Autumn de Wilde’s Emma is an ode to indulgent dressing for all
Costume designer Alexandra Byrne on bringing the film and its frivolous menswear to life through pastels, prints and meticulous detail.
Photo courtesy of Focus Features.
There may be no better escape from quarantine than absurd romantic encounters in the rolling hills of a quaint English village. Autumn de Wilde's Emma is a flurry of pastels and piano solos as the characters of Jane Austen's 1815 novel come to life. While de Wilde is not the first nor the second director to take on the comedy of manners and mismatched lovers, her film tells a visual story like none that came before it, in what looks like the perfect combination of a witty Wes Anderson production and Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette. De Wilde’s sets burst with pinks and yellows, featuring costumes designed by Alexandra Byrne, and together they create a dreamscape akin to a Georgian-era Candyland.
At the center of the film, which hit streaming services last week, is the rambunctious and spoiled Emma, played by Anya Taylor-Joy, who's often fueling the fire of myriad romantic misunderstandings in the fictitious town of Highbury. As she tends to her hypochondriac father Mr. Henry Woodhouse (Bill Nighy), and manages the pursuits of her unsophisticated new friend Harriet (Mia Goth), Emma plays matchmaker to nearly everyone around her -- taking careful measures to leave herself out of the running.
The fantastical costuming that sets Emma apart, according to Byrne, is a departure from the neutrals often found in period films both in color and silhouette. “My team laughed and laughed at the thought of me working with pastels,” she admits, while giggling herself. Byrne has made a career of outfitting period pieces like this one, including Phantom of the Opera, Mary Queen of Scots and Elizabeth: The Golden Age, for which she won an Academy Award. Her designs in Emma feel more like fashion eye candy than historic garments -- empire waistlines are adorned with intricate beading, straw hats wrapped in silk ribbons and there’s a different petticoat for every day of the week. “Pieces from that time were largely overbuilt. There was so much detail,” she says.
To be clear, it isn’t just the women’s dressing that’s worthy of attention. Rarely do we find ourselves envious of the menswear in a period piece, let alone completely shocked by it. But center screen are heavily-starched, extra tall collars that sit along leading men’s jawlines and their sheer long johns are strapped all too snugly to their calves. Despite the immense detail in the garments, Byrne mentions that Regency era fashion was one of unprecedented comfort -- for 1815, that is.
Nighy dons a gorgeous floral housecoat while sitting amongst the equally extravagant textiles of his reading room. Mr. Knightley, played by the swoon-worthy British folk singer Johnny Flynn, gives us the only glimpse of full nudity in the opening sequence. After getting just a teeny flash of his bum, we watch him tuck the extra fabric of his silky linen cravat in between his legs, mimicking what we might call a snap-bottom bodysuit, minus the snaps. Alas, underwear was not a thing in the 19th century. And Mr. Elton, the town vicar, stands frequently at the pulpit in gowns that look as though they could have gone down a Rei Kawakubo runway. His pandering personality only adds to the oddly placed drama his character serves up.
“What I found is it’s all about color,” Byrne, who’s calling from her home in Western England, tells i-D. The costume designer begins every project with a moodboard, and this one, revolved around creating Emma's color palette by season. “I wanted every outfit to sort of beg the question of whether Emma looked comfortable among her surroundings,” Byrne explains. Her male counterparts follow suit in regency-era classics: foot-long top hats and britches that hit just beneath the knee.
Byrnes’ mood boards were filled with fashion plates: the 19th century equivalent to lookbooks. Though these were hand-drawn illustrations of the latest styles coming out of London and Paris at the time. “The men’s boots were so tight in these fashion plates, they looked like a second skin,” she explains. “The sexual statement at the time for men was their legs.” Women, on the other hand, showing no leg at all, wore seemingly modest floor-length linen dresses with hidden corsets that lifted the bust. “When the wind blew, though, these dresses were so lightweight that you could see the whole outline of a woman’s body,” she adds.
“I might compare the women’s empire waist with today’s crop top,” Byrne continues, noting the impact of Regency-era clothing on the runways, even today. While bonnets haven’t quite hit mainstream fashion, babydoll dresses and Miu Miu lace up ballet flats certainly have. Alexander McQueen and Burberry both dedicated their autumn/winter 09 collections to britches and blouses, and there are traces of Regency to be found in early 00s steampunk a la Westwood, Gaultier and Galliano. Meadham Kirchoff’s debut men’s collection, too, reads as an homage to the layering and legs that grace the pages of Austen’s comedy of manners. Today, indulgent menswear in the form of Alessandro Michele’s Gucci has made Harry Styles an icon of frivolity, wearing current Dries van Noten feels like playing dress up and, yes, even Timothée Chalamet in a Louis Vuitton harness is a look reminiscent of a time when men and women indulged equally in dressing.
Whether menswear or womenswear, each character’s wardrobe in Emma tells a different story: one of wealth or lack, one of frivolity or conservatism, one of neuroses or whim. On the surface, Byrne makes Highbury look like an easy dream. The women wade through fields in white linen gowns and playfully twirl parasols that shade their porcelain cheeks. The men wear scarves knotted tightly around their collars while they survey the hands of young women for marriage. The small details are not all for frivolity’s sake, though. Look closer and you'll find red cloaks that denote class and Austen’s signature cross necklaces. You’ll find screen dividers with fabrics that have been meticulously chosen based on their scale and color as to match, but not too closely, the man in a dressing gown which they’re shielding. You’ll find Emma wearing a signature pink cropped jacket, known historically as a spencer, styling it differently each time. You’ll find that the devil is in the details and Alexandra Byrne made sure each one was perfect.