June 8, 2023


Creative living

Autumn de Wilde on the Dreamy, Colorful and Period-Authentic Style in ‘Emma’

8 min read

The fashion photographer — and now film director — also explains that seemingly ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’-like costume moment.

Warning: Mild spoilers for ‘Emma’ below. But, come on, you at least saw ‘Clueless,’ right?

Confection dressing, statement sleeves, high necks and burnt orange hues: The latest adaptation of “Emma” features plenty of dreamy, elaborate and color-saturated costumes that could have been plucked off the Fall 2020 runways. (Not to mention, the film’s eye-candy backdrops will inspire many an interior design Pinterest board.) But like how director Autumn de Wilde‘s vision for the Jane Austen novel stays true to the original source material, the fashion also remains thoroughly authentic to the Regency period. it’s set in. (Although, Anya Taylor-Joy could probably wear one of Emma’s ethereal puff-sleeved, lace-trimmed gowns straight off the screen and onto the red carpet.)

A consistent fashion thread runs throughout the career of the first-time feature film auteur, who stunts with her own distinct style: tailored trouser silhouettes, an exceptional hat game and a vintage Victorian cane, which conveniently conceals a shot-size vial and chic glasses. Prior to “Emma,” de Wilde racked up an impressive resumé of directing documentaries and music videos, plus shooting cover art for musicians (and style icons) including Florence + The Machine, Jenny Lewis, The White Stripes, The Raconteurs and Fiona Apple. Her prestigious fashion photography and video portfolio includes a 2015 five-part video series for Prada and a running collaboration with Rodarte’s Kate and Laura Mulleavy.

“The Rodarte girls are such storytellers. It’s not just, ‘This is a pretty dress,'” says de Wilde, who photographed the brand’s dreamy Fall 2018 lookbook starring Tessa Thompson, Kim Gordon and Kirsten Dunst and her baby bump. “Fashion was a big tool in my rock ‘n’ roll photography in trying to establish visually what this character was without words.”

For her directorial debut, de Wilde assembled a close and synergistic team to create such seamless visual storytelling. It included production designer Kave Quinn, hair and makeup designer Marese Langan and Oscar-winning costume designer Alexandra Byrne. Together, the group thoughtfully planned a series of character- and story-developing color palettes: lush pastels, rich marigolds, deep oranges, rosy pinks and inky blues, which were en vogue in the early 1800s. 

Harriet (Mia Goth) and Emma (Anya Taylor-Joy).
Harriet (Mia Goth) and Emma (Anya Taylor-Joy).

“I was really excited by how colorful the Regency period really was. Color was how you showed your wealth and your class rank,” explains de Wilde, who encouraged the team to excitedly lean into the vibrant hues. “It does feel like a heightened world, but it is based on historical accuracy.”

The movie spans a year in the life of privileged and beautiful Emma, whose, erm, clueless matchmaking efforts disrupt the community of polite, provincial Highbury. So, the period-correct “color wheels” and distinctive floral motifs help transition the protagonist and her friends and family through de Wilde’s format of four seasons. “Her costumes feel like this never-ending wardrobe,” says de Wilde. “She does have more money than [neighbor and love interest] Mr. Knightley, even though he’s slightly higher socially in the class system. So why wouldn’t she have a lot of clothes? That was a good visual way of letting the audience know that she was the Queen Bee. The richest girl in town.”

With her financial resources (and copious amounts of time spent in the haberdashery), Emma unsurprisingly boasts a stacked wardrobe at the height of style, which demonstrates her knowledge of the latest trends. “Women’s fashions were just starting to be published in journals, and Emma would have harvested this information,” explains Byrne, in the production notes. “She is wealthy and indulged and has a dressmaker rather than relying on her own sewing speed and ability. Consequently, she has an extensive wardrobe for each season.”

<em>"Oh my god. </em> <a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Olk2xas9rEY" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:I love Josh" class="link rapid-noclick-resp"><em>I love Josh</em></a> <em>!" (Sorry, 'Clueless' reference.) </em> <em>Emma and Mr. Knightley (Johnny Flynn) have a moment.</em>
“Oh my god. I love Josh !” (Sorry, ‘Clueless’ reference.) Emma and Mr. Knightley (Johnny Flynn) have a moment.

For research, the team visited Sir John Soane’s Museum in London to learn about the architecture, art and interiors of the Regency period. Byrne, who custom-designed all the costumes, also dedicated “weeks” to studying the exact construction of the era’s clothing — “the weight of fabrics, home sewing techniques and adaptations of earlier dresses to meet the latest fashion.”

The teams painstakingly color-tested paint and wallpaper swatches with corresponding clothing fabrics to enhance the atmosphere, mood and dialogue specific to each scene. “We auditioned everything until it felt like there was this harmony or someone could really stand out or seem brash and annoying because of the color that was present in the room,” explains de Wilde. She also coordinated with Byrne and Quinn to “make Emma either at ease with her environment or at odds with it, to greater and lesser degrees,” per Byrne.

The hair and makeup, by Langan, also plays an integral part in creating the mood. “Emma’s curls have a story,” explains de Wilde. “Marese is so brilliant and I wanted the really tight curls that were period-accurate — not the sort of curls that are loose, ’90s-style wedding-type curls. Her curls are like a little doll: tightly wound and perfectly in place. As the story evolves, Emma comes unwound, so her curls are a bit fuzzier. Maybe she didn’t get as many on that morning, so they’re pulled back. Her hair gets messier and she becomes a little more womanly and a little more sensual.” 

Emma (right) helps Harriet (left) pose for Mr. Elton's portrait painting session.
Emma (right) helps Harriet (left) pose for Mr. Elton’s portrait painting session.

The movie features a fair bit of humor and physical comedy, largely thanks to the targets of Emma’s matchmaking: wide-eyed BFF of lesser social stature, Harriet (Mia Goth) and the hot-but-douche-y vicar, Mr. Elton (Josh O’Connor a.k.a. Prince Charles in season three of “The Crown“). Fittingly, Byrne and de Wilde also took costume inspiration from fashion cartoons and caricatures from that time.

“It’s always fun to look historically at the fashion illustrations that glamorizes all these fashion choices, but it’s really also a good idea to find people who were poking fun at it. So we got this really great balance” says de Wilde. “Fashion can be so ridiculous — and I love that about fashion — and I love it especially when the person wearing it does not seem to be aware in how ridiculous it is.”

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The director points to Byrne’s almost subliminal and “genius” design for Emma when she convinces Mr. Elton to paint a portrait of Harriet in a set-up attempt. While Harriet dresses up in a gold velvet bustier-style silhouette over a gown, presumably borrowed from her friend’s unlimited closet, Emma unintentionally — maybe? — distracts Mr. Elton with her near-transparent bodice with a high-ruff neckline (above).

“She’s wearing this ridiculous collar with her boobs totally almost exposed,” says de Wilde. “Supposedly, Emma’s focus is on attracting Elton to Harriet, but she’s wearing this really bodacious, thrilling outfit. I told Josh O’Connor, ‘Just play this whole scene like you’re trying hard not to look at her t*ts,’ and it just added this tiny layer of detail.”

Mr. Elton (Josh O'Connor) and Mrs. Elton (Tanya Reynolds).
Mr. Elton (Josh O’Connor) and Mrs. Elton (Tanya Reynolds).

After his humiliating rejection by Emma and a brief hiatus, Mr. Elton returns to Highbury newly married to bougie Mrs. Elton (Tanya Reynolds, above). Her style is as delightfully tacky as her demeanor, including her sculptural hairstyles — which are not an homage to her counterpart Amber from Amy Heckerling’s 1995 contemporary “Emma” adaptation, “Clueless.”

“Oh my god,” laughs de Wilde. “That’s real from the period. Those actual hairstyles comes from fashion illustrations that we found. There was a lot where it seems like I was exaggerating, but it was really there!”

Which leads to another accurate portrayal of the early-1800s, which could easily be misinterpreted as a reference to an imagined dystopian future: the “Handmaid’s Tale“-esque red cloaks and blinder-like caps that Harriet and her boarding school classmates wear en masse. “[Regency era] schoolgirls would have worn that type of bonnet and those capes,” says de Wilde, explaining that the versatile and practical outerwear wouldn’t require custom tailoring, unlike Emma’s exquisite bespoke coats. “It’s an identifier of Harriet’s class position.”

Outerwear contrast between Harriet and Emma.
Outerwear contrast between Harriet and Emma.

“Also, basically, if those girls don’t marry within or above their class — or get a job as a governess — they’re screwed. They have no future,” the director continues, as she ruminated on the correlation to similar crimson ensembles for the subjugated women in Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel, most recently portrayed on the small-screen wearing Ane Crabtree‘s  costumes. “So [the association] makes sense. I did see the parallel and I didn’t shy away from it.” 

The introduction of a red-caped Harriet, in uniform with her boarding school mates, also symbolizes the “female companionship” that she misses out on by choosing to befriend Emma, “the most powerful girl in town,” according to de Wilde. 

With their richly hued, tailored riding suits, structured collars and neck flourishes, the men also sport looks that are authentic to Regency period dandy fashion — from aristocratic man of the people Mr. Knightley (Johnny Flynn and his spectacular mutton-chop sideburns) to prodigal heartthrob Frank Churchill (Callum Turner) to Emma’s dotty devoted father Mr. Woodhouse (Bill Nighy). 

“In a lot of the fashion illustrations, I saw all these patterns in clothing and color,” says de Wilde. “All the waistcoats have these delicious floral patterns and [Knightley’s] yellow riding coat… It’s so fun to really highlight these historically accurate details and make everything turn into a painting.”

Mr. Knightley, half-dressed.
Mr. Knightley, half-dressed.

“It was fun to do that with the male characters because there’s this weird obsession with what masculinity is in filmmaking,” adds de Wilde. ‘It was interesting to me that men and women basically wore the same thing underneath. They both wore stockings over their knees and these slip dresses. Mr. Knightley’s shirt is twisted and wrapped through his legs because they didn’t wear underwear yet. His shirt was his underwear.”

The debut of Emma’s brother-in-law, neighbor and frequent dinner guest Mr. Knightley involves an exacting ceremonial undressing by his butler out of his day clothes — down to his over-the-knee socks — and into his aforementioned evening suit. The beautiful marigold looked especially brilliant as he forewent his carriage to walk across the verdant and expansive estate grounds leading to the Woodhouse manor.

“Really he and Emma have the same outfit on, dressed or undressed,” says de Wilde. “We are reminding people that our definitions of masculinity and femininity are sort of ridiculous and change with every era in fashion.”

“Emma” is now showing in select theaters and will open wide on Friday, March 6.

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