Movie costumes – Emma 2020

In honor of the beloved English author Jane Austen’s birthday I would like to discuss the movie costumes of the most recent film adaption of Emma which was released earlier this year.  Although the film’s Regency period costumes may appear to be dated in the historic past, any of these dresses could be an inspiration for a modern wedding.  But before we look at those costumes, let me give you a brief biography of Jane Austen and some information about the 2020 film, Emma.  

Jane Austen (born December 16, 1775 and died July 18, 1817) wrote a total of six novels.  Her first book, Sense and Sensibility was published in 1811, followed by Pride and Prejudice in 1813, Mansfield Park in 1814 and Emma in 1816.  Two additional books were published posthumously in 1818, Northanger Abbey and Persuasion.  Austen had started a third book, Sanditon, but it was not finished before her death.

Austen’s books were based on the society in which she lived and she wrote with a touch of humor and drama about her female characters as they find romance, love and occasional heartbreak during the Regency period in England.  Originally the first four books were published anonymously which brought Austen a degree of moderate success that afforded her some financial independence, keep in mind that female authors were rare at this time and in general women socially and financially relied on their husbands.  In 1833, several years after her death, the novels were republished as a set with illustrations by Ferdinand Pickering.  The novels continued to gain commercial success throughout years and have rarely gone out of print. 

Now, let’s briefly discuss the 2020 film adaption of Austen’s fourth book, Emma, which features Anya Taylor-Joy in the starring role of Emma Woodhouse with costars Johnny Flynn as George Knightley, Mia Goth as Harriet Smith and Bill Nighy as Mr. Woodhouse.   The film, directed by Autumn de Wilde, received good reviews and went on to gain two Academy Awards nominations for Best Costume Design and Best Make-up and Hair Styling.  The plot of the Regency period comedy-drama tells the story of Emma who is living with her father in the country; she is a wealthy and elegant young lady who can’t seem to stop herself from meddling in the lives of her neighbors and especially attempting to make a love match for her friend Harriet.  Meanwhile she is unaware that her childhood friend, Mr. Knightley, is in love with her. 

Next, I will discuss the costumes from the 2020 Emma film which were designed by Alexandra Bryne.  Before I start, I would just like to preference that I am NOT an expert on Regency fashions but I will do my best when describing the Emma movie costumes.

Regency fashion for women was based on a style known as the Empire silhouette; the name most probably came from Empress Josephine who was Napoleon Bonaparte’s first wife.  This term generally refers to a dress that is fitted across the bodice and then just below the bust line falls loosely into a gathered long skirt.

A Regency lady would wear various styles of dresses throughout the day; such as a morning dress worn at home, a dress for visiting neighbors or shopping in town, a dress worn for traveling or a riding habit and finally a dinner dress worn in the evening or perhaps a ball gown for a special occasion.  In the film, due to her father’s wealth and status, Emma wardrobe has more fashionable dresses or accessories made in higher-quality fabrics especially when compared to her friend Harriet’s dresses.

Basic white cotton or muslin dress

The main item of a Regency lady’s wardrobe was often made in a white cotton or muslin fabric sometimes embellished with white embroidery or other trimmings.  The simplicity of the white dress allowed versatility and could be accessorized with a chemisette (an undergarment made of cotton or lace to be worn beneath an open-necked dress) or a canezou (a short overgrament usually made of cotton or lace).  To add color to the simple white dress an overbodice, sometime made of silk or velvet, or a colored slip can be worn underneath to create a soft muted tone.  Shown below are several examples of these types of accessories.

an example of the white dress worn with a lace chemisette

an example of an overbodice in pink velvet

an overbodice with beautiful cap sleeves and trim

Historical note:  In the three photos shown above the character of Emma is wearing a topaz cross, in fact Jane Austen owned a similar piece of jewelry which she received as a gift from her brother.

Evening dress or ballgown

A Regency lady, especially one that is as socially prominent as Emma, would have a few evening dresses or ballgowns to wear on special occasions.  Usually these types of dresses would be made of more luxurious fabrics, such as silk or satin often in richer colors that the white or pastel day dresses.  Frequently worn over a white underdress would be sheer overdress made of silk organza or netting with trim and embellishments such as embroidery, beadwork or fabric flowers. 

The first example of an evening dress worn by the character of Emma during the dinner scene at Christmas and it is a beautiful ivory silk organza worn over an ivory satin underdress and the overlay that features silver leaves with an addition layer with silver stars, as shown in the photos below.

Fashion Note: This dress would be a lovely inspiration for a bridal dress for a candlelight evening ceremony and the silver embellishments would shine beautifully. 

The second evening dress worn by Emma in the film is actually a close copy of an antique dress now in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, England.  In the photo from the film shown below, the dress is accessorized with long white gloves and a black and white striped shawl.

shown in the photos below from the Victoria and Albert Museum
is the original red silk net evening dress worn over a simple white underdress

the bodice, sleeves and hem are embellished with an embroidered design
of rosebud garlands in pink, red and green chenille

Emma’s wedding dress

At the end of the film, in one of the final scenes, Emma is married to her Mr. Knightley.  In the photos from the film shown below, Emma and her father are ready to walk down the aisle in the small village church.  She is wearing a taupe silk under dress with an overdress of silk organza, the bodice crosses in the front with lace trim at the neckline and puffed sleeves.  

Fashion Note:  Keep in mind that a white wedding dress was not popularized in England until the Victorian period after Queen Victoria wore one when she married Prince Albert.  A lady of Emma’s social status during the Regency period would probably have a new dress custom made for her wedding while a bride of the lower working class would just wear her “best dress” on her wedding day.   

shown below is another photo of Emma wearing a very tall stovepipe hat
with an attached embroidered bridal veil

Finally, before closing out this post, I need to mention perhaps one of my favorite clothing items of this version of the film Emma.  It would be the pink spencer worn by the character of Emma several times during the film, shown below is the scene when she is in the village with Frank Churchill (played by Callum Turner).  The film costume is actually a close copy of a circa 1817 antique jacket now in the Chertsey Museum located southwest of London.     

the pink spencer in the film features beautiful cording and sleeve details,
as shown in the close-up photos below

shown in the photo below from the Chertsey Museum
is the circa 1817 pink spencer which has a much more detailed collar

As previously mentioned, although the film’s Regency period costumes may appear to be dated in the historic past, any of these dresses could be an inspiration for a modern wedding.