Autumn de Wilde’s interpretation of Jane Austen’s Emma is a candy-coated dream thanks to the production design and the costumes by Academy Award winning designer, Alexandra Byrne. This iteration is so loyal to the text, but de Wilde makes it feel loose and more comedic than versions we’ve seen in the past. Byrne’s work is so colorful and feminine with a lot of pinks, light blues and deep blues. And bonnets. So many bonnets.
Emma. is themed by season, so we may start with a wedding in the summer with warm pinks and hues of turquoise but by the time we switch to autumn or winter, the characters have switched over to bright yellow or dark blue. This played into Emma’s particularity for knowing what to wear and Byrne worked with the production designer to create a cohesive palette for each time of year.
Byrne has designed for many films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but Emma is a superhero in her own right. She has the power of persuasion and charm and that exudes from the top of her bonnet to the tips of her booted toes. Her costume design harkens back to a respectable time, but it feels so fresh and vibrant and warm.
Awards Daily: The Regency period is having a moment right now with Emma. and now Bridgerton. What do you like most about the era?
Alexandra Byrne: I find the period interesting because fashion journals were just beginning to be published. These journals and the hand colored fashion plates played an important part in the definition of ‘fashion’ as a fast moving, cosmopolitan phenomenon. The clothes emerging from the fashion plates depended on interpretation, ability, money and confidence.
AD: There have been numerous interpretations of Jane Austen’s Emma. What’s the biggest hurdle when creating a new version and what did you want to infuse into an Emma for 2020?
AB: Jane Austen wrote the novel, different writers take on the adaptation, and each director will have the story they wish to tell. Autumn was very clear that she wanted the comedy to come from the reality, for example Frank Churchill carrying Harriet back to Hartfield after the ball–a wonderfully romantic act, but also exhausting and uncomfortable for both after several miles!
AD: In the beginning, we see how certain characters get dressed. Mr. Knightley is naked from the waist down with his dressers and then Emma lifts the back of her skirt in front of the fireplace. Was showing how people dress important to you? I feel like we don’t see that very often in period pieces.
AB: The dressing sequences came from Autumn’s wish to know and understand fashion, clothes, etiquette, social hierarchy and hygiene. As part of the story telling I feel these sequences help to underscore the the idea of the characters wearing clothes not costume.
AD: How did you decide what colors would belong to specific seasons? In winter, I noticed a lot of dark blues and autumn had bright yellows.
AB: The story takes place over a calendar year. Emma is a young woman with leisure, power, and status to meddle in the lives of her neighbors – a big fish in a small pond. I suggested the idea of giving Emma a color palette for each season; she has the right clothes for the season, the occasion and the time of day. The other characters play into or against her colors, and likewise I worked with Kave [Quinn] to describe how people belonged or were at odds with the interiors.
AD: Miss Bates is a character that I loved to see pop up on screen, and Miranda Hart gives her such life. How did you want her to look different from the other women on screen?
AB: Miss Bates is a wonderfully written character in both the novel and the script. I work on research, mood boards and colors to share with the actors. It is at this stage that the design process becomes really exciting – every actor brings ideas, physicality, shape and movement. I loved working with Miranda to find Miss Bates – a woman who nervously talks too much, is immensely proud, vulnerable, excitable and keen to please, whilst masking her reduced finances.
AD: On my last viewing of the film, I kept staring at the collar of Mr. Elton’s black and white ensembles. I love his black, round hat early in the film. Obviously, a vicar wouldn’t wear something extravagant, but the styling of him is very specific. Is there anything else in the film that may seem simple but still requires a lot of care.
AB: One of the marks of status for a gentleman was the cleanliness and freshness of starch in his shirts and cravats. Mr. Elton is bound by the church in his style of dress, but still manages to display his vanity and ambition!
AD: Any time I think of Emma, I think of Amy Heckerling’s Clueless and how those versions of the characters wear clothes. Is it easier to design and dress characters that clearly love fashion?
AB: I think there is a danger to over costume. I tried to counter this by giving the characters ‘working wardrobes’ so that different looks could be achieved by putting layers and accessories together in different combinations – this is true even for Emma. She only wears three muslin dresses though the film, but they are played with different colored petticoats, gloves, bonnets, spencers, cheimsettes and jewelry .
AD: In the final scene, Emma is wearing a wedding dress and her guests are so over the top. Tell me about the pressure to get Emma’s dress right. How did you want everyone to pay their respects in the biggest way possible?
AB: Emma’s wedding dress was a challenge because the wedding is the culmination of the whole story. I didn’t want the scene to be about her dress, but equally I needed Emma to remain true to herself. The sense of occasion for the guests is a measure of the scale of the event.
AD: I’m a sucker for bonnets in period piece–something I probably shouldn’t admit too loudly. I think some people might think they are simply an accessory when they can actuality be a big punctuation to an outfit. How did you want the bonnets to make a statement?
AB: Autumn was wonderful because she loves bonnets. Often directors will ask to get the bonnets and hats off as soon as possible, but Autumn asked for bonnets in rehearsal so that the actors could understand how a bonnet can change the way you move your head to see. When Robert Martin kisses Harriet outside Harfield, she is wearing a poke bonnet–aptly named.
AD: I always like to ask costume designers what piece they would steal for their own closet?
I love the collaboration and the culmination of all areas coming together for the moment of filming. Afterwards the costumes remain, but they lack life without that moment. I keep fabric swatches, samples and the mood boards to remember the highs, lows and serendipity of the process.
Emma. is available to stream now on HBOMax.