‘Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever and rich.” Little, perhaps, did Jane Austen know that those words would commit her heroine to Regency style icon status, an accolade firmly intact 200 years later and explored anew in a revamped silver-screen adaptation.
"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 look indulgent," says Alexandra Byrne, the Oscar-winning costume designer charged with creating a suitably fabulous-looking Emma for Autumn de Wilde's spin on the Austen classic, in cinemas now.
This 2020 Emma, in which the title role is played by Anya Taylor-Joy, may be costumed in pieces which remain true to the period but her fashion obsession is a trait you'd recognise in the shopaholic Gen Z selfie-takers of today.
“Emma would be scrolling through news feeds every day to see what the latest thing is,” Byrne explains. “She has the Net-a-Porter next day delivery account of the period (in the form of her dressmaker, Mrs Ford). I wanted her always to be dressing for the moment.”
Emma is the girl who’s managed to get her hands on the Gucci handbag that hasn’t even arrived in shops yet, though her equivalent is ostentatious bonnets (unlike other adaptations that eschew headwear, in this version the bonnets become more spectacular with every scene), impeccably tailored spencers (cropped jackets that enhance the era’s empire waistlines) and dazzling reticules (the tiny purses barely big enough to hold a lipstick, let alone an iPhone 11), all based on the latest fashion plates and journals from Paris.
“It’s such an interesting time because you go from the 1790s and the big archaic dresses into these muslins,” says Byrne. “It’s like that agony I can remember over whether you wear skinny jeans when they first came in.”
There is a different look for almost every scene, which spans a year in the fictional village of Highbury (the picturesque Cotswolds village of Upper Slaughter takes on the role in this remake).
We see Emma don airy muslin, saccharine pastels, rich ochres, striking gingham and exquisitely pretty embroidered dresses, which Byrne and her team created by combining vintage samples with modern fabrics although it was a challenge to find materials with the “buoyancy, life and bubble” required for a character as sophisticated as Emma.
“You are never not on show,” she tells me. “You have your morning dress, which is your casual dress, but you are there to peacock around, you don’t have your ‘trackie look’,” Byrne adds.
The most stark difference you might observe between this Emma and its predecessors is the vibrant burst of colour that leaps from every frame.
“I wanted to remind people how much colour there was at that time. We’re accustomed to faded dresses in museums and we think that’s what they looked like, but colours were how you showed your wealth,” de Wilde tells me. “It might seem like I’m exaggerating, but there was a great attraction to colour in the 19th century. There’s been a weird decision in filmmaking to tame it.”
Byrne focused on combinations that might strike us as so-wrong-it’s-right, like a dusty pink and yellow blend she recreated from an original fashion plate.The costumes aren’t all just for delicious show, but to emphasise plot points, especially in Emma’s relationship with her poorer, less beautiful friend Harriet.
“She’s treating her like her toy doll in how she dresses her,” Byrne observes. “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.”
“I love secret clues which tell you what’s going on in a scene,” adds de Wilde. “Like when Emma is trying to match Harriet to Mr Elton but 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.”
Then there's the unfortunate Mrs Elton, played by Sex Education star Tanya Reynolds, who is costumed in extravagantly "off" looks. "Instead of softening it [the fashion] and making it more accessible, we wanted to make it more ridiculous, it's more fun that way," says de Wilde, pointing out the bonkers bow hairdo, based on a real illustration from the time, and orange dress she wears for tea at Hartfield.
The red cloaks worn by Highbury's school girls have become another talking point. "Someone was mad about the coats, saying they were like Handmaid's Tale," says de Wilde. "I don't know what Margaret Atwood had in mind but I imagine she pulled a fashion inspiration from a time period when women had very few rights and agency in their own lives. So to me it's an intelligent connection."
Despite the very different position that women have now, we still love to recreate the Austen look and there are plenty of labels offering Regency-influenced pieces.
“Our vision is to create clothing similar to that in the time of Jane Austen elevated styles made for women simply living their everyday lives,” says Katherine Kleveland, co-founder of dreamy LA-based label Dôen a go-to for modern Austen interpretations, which cites the strength of character in the author’s female leads as inspiration.
“We take notes from this time period in that we handcraft pieces that feel special but can stand the wear of everyday life. Quality in design and craftsmanship isn’t the same as it used to be, and we hope to recapture the spirit of this time,” adds Kleveland.
This is de Wilde’s first feature-length film, having worked in music and fashion photography with labels including Prada and Rodarte, so she was conscious of fashion’s love for all things Austen.
This week, Dame Anna Wintour hosted a screening of the film, offering it the Vogue seal of approval. "There's such fun in fashion influence," acknowledges de Wilde. "I did hope that would happen with the movie... The Regency period is always going to cycle around in fashion, no matter what movie is being made, because the clothes are so beautiful."
Bonnets at the ready.
--Telegraph Media Group