Of all the Oscar nominees for costume design, Autumn de Wilde’s “Emma” served as the most colorful fashion statement. Indeed, the incisive Jane Austen adaptation, starring Anya Taylor-Joy (“The Queen’s Gambit”) as the titular heroine, wields color as a blunt instrument of female empowerment. “It was such an organic, creative process, with a lot of serendipity,” said Alexandra Byrne (Oscar winner for “Elizabeth: The Golden Age”).
De Wilde brought out the best in Byrne by taking her out of her comfort zone and letting her play with an infusion of color like a box of macarons. “Emma” takes place at the dawn of the 19th century, when England underwent a radical shift in female fashion during the Regency period. Byrne took a deep dive into the liberating period, visiting museums to get a better understanding of the garments up close, before reproducing the right fabrics and figuring out the best color combinations.
“The period was one of the biggest changes in fashion in history,” Byrne continued. “So you’re going from big corseted, heavy prepaid dresses into these very diaphanous dresses with a very different corset shape. They weren’t for pulling the weight, they were really to lift and present the bust. And that was very much influenced by the beginning of women’s magazines, which had fashion plates, which would communicate what fashion would be.
“They’re very ornate and they’re very presented and quite often for this period, the costumes tend to be overbuilt —they’re too robust,” Byrne added. At the same time, nothing was over locked, and everything was hand-stitched, and the garments were very layered and delicate. “And they had a spontaneity and an individuality to them because every woman would’ve looked at the fashion plate, and how her clothes turned out would depend on her sewing skills, her taste, and her money.
“The colors were interesting because you could tell where the sun hasn’t faded the fabric. These colors were astounding. They put color together in a way that we don’t [such as pink and yellow]. So, for me, working in pastels was more encompassing, and the more I got into it, the more I understood it. If it wasn’t the right shades, it could be a disaster. But it was exciting and there was a sense of fun that comes from the novel.”
With Emma positioned as the Queen bee of her town in a story that encompasses one calendar year, Byrne took the opportunity to play off the different seasonal colors as a way of expressing Emma’s character arc: “She’s self-deluded, she has leisure, she has power, she has status to meddle in the lives of her neighbors and her friends — she’s a big fish in a small pond,” Byrne said.
Winter was dark with blues and grays and burnt umber; spring was naturally lighter with pinks and yellows; summer was whiter; and autumn was personified by the yellow cape that everyone adores along with warm reds and browns. Byrne’s strategy was to constantly put Emma at ease or at odds with her environment. A prickly moment with Emma’s best friend, George Knightley (Johnny Flynn), has her wearing a white muslin dress with dark aubergine. “The aubergine is not a color in any of the rooms,” said Byrne, “so it’s a harsh graphic color within her own home,” she said.
The focus is Emma’s relationship with BFF Harriet (Mia Goth), whom she tries to mentor with her edge in worldliness and wealth. “I didn’t want for it just to be a constant ‘here comes another costume and another costume,'” said Byrne. “I still wanted to try and bring it back into the world of clothing. I wanted Emma’s clothes to be a working wardrobe.”
One of the most inspired moments was putting Emma in a near-transparent bodice with a ruffled neckline during a scene in which she upstages Harriet. “She absolutely knows what she’s doing at every stage, and I wanted Harriet to be so in awe but with that terrible vulnerability of being used and exposed….Emma’s a monster there.”
Competition in style of dress among women was fierce during this period, and every detail mattered, particularly the choice of bonnet. Byrne excelled with the bonnet and the standout was the one Emma wore to her wedding with Knightley. “The wedding is the summation of her story…and the bonnet is like the halo…it was so translucent,” said Byrne. “Kave [Quinn], the production designer, had fabulous flowers all over the church. So it was a wonderful opportunity to introduce real flowers into the bonnet. It was a pleasing coming together of people bringing things to me.”