, 15 Mar. 2021, jumpcutonline.co.uk/2021/02/06/interview-emma-costume-designer-alexandra-byrne/.
Blythe, Finn. “Oscar-Winning Costume Designer Alexandra Byrne Dissects Her Latest Work for Emma.” HERO Magazine, HERO Magazine, 26 Feb. 2020, hero-magazine.com/article/166259/alexandra-byrne-costume-designer-emma/.
Adams, Ryan, et al. “BAFTA Nominee Alexandra Byrne On Costuming ‘Emma.’ Throughout the Seasons for a Jane Austen Adaptation in 2020 – Awardsdaily – The Oscars, the Films and Everything in between.” Awardsdaily, Awardsdaily, 9 Mar. 2021, http://www.awardsdaily.com/2021/03/09/alexandra-byrne-interview/.
McGovern, Joe. “’Emma’ Costume Designer on the Politics of Starch and Male Nudity in the Jane Austen Era.” TheWrap, TheWrap, 24 Feb. 2021, http://www.thewrap.com/emma-costume-designer-on-the-politics-of-starch-and-male-nudity-in-the-jane-austen-era/.