Yes, there’s yet another adaptation of Jane Austen’s novel Emma, originally published in 1815, and it’s in the theaters now. Trystan and I duly marched to the theaters to watch it, and overall, we were entertained! Spoilers abound here, so if you haven’t seen the film yet and you’re worried about knowing how THIS film approaches the story and costumes, you may want to wait to read this review.
The film did a good job of capturing Austen’s arch tone, even if some of the details had to be skipped, merged, or abandoned in order to fit the time limit. I’ve never loved Emma’s character (of course, she’s not meant to be loved), and I do think I still prefer Kate Beckinsale’s characterization. Nonetheless, this film is beautiful and has some strong performances. Lead Anya Taylor-Joy (The Witch, The Miniaturist) ably captures Emma’s gifts and flaws; Johnny Flynn (Vanity Fair, Les Miserables) is too young to play Mr. Knightley, but he got me emotionally involved in Knightley’s character arc; and the rest of the cast is solid, with a special shout out to Miranda Hart, my spirit guide, as Miss Bates (if you haven’t seen her modern-set TV comedy series Miranda, go check it out, stat!). The main off note to me was Emma’s nosebleed during the proposal scene — what, was she about to have a stroke?? It was so weird and random and completely broke my emotional involvement.
This was director Autumn de Wilde’s first feature film; until now, she’s mostly directed music videos. It sounds like de Wilde was pretty involved in determining the overall look of the costumes, which were designed by Alexandra Byrne, whose designs for films like Elizabeth, Elizabeth: the Golden Age, and Mary Queen of Scots often evokes scoffing from historical purists (myself included!). Nonetheless, she’s also designed the fabulously accurate and subtle Persuasion, as well as the well-reviewed Hamlet, Finding Neverland, and Murder on the Orient Express.
Let’s take a look at the costumes in-depth, focusing on various themes:
According to production designer Kave Quinn, director de Wilde wanted pastel colors to be central to the production, drawing on Sofia Coppola’s 2006 film Marie Antoinette. Costume designer Alexandra Byrne told Vanity Fair that “she used mint green and pale pink, as well as yellow and burnt orange to illustrate Emma’s cool and breezy attitude… She leaned on white muslin for her designs, but she stresses the costumes were never meant to be just white; the sheerness of the fabric allowed her to layer other items on top to create a depth and richness that contrasted with the lightness and buoyancy” (Opulence and Frugality Inform the Look of the Latest Take on Jane Austen’s ‘Emma’).
In a another interview, Byrne talked about how the film’s over-the-top aesthetic was different from her usual aesthetic:
“Autumn really wanted the world of pastels and macaroons and that’s not my comfort zone at all, but again you look at the paintings and the fashion plates and it’s all there, it’s about the exact tone. If you say put pink and yellow together, I kind of go, ‘Whoa, really?’ … I wanted to use colour in such a strong way there would be moments where Emma belonged to her environment and times she was at odds with it” (Oscar-winning costume designer Alexandra Byrne dissects her latest work for Emma)
Emma is supposed to be the wealthiest woman in town, and her wardrobe needs to show it through opulence, variety, and taste. According to Byrne,
“My criticism of a lot of period dramas is that they’re over-costumed, but I thought this is where I have to join that train and make her [Emma] look indulgent… I wanted her always to be dressing for the moment” (The New Adaptation Of ‘Emma’ May Be The Most Stylish Jane Austen Film Yet)
Byrne noted that in the scene where Emma is painting Harriet’s portrait,
“She’s wearing this insane collar with her chest exposed. She makes sure she’s the most beautiful girl in the room, even though she’s trying to get him to pay attention to Harriet” (The New Adaptation Of ‘Emma’ May Be The Most Stylish Jane Austen Film Yet)
This is one where I don’t think the intention read; yes, I see sheer, but I see no cleavage, I just see covered up. It’s pretty! But weird pretty.
Harriet starts off in nice but clunky outfits, like this comparatively chunky knitted sweater. According to Variety,
“A privileged woman like Emma would have a dressmaker, says Byrne, while Harriet might have a limited number of pieces in her wardrobe — outfits that also weren’t as elegantly embroidered” (Opulence and Frugality Inform the Look of the Latest Take on Jane Austen’s ‘Emma’)
Over time, Harriet’s style improves, with the implication being that’s due to Emma. Byrne said,
“She’s [Emma] treating her [Harriet] like her toy doll in how she dresses her… She’s making sure she’s one step better by granting her the favour of giving her a bonnet, but actually it’s last season’s bonnet so it doesn’t matter to Emma any more anyway” (The New Adaptation Of ‘Emma’ May Be The Most Stylish Jane Austen Film Yet)
Mrs. Elton is supposed to be overdressed to match her overbearing personality. Byrne set out to make Mrs. Elton’s style “more ridiculous, it’s more fun that way” (The New Adaptation Of ‘Emma’ May Be The Most Stylish Jane Austen Film Yet), and “used gaudy bows and necklaces to enhance comedy and economic discrepancy” (Opulence and Frugality Inform the Look of the Latest Take on Jane Austen’s ‘Emma’).
Miss Bates is a middle-class spinster who is kind but annoyingly chatty. In the film, she’s dressed quite well, if in comparatively darker colors with more biddy-type accessories.
Busy neckwear seems to be her theme, although note it is FABULOUS neckwear:
Jane Fairfax is good, kind, sophisticated, and poor. She dresses well because her friends/employers ensure that she is, but she has a sophisticated, subtle taste and no money for a varied wardrobe.
Sadly, it was near impossible to find photos of Mrs. Weston, Emma’s former governess, or as you and I know her, Yara Greyjoy from Game of Thrones (HELLO role change!).
Director de Wilde talked about wanting to emphasize how much Emma and Mr. Knightley were the same, and to play with period understandings of gender:
“It was interesting to me that men and women basically wore the same thing underneath. They both wore stockings over their knees and these slip dresses. Mr. Knightley’s shirt is twisted and wrapped through his legs because they didn’t wear underwear yet. His shirt was his underwear … Really he and Emma have the same outfit on, dressed or undressed. We are reminding people that our definitions of masculinity and femininity are sort of ridiculous and change with every era in fashion” (AUTUMN DE WILDE ON THE DREAMY, COLORFUL AND PERIOD-AUTHENTIC STYLE IN ‘EMMA’)
Trystan saw someone on Instagram complaining that the men are basically wearing Dockers khakis in the film. I didn’t quite get that, but I did think the pants were NOWHERE TIGHT ENOUGH, and Knightley at one point wore what I swear were a pair of ponte-knit pajamas. According to the AV Club, Bill Nighy (Mr. Woodhouse) finds historical trousers “stifling,” and designer Byrne “was able to make some pants for him that weren’t quite so stifling” (Bill Nighy on Autumn de Wilde’s Emma. and his favorite unsung movies); I’m not sure if that influenced the rest of the men’s pants, but there was very little package or thigh to be seen.
Or, as you and I know him, Douchebag from War and Peace. He’s supposed to be a bit nouveau riche, and a bit disruptive, so I think that accounts for how busy his fabrics were?
Daywear vs. Eveningwear
There was a lot to like about the film’s costumes, and only a few nitpicks. One that I have, that I often have for Regency films, is the lack of distinction between daywear and eveningwear — specifically, necklines and sleeve length. I’d like to do more research on this topic, because it’s a constant theme for me as I’m watching Regency-era movies, but it’s my general understanding that short sleeves and low necklines were for evening (dinner, balls, etc.) — MAYBE they would work for a very afternoon occasion? But 99% of what I’ve seen, daywear-wise, in historical sources (granted, I’m no Regency fan) is high necks and long sleeves.
So I always notice when I get a bunch of this:
Any Jane Austen movie had better have its hat/bonnet game ON POINT, and this one did not disappoint. Sophie Lambe is credited as the milliner; she’s also worked on The Aeronauts, Phantom Thread, Victoria & Abdul, Allied, and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.
Of course, I have thoughts about the hair, which was designed by Marese Langan (My Cousin Rachel, Belle, Angel, Tristram Shandy). I had a hard time with the super tight ringlets, which just looked like ramen to me, and how they were so clearly tacked on and not part of the actresses’ hair (I am Team Fake Hair! But I am also Team Make It Look Like Your Hair).
However, reading hair designer Langan’s thoughts on the hair design has changed my mind, mostly, because she was TRYING TO AVOID BEACHY WAVES, which, HALLELUJAH!
“Throughout the film, Taylor-Joy’s Emma is seen with a mass of curls tied back into an updo with a soft center part, whisper-light corkscrew wisps grazing her cheekbones to deliberately laissez-faire effect. ‘For a historically accurate look with a fresh take, I wanted to accentuate the tiny, delicate curls that frame the face,’ explained Langan, who said she used small marcel tongs heated in a miniature oven to create the tightly wound spirals, letting them taper toward the ends for a more structured and defined look before setting them into place… ‘I wanted to remain accurate to historical references, while also recalibrating the beauty aesthetic toward something new,’ she explains. ‘The silhouette from the original fashion plates and drawings is petite, refined, and delicate, emphasizing hairstyles that visually extend the length of the neck.’ To give the dos a ‘natural, fresh, and youthful look,’ [director Autumn] De Wilde was keen on using fresh flowers in the hair, which were accurate for the place and period of the time, says Langan. When a handmade bonnet came into play, the hairstyling had to be very precise. ‘In advance of the shoot day, [costume designer] Alex Byrne would show me the correct positioning, and I would devise a hairstyle to complement the bonnet shape and neckline of the costume'” (How Anya Taylor-Joy Transformed for the New Adaptation of Emma)
Also, Emma’s hair does get more flattering over the course of the film. Director de Wilde said,
“Emma’s curls have a story. Marese is so brilliant and I wanted the really tight curls that were period-accurate — not the sort of curls that are loose, ’90s-style wedding-type curls. Her curls are like a little doll: tightly wound and perfectly in place. As the story evolves, Emma comes unwound, so her curls are a bit fuzzier. Maybe she didn’t get as many on that morning, so they’re pulled back. Her hair gets messier and she becomes a little more womanly and a little more sensual” (AUTUMN DE WILDE ON THE DREAMY, COLORFUL AND PERIOD-AUTHENTIC STYLE IN ‘EMMA’)
And, of course, we have to talk about Mrs. Elton’s crazy, Over-The-Top hair, which is there to further make points about her personality. This style — the actual bow made of hair — really dates from the 1830s, although you do start to see glimmerings of it in the high styles of the 1820s.
Jewelry & Accessories
And finally, a few thoughts about jewelry and accessories:
What did you think of the costumes in the new Emma?