From ‘Emma’ to Natalie Portman, a dress can be worth a thousand words

“Little Women’s” costume design Oscar may not be enough, but it honors an essential element of literary adaptation.


When Greta Gerwig’s widely beloved “Little Women” won its sole Oscar this year for costume design, the victory for Jacqueline Durran was shadowed by frustration from fans, who thought the movie was being recognized only for its stereotypically feminine qualities. For a film that turns on its heroines’ struggles to be treated as artists, not ornaments, it could be seen as an ironic accolade. But that critique itself takes costumes at face value, overlooking the many ways that recent costume dramas — especially those written, directed and designed by women and usually adapted from books by women too — are using clothes to amplify the social substance of the work.

Costumes, in other words, do a lot of work. Adaptations of centuries-old novels strive to bring to life how the clothes not only looked but felt — an element that’s often difficult to grasp from books. On film, actor and costume interact. We see women, in particular, struggling to breathe and move in styles that enforce their stillness, or employing what they wear to perform (or refuse) predetermined roles.

Photographer and music-video director Autumn de Wilde’s new version of “Emma,” adapted by novelist Eleanor Catton, is the first big-screen version of Jane Austen’s novel since Douglas McGrath’s 1996 film starring Gwyneth Paltrow (or since Amy Heckerling’s looser adaptation, “Clueless,” with which the new film shares an irreverent comic spirit and an interest in clothing as class signifier). “Emma’s” costume designer, Alexandra Byrne, has overseen several Marvel movies in addition to period dramas about women fighting to hold on to power in male-dominated worlds — notably 2018’s “Mary Queen of Scots” and 2007’s “Elizabeth: The Golden Age, for which she won an Oscar. The new “Emma” is highly stylized — a Wes Andersonian world of pastels and symmetry that gets gradually messier as real emotions start to ruffle the play-acting.


Emma is a heroine whom Austen was convinced her readers wouldn’t like. The prettiest girl in town as well as the richest, she perches complacently at the top of her small social pyramid. As portrayed by Anya Taylor-Joy in the new film, she wears a crown of tight blond ringlets and long white dresses that give her the look of a meddling Greek goddess.

Emma’s class status is signaled in part by the size of her wardrobe. Unlike other characters in the movie, she doesn’t have to retrim and rework her old dresses to suit new occasions. Several scenes take place in the village haberdashery, a female space that shows how for most women, fashion in this era was a matter of hands-on skill and creativity. Emma’s lack of artistic talent, along with other “accomplishments” like piano playing, is a running joke — and a pointed one. It’s a sign that she’s rich enough to enjoy the rare privilege of not having to marry.

Emma’s beauty is also a privilege, allowing her to dress simply — unlike the vicar’s crass, social-climbing wife, Mrs. Elton, whose dark hair is styled to match Emma’s but crowned with absurd “trimmings” of bows and ribbons. The designer also astutely dresses Emma’s father in head-to-toe silver brocade, reminding us that he’s not just a benign hypochondriac but a superficial man who judges others accordingly.

By contrast, Emma’s eventual suitor, Mr. Knightley, often appears physically uncomfortable in his clothing, which is plainer and more practical than that of other men in his social position. In one early scene, he’s shown impatiently stripping as his servants prepare his bath. Soon after, Emma stands on a stool in front of her fireplace, exquisitely dressed, like a statue on a pedestal, only to briefly hitch up her skirt to warm her bare backside — a hint that the goddess is human after all.

Natalie Portman arriving at the 92nd Academy Awards on Feb. 9.
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

The challenge of these historical dramas is to make the costumes feel like clothes and the people wearing them people, not unrelatable mannequins. In Gerwig’s “Little Women,” Durran’s costumes are pulled on and thrown off, shared and swapped, piled up against the cold and muddied in the dirt. The March sisters, as children, constantly don costumes of their own for play-acting and games. Amy and Jo, the aspiring artists, have costumes that blend the practical and the performative. When Jo writes in her family’s attic, she layers on thick woolen socks and blankets to keep warm, along with an old military jacket that allows her to play the role of writer before she can do it for real. Amy’s rough linen painter’s smock protects her dress but also lets her pretend for a while that she can be an artist as well as a woman — though the older she gets, the more pressing the obligation becomes to marry for money.


The sisters’ early fondness for dressing up prepares them for the marriage market. At her first ball, eldest sister Meg borrows a low-cut, sugar-pink dress from a rich friend — a disguise of finery that works until she encounters Laurie, her childhood friend and neighbor, who tells her he hates the dress for its “fuss and feathers.” As in “Emma,” the dislike of gaudy display is a moral judgment, not just an aesthetic one.

It’s also a judgment that men are particularly free to make. For the women in these dramas, what they wear and how they wear it is a matter of economic strategy: Beauty is currency. Emma argues to Mr. Knightley that her poor and pretty young friend Harriet has every chance of marrying well because looks and charm always turn men’s heads. She’s not wrong. Their fight mirrors one between Amy March and Laurie in “Little Women.” Laurie insists that romantic attachment is all but Amy essentially checks his privilege, contending that her beauty has an economic value for herself and her family and that she has a responsibility to get a good price for it.

Their arguments notwithstanding, both Emma and Amy end up happily paired with their combatants. In Céline Sciamma’s new movie, “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” there’s no such compensation. (The film is not adapted from a novel but inspired by the life and work of the 18th century French painter Élisabeth Vigée Lebrun.) Marianne, an artist, has been commissioned to paint the portrait of a young woman named Héloïse as a gift that will secure her marriage to a man she’s never met. Before Héloïse’s fate is sealed, the two women fall in love, but their romance can’t withstand the forces of the marriage market.

As a costume drama, designed by Dorothée Guiraud, the film is strikingly minimalist, with only a handful of dresses worn over and over again. These are firmly divided between clothes and costumes, everyday outfits and those for display only. The emerald-green silk in which Héloïse sits for her portrait is designed to make her marketable — a stiff, superficial foil to the plain shifts and petticoats in which she and Marianne become intimate. As their separation draws near, Marianne is haunted by visions of Héloïse in a ghostly white gown. She may herself have been able to find an escape, in art, from the limits of patriarchy, but the white bridal gown remains the ultimate, inescapable costume for a woman of her time.

On the red carpet at this year’s Oscars — an occasion as carefully costume-designed as any movie — Natalie Portman drew attention for her Dior cape, subtly embroidered with the names of eight women, including Gerwig and Sciamma, who were overlooked for directing honors. Despite the backlash that followed, her gesture was powerful in showing how clothes meant for wordless display can be made to speak. As women battle to make headway against inequality, just as they did two centuries ago, sometimes a dress is more than just a dress.

Scutts is a writer based in New York and the author of “The Extra Woman: How Marjorie Hillis Led a Generation of Women to Live Alone and Like It.”