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Opulence and Frugality Inform the Look of the Latest Take on Jane Austen’s ‘Emma’

Jane Austen’s “Emma” is a world of elegance and refinement; its story centers on class distinction and the power of vanity, and how those cause tension between friends and lovers. The challenge for costumer Alexandra Byrne and production designer Kave Quinn to help director Autumn de Wilde deliver her vision of the classic, which hits theaters Feb. 21, was to create a landscape that was simultaneously sumptuous and defined by specific rules. 

De Wilde steeped Quinn and Byrne in her interest in the Georgian era (1714-1830), setting up the production’s collaborative atmosphere. As Quinn explains, de Wilde has “this really great collection of Georgian prints” and took the crew on a guided tour of sites they’d be using for locations. The budget for the film, produced by Working Title, was tight and shooting days were limited, so the design team members had to communicate very clearly with each other and de Wilde and stay in constant contact to be able to solve problems rapidly, says Byrne, whose first job was working on a BBC production of another Jane Austen adaptation, the more dour “Persuasion.” 

Color was critical to the look of “Emma.” Drawing on Sofia Coppola’s 2006 “Marie Antoinette,” Quinn says pastels were key to the production design and costuming. She used mint green and pale pink, as well as yellow and burnt orange to illustrate Emma’s cool and breezy attitude. “I worked closely with Autumn to develop a palette of colors for every season,” Byrne explains. She leaned on white muslin for her designs, but she stresses the costumes were never meant to be just white; the sheerness of the fabric allowed her to layer other items on top to create a depth and richness that contrasted with the lightness and buoyancy. 

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Austen’s love story is also a stark exploration of class differences among the wealthy Emma (Anya Taylor-Joy) and the poorer Harriet Smith (Mia Goth) and Miss Bates (Miranda Hart). Byrne conveyed that dichotomy with a sameness of outfits for Harriet and Miss Bates and a great number of choices for Emma. A privileged woman like Emma would have a dressmaker, says Byrne, while Harriet might have a limited number of pieces in her wardrobe — outfits that also weren’t as elegantly embroidered. A “clean and perfectly presented” wardrobe denotes a person’s social position, says Byrne. 

The number of accessories characters wear can also point up the difference in standing. “Some directors shy away from [accessories],” Byrne says, so as not to overshadow the costumes, but for this film she used gaudy bows and necklaces to enhance comedy and economic discrepancy.

Quinn also delineated class disparity via changes in the sets. “We made everything a lot plainer” for the lower-class houses, she explains. De Wilde is a big fan of Georgian “frippery,” Quinn adds, such as overly decorated cakes and wall hangings — these were used as focal points in the parties Emma attends. “Pink and green wallpaper and drapes really make a statement.” 

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