Empire lines and Regency delights: the magnificence of Emma

Emma (Anya Taylor-Joy) and Harriet (Mia Goth) in Empire gowns
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Emma features a gorgeous array of period-accurate, well put-together costumes that deserve more appreciation. Genevieve Nardella reports, in the latest in a series on Academy Award winners and nominees.
Empire lines and Regency delights: the magnificence of Emma

Film costuming enhances the quality of movies more than people realise, especially in period pieces.

Poor researching, shoddy needlework and a lack of care can result in costumes that are terrible, inaccurate or both.

But this wasn’t a problem for Emma (2020), the film adaptation of Jane Austen’s 1815 novel of the same name.

The gorgeous costumes in this movie were designed by Alexandra Byrne, who had previously worked on another Jane Austen adaptation, Persuasion (1995).

Byrne was the perfect choice for Emma, which was nominated for the Academy Award for costume design. The award ultimately went to Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.

Byrne has been designing for decades, so she’s had time to master her craft, creating historically accurate looks at every turn.

Empire lines and Regency delights: the magnificence of Emma
Bridgerton used fabrics and colours that were anachronistic.

Other Regency-era (1811-20) period pieces like Bridgerton (2020) adopt the basic silhouette of the time but use modern fabrics, patterns and colours.

These things might appeal to a 21st-century audience, but it’s so satisfying when costume designers and hair departments get it right.

Although Emma is a relatively low-budget movie, Byrne was able to draw inspiration from Regency fashion and avoid the criticism lobbed at Bridgerton and other pieces with more anachronistic costuming.

She even makes copies of original Regency pieces, such as the titular Emma Woodhouse’s pink evening gown. From the high Empire waistline to the embroidery lining the hems, neckline and sleeves, Byrne makes her pieces look like something straight out of an 1815 fashion plate.

Empire lines and Regency delights: the magnificence of Emma
Film dress vs. historical dress from the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Aside from the dresses being so pretty, each costume suits each character. The “handsome, clever and rich” Emma has more of a budget to work with than a character like Harriet Smith, whose fashions are occasionally dated and unglamorous.

When Harriet dresses up in a lovely gown, Emma goes one step beyond and breaks out a crisp, white dress with intricate green embroidery.

While not everything is accurate to the period, the anachronisms work with the characters. For example, Mrs Elton wears her hair in a style that wouldn’t become popular for at least another decade.

Empire lines and Regency delights: the magnificence of Emma
Bridgerton’s dresses aped the Empire line, but the designs were inaccurate in many ways.

While the other women wear the more Regency-inspired curls in the front with the rest of their hair tied back, she opts for an 1820s bow-shaped top knot.

She also wears a little neck ruffle, which doesn’t appear often in Regency clothing, aside from chemisettes. However, chemisettes have this neck ruffle connected to the shirt, while Mrs Elton’s ruffle is more like a choker.

Empire lines and Regency delights: the magnificence of Emma
Mr and Mrs Elton in Emma. Her hair style and neck ruffle show she is out of place among the other women.

It might seem odd, especially for a film that has such generally accurate costuming. Still, these choices work. Mrs Elton is portrayed as frivolous and silly, so the ridiculous hairstyle and ruff further the idea that she is out-of-place among the other women.

Byrne deserves to be recognised for her wonderful work in the lovely film that is Emma.

Do yourself a favour and watch it now. Along with the lovely cinematography, witty dialogue and great performances, you will be bombarded with more gorgeous Regency gowns than you can handle.