Color Stories and Class Distinctions in the Costumes of Emma.

Posted on March 26, 2020

A perfect distraction for this time of social distancing and stress, the new adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma is now available for home viewing and once we got a load of the costumes, there was no way we weren’t going to do a little bit of a dive on their meanings. Yes, we’re likely to spoil a two-hundred-year-old story but even if you’ve never read it, trust: it’s quite obvious where it’s going from the first five minutes.

Emma.is a confection of a film, full of pastels and feathers, macarons and pearls, flowers and lace. And Emma Woodhouse herself is a confection of a character:

It’s not just that it’s all ringlets and pink here. Yes, there is that candy-tinged exuberance in the costume and that’s a big aspect of the film’s approach and aesthetic, but we want you to look at the insane level of detail on her costume. Putting aside the question of historical accuracy (which you absolutely must do in a film that takes an approach like this to its design), this costume is about as cinematic as it gets, because it not only gives you something that’s pleasurable to look at, but something that really begs for you to take as close a look as possible. We haven’t given you too many screencaps here because this film is still in release and we don’t want to just copy the whole thing, but look at how detailed her costume is compared to the others you see. This is of a piece with how Emma is situated in the film; how she is both the Golden Mean in terms of class sophistication and the sun around which all of the other characters revolve. Put a pin in that.

For now, we want to note how costume designer Alexandra Byrne and the film’s director Autumn de Wilde took an almost dollhouse approach to how the characters appear within their settings. Note how Emma and her father look so perfect surrounded by all that mint green. This way of portraying scenes as staged tableaux, with costumes and set design or location interacting in aesthetically perfect ways, permeates the film.

Pretty dolls in pretty clothes in pretty houses and gardens.

Similarly, characters in florals are often extravagantly framed by flora:

 

There’s not a thing subtle about these creative decisions and that’s entirely the point of them. We wouldn’t go so far as to say they lend the story an air of artificiality; more like a sense of heightened reality. An illustrated storybook in film form.

Okay, back to this:

 

Emma’s costumes are insanely detailed, as we said. And by modern standards (and even historical ones), they could come off a bit too obnoxiously detailed, but that’s the point. The story sets Emma up as a naively shallow and judgmental girl of wealth and intelligence, operating in a social environment rife with class distinctions. Emma’s costume design depicts her as both a woman of means and a woman who is meant to be considered the center of attention:

 

There’s a certain lack of … we won’t say “demureness,” but her clothing speaks of someone who uses her money and her taste to make sure she is more than or better than anyone else in the room. Not only do most of the characters in the film hold her up as a figure of immense taste and class, but the film itself tends to position Emma’s look as the most perfect presentation, existing on the halfway point between the modesty of Jane Fairfax:

 

And the tacky social climbing of Mrs. Elton:

 

Yellow is a recurring color in almost all of the characters’ costumes; sometimes in very obvious ways, such as Mrs. Elton’s two yellow dresses and the focus-pulling yellow coats of both Mr. Knightley and Mr. Churchill:

 

And also sometimes in very subtle ones (check Jane’s shoes). The reason for that can be found in the film’s most eye-popping look for its main character:

 

Costume designer Alexandra Byrne revealed that she paid homage to the iconic yellow outfit worn by Alicia Silverstone in the Emma update Clueless with this design. And like Silverstone’s costume, it positions Emma as the sun around which all of the other characters rotate in the story. Which brings us to one Miss Harriet Smith, who is presented in this film as Emma’s most important relationship, even above her romance. Like all the other characters, she’s got at least one yellow look in her wardrobe:

But what’s more notable about how Harriet is presented is the relative shabbiness of her clothing. Jane Fairfax’s wardrobe comes off modest but well-made, whereas Harriet’s is meant to represent the vast separation class distinctions impose on her friendship with Emma:

 

Note how even her lace gloves look dingy in comparison to Emma’s.

 

They are routinely shot side-by-side in order to showcase both their differences and their bond. Note how they both have lace collars and a checked textile while also noting the differences in the quality of their outerwear and hats.

 

Looking past the enormous differences in their dresses, compare Harriet’s necklace with Emma’s here. The characters themselves would never openly discuss their own class differences with each other, nor would anyone in the story think of Emma as ridiculously privileged, but the costumes do a bangup job of making sure you never forget it, in every one of their scenes:

 

You could even say that the costumes are explaining how self-absorbed and obnoxious Emma can be. Showing up at a parlour boarder’s house trimmed in fur to check in on your sick friend is quite the flex. Which is why it’s so interesting to see what both characters wore in their final scene together in the film, as Harriet asserts herself, declares her intentions and announces her birthright proudly.

 

Emma has been humbled and in her penitence, she is not only dressed in a demure, simple, relatively unadorned white dress, but so is Harriet. Their costumes call back and forth to each other constantly throughout the film, but this is the only time they are pictured as two people on equal footing – with one telling, cheeky detail:

 

Harriet’s bright yellow gloves. Their friendship’s been tested with Emma learning humility and Harriet learning to look out for herself, but she will always remain just a little bit in awe of her wealthy, smart, socially superior friend.

 

[Photo Credit: Courtesy of Box Hill Films – Stills: via Tom and Lorenzo]

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