For ‘Emma’ costumes, new color combos, changing silhouettes and a dash of Marvel

Anya Taylor-Joy stars as Emma Woodhouse in director Autumn de Wilde's "Emma."
Anya Taylor-Joy stars as Emma Woodhouse in director Autumn de Wilde’s “Emma,” where costume designer Alexandra Byrne displays a great bonnet game.
(Focus Features)

The most recent incarnation of Jane Austen’s “Emma” stars Anya Taylor-Joy as the spoiled 19th century woman with a penchant for match-making. Given her class and status, she’s decked out in true finery. Costumed by Oscar-nominated designer Alexandra Byrne, whose work has covered period dramas (“Mary Queen of Scots”) and Marvel Comics films (“The Avengers,” “Doctor Strange”), Byrne knows a thing or two about the importance of collaboration.

Of “Emma” director Autumn de Wilde, Byrne says she “wanted a kind of heightened world, and together early on we established color palettes and really understanding what Autumn wanted, which was to take Emma to the fashion of the moment.”

She says costume and production departments allied closely to achieve a consistency across the brightly colored film, swapping wallpaper and paint and fabric samples and swatches.

“All the talking, meetings and communications and collaborations we had at the beginning paid off hugely,” says Byrne. “We really worked hard at understanding the semi-heightened world Autumn wanted. That’s when it’s very exciting, when you get collaboration and it all works and you understand the world you create together. And that’s the joy of what I do — we’re constantly learning together.”

Johnny Flynn stars as Mr. Knightley in director Autumn de Wilde's "Emma."
Johnny Flynn stars as Mr. Knightley in director Autumn de Wilde’s “Emma.”
(Liam Daniel / Focus Features)
A costume sketch for Mr. Knightley
(David Downton / Focus Features)

Emma’s confectionary costume color palette seems stylized, but in reality it’s quite historically accurate, correct?

Yes and no. The Regency period was interesting, because it began women’s fashion magazines. These were the colored engravings and drawings, very detailed, of the period’s clothing and takes one in a certain direction. While the original museum pieces have a fragility, a naivety, a simplicity, they’re not crudely made but are beautifully hand-stitched. If you look at the colors in the seams, which did not see sunlight, the colors are astonishing, fabulous.

Similar to the mint-green and pink colors you used?

Yes! And they were gorgeous! Also great color combinations that are not our color combinations today. It was a really interesting piece of research. By using strong colors, I played with the idea whether certain people belonged in their environment or were at odds with it.

Did you find the empire waist a difficult silhouette?


They’re very counterintuitive to how we wear clothes now. They were one of the biggest fashion revolutions, as it went from big heavy corseted formal dresses to these thin, fragile muslins. It must have been a bit like Coco Chanel.

I read also that color itself was a class distinction. How so?

Again, it was and it wasn’t. To me, people in period films can seem overdressed, but reality is there was no ready-to-wear. Women made their own clothes, or they had a dressmaker if they were wealthy. And if you’re pedantic about it, women would be frantically sewing all the time to justify the amount of clothes [in the film].

But here it’s about telling Emma’s story: a self-deluded young woman with enough leisure, power and status to meddle in the lives of her neighbors — a big fish in a small pond — and I needed to define her character. The best way to showcase her wealth and self-indulgence was for her to have clothes for every season, every occasion, and that led to creating a broad distinctive seasonal palette.

Mia Goth, left, and Anya Taylor-Joy in "Emma."
Mia Goth, left, showing off the practical red cape of girls from the country in “Emma,” while Anya Taylor-Joy wears an empire gown.
(Focus Features)
A sketch for Anya Taylor-Joy's Emma
(David Downton / Focus Features)

You had an exceptional hat game going, with all the scrumptious bonnets and ribbons.

And there was a moment we were busy making all the clothes, and I thought, “Oh, my God, we’ve got to get serious about the bonnets!” Interestingly, it’s hard to find good ribbons; some we bought, and some are vintage, and some came out of my personal stack I’ve built up over the years and think are beautiful and wait for the perfect time to use them. The bonnets were all made by us.

I noticed the men’s cravats were highly colored with dramatic patterns. Was that period-accurate?

Yes. It was the beginning of a change in the way men wore their collars very high, and it was a way to show one’s class. I read how men would hold their chin up right toward the ceiling as their valets tied their cravats, and as they lowered their chin bones would crack. It was a very peacock period for the men, and it was all about show and strut.

The cabal of red-caped girls walking about certainly vibed Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale.” Was that your intent?

No, in fact the reference came from a research book. In reality at that time, girls in the country had their muslin dresses and red capes; they were the go-to, practical outerwear garment of the day. People have mentioned “Handmaid’s Tale,” but I think [the Regency period] came first!


Some period film ball gowns stand out as overdone and highly formal, whereas yours were soft and neutral. Why?

They only had vegetable dyes, and I wanted to be true to the period. I also wanted the ball not to feel grand but to have a fun village-hall-type atmosphere, a spontaneous affair. There weren’t big heavy ball gowns I saw in museums, either; they were soft and moving.

I don’t know your favorite costume, but the embroidered salmon chemise was delectable. It could easily be worn today.

It’s based closely on a dress in the Victoria and Albert museum, and what I love is the off-white petticoat underneath and the jewel work. The embroidery is made with chenille thread, so you get this look of big furry caterpillars. It’s a luscious combination, and with the empire waist, it just makes you smile.

Did you use any knowledge gleaned from your Marvel comic costumes in Emma’s world?

Yes, when Johnny Flynn wears the leather buckskin britches. They’re notoriously difficult to create, as they’re heavy and get overstretched. So on one Marvel film we developed a technique of fusing leather onto Lycra so it stretches but has memory to return to its shape. We used that technique on his britches, so he’s wearing superhero buckskin britches! People often ask me how I go from superhero movies to period films, and the fact is they both tell a story. The source material is different; you look at comics rather than go to a museum, but it’s still all about telling that essential story.