“Emily,” Frances O’Connor’s take on the inner life of one of literature’s moodiest, broodiest romantics, embraces life on the moors as a clear alternative to the bulk of 19th-century English society. Now available on VOD and starring Emma Mackey as Emily Brontë — the gangly outcast who poured her ache for what cannot be into “Wuthering Heights” — her place in the world and within her own family is subtly but craftily conveyed by her dresses.
Oscar-nominated costume designer Michael O’Connor is no stranger to the 19th century, having done everything from “The Duchess” to the 2011 “Jane Eyre.” Within the era’s fashion, he finds ways in which to make Emily stick out, her unease in her own skin peeking through what she wears.
For the model of how to get along as an intellectual woman with limited vocational options (and of firstborn sibling syndrome in overdrive), the film offers up Charlotte Brontë (Alexandra Dowling). “When selecting fabrics, it became quite clear when you [looked at] something which girl it belonged to. Charlotte obviously is slightly pompous and sort of the mother of the family and a bit more grown-up. So her clothes are reflecting a mature, responsible woman,” O’Connor told IndieWire.
“There was something with Emily [where we wanted to keep] Emily darker in colors [whereas] Charlotte is more plain and more like ‘Jane Eyre,’ if you like,” O’Connor said. “One assumes these novels are all slightly autobiographical for these girls.” How autobiographical is impossible to say, and Frances O’Connor’s vision delights in emphasizing what may not be historically true but feels emotionally accurate.
Yet Emily’s signature look for the bulk of the film came out of research into the real Brontë sisters. “[Mackey] wears a blue dress with a pattern on it that was specifically designed for her, based on some accounts of a friend of Charlotte’s,” O’Connor said.
In a letter, the friend wrote that the middle Brontë sister bought “a white stuff patterned with lilac thunder and lightning, to the scarcely concealed horror of her more sober companions. And she looked well in it; a tall, lithe creature, with a grace half-queenly, half-untamed in her sudden, supple movements.”
“At the time [of the film] they’re living outside Bradford, which was a center of cottons and printed cottons, so there was a massive textile industry there. So they would often go into Bradford and this friend described a dress material that Emily bought. The pattern was called ‘thunder and lightning.’ And if you look back at some of the original designs around the time, some of them were quite — not outrageous, but they were quite bizarre. You wouldn’t really expect what was actually happening at the time.”
The pattern and fit of the dress are indeed designed to be as dark and stormy as Emily herself, emphasizing movement as Emily stalks the hills and/or the new vicar, William Weightman (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) and offering her a silhouette that is ever so slightly more modern than the studious Charlotte or their innocent younger Anne (Amelia Gething). The dress is a clear step in Emily’s quest for independence and self-actualization and a visual signifier for the audience. When Emily isn’t living her best, tempestuous life, we can implicitly sense that she is being stifled.
“The director told me this film was in three chapters. There was a beginning, and then there was a moment of freedom for Emily. When she becomes free, that’s when you see the thunder and lightning dress. And then when she falls out of love and the relationship ends, that’s the third chapter. So Francis O’Connor was quite clear. This is where it starts. This is where it stops. This is where it starts again and stops. So she never wears clothes out of those times in the other times,” O’Connor said.
Yet one of O’Connor’s favorite looks for the film is when Emily is taking her cues from Charlotte because their matching dresses make their sisterly dynamic so clear. “At the end, they’re all in plaid dresses, all in checkered dresses. Quite often, you see Queen Victoria’s children or you see Dickens’ children and so many portraits of the time have sisters in matching dresses. And so [they match] when they go to Brussels because I consider that the moment they’re united,” O’Connor said. “When she bought the [blue] dress, when she bought the material, she bought it on purpose to shock people.”