I love Autumn de Wilde’s film adaption of Emma (2020). The dialogue! The music! The cinematography! And did I mention the costuming? Alexandra Byrne, the costume designer for the film, really outdid herself—and she has an impressive list of film credits and accolades, including an Oscar for Best Costumes for Elizabeth: The Golden Age. She paid exceedingly close attention to historical detail, while taking some minor creative license to visually convey character traits (like Mrs. Elton’s absurd hair!).
But there’s more to the design than historical accuracy. Byrne leveraged the dynamism of the Regency wardrobe to create a wide variety of colorful, eye-catching looks while simultaneously telling a story about wealth and class in Austen’s day.
For example, compare Emma’s rotating assortment of fitted pelisses (a kind of women’s coat) and chic spencers (a fitted jacket) with Harriet’s basic red cloak. Given her wealth and status, Emma’s wardrobe is not just larger than her friend Harriet’s: it is filled with higher-quality, more fashionable garments. By one viewer’s count, Emma owns nine different jackets—a not unreasonable number for her station, but still a stark contrast with Harriet’s options.
Harriet, like the other girls at her finishing school, mainly wears a simple red “cardinal” or “riding hood” cloak in the film. These simple cloaks were pretty standard in rural areas, but the style was on its way out in the early nineteenth century to make way for the trim styles Emma wears.
When the two characters stand next to each other, the contrast is clear. Emma’s outfit outshines Harriet’s more homely look. Small design choices like these shape our impressions of the characters at a glance, even when we may not have the full historical context of the costuming.
There is one aspect that the wardrobes of Emma, Harriet, and all women of this period share, and that is versatility. If the colorful frocks of Emma have inspired you to incorporate some historical inspiration into your personal style, this is the best place to start! The multiple layers and various accessories in Regency style allowed women to create new combinations of dresses, petticoats, chemisettes (a kind of underbodice), and so forth to make new outfits. Meanwhile, fresh trimmings would be used to transform last year’s dresses and bonnets, even for women of Emma’s station. So really, the simplest way to pay homage to Regency fashion is to remix the pieces you already own!
If you are in the market for new pieces that capture the spirit of the film itself, it’s time to break out the frills. Byrne incorporates extra collars and ruffles at just about every turn; similar details are an easy way to adapt Emma to modern times, especially with tops, dresses, and skirts in frothy pastels.
For more ideas, here are some pieces that evoke the colors and history of Emma.
The yellow pelisse is impossible to miss: not only is the garment featured on the official theatrical poster, this striking shade commands attention whenever it appears in the film. Byrne cleverly incorporates yellow throughout the film—Mr. Knightley and Frank Churchill each sport yellow coats in turn, Mrs. Elton favors yellow dresses, and even Harriet incorporates the color into her dresses, albeit in a more muted shade.
Yellow is basically the power color of the film. The brighter and more dominant the shade, the more influence and confidence the character wields. This symbol comes full circle when Harriet asserts herself in a scene with Emma towards the end of the film while wearing a bright pair of yellow leather gloves.
Besides serving a function in the film, this color is simply drop-dead gorgeous in its own right, and yellow is an instant mood booster. Experiment with various shades to find what works for your skin tone, or incorporate it in smaller ways, like amber earrings or a delicate beaded bracelet.
White muslin dresses are practically the hallmark of the Regency era. Proper undergarments helped to create the iconic slim, empire-waist silhouette often seen in Austen films. Colored petticoats and hem embellishments could transform a sheer muslin gown into an entirely new dress, which made these dresses not just pretty but practical.
Modern attire may not admit of quite as much versatility, but it is still possible to capture the look with a white sundress, preferably made of a natural and breathable fiber like cotton or linen. Look for details like buttons, ruffles, and embroidery to evoke the trimmings of the period.
And let’s not forget accessories. Reticules—basically, small coin pouches or purses—were an easy way for women to accessorize and to show off their skill with various handicrafts like knitting and embroidery. Emma herself carries half a dozen different ones in the film. If you want to go the DIY route and craft your own reticule, there are a variety of coin purse patterns online that could be adapted for the purpose. However, I think that the closest modern parallel to a reticule would be a clutch or wristlet, preferably one with a lot of detailing like this bee purse, beaded envelope clutch, or rose wallet.