"Handsome, clever, and rich”, Jane Austen described her heroine in the 1815 novel Emma. A trio of attributes not typically ascribed to our contemporary notion of a Regency darling; the simpering cherub plagued by her nerves, a paragon of angelic sensibility fabricated by Georgette Heyer and the BBC. Emma Woodhouse is a character that adheres to the usual accomplishments of a genteel young lady of the era and yet remains a stoically self-assured twenty-something. Embedded in Austen’s writing lies a witty, satirical commentary on early nineteenth century society. This underlying, yet crucial element to Emma is something that has, more often than not, been swept under the Persian rug in its countless adaptations. Autumn de Wilde’s recent rendition of the beloved novel, however, cleverly alludes to the wry social commentaries Jane Austen so wittily nestled in the original text.
De Wilde, the Woodstock born photographer turned director is perhaps best known for shooting the album covers for musicians such as The White Stripes and her work has appeared on the cover of magazines including Rolling Stone – about as far removed from a Regency parlour as it gets. Nevertheless, she has cultivated a whimsical aesthetic in her work which permeates her adaptation of Emma and perfectly adheres to our romanticised notion of Austen’s world. The film is filtered through pastel hues, and around every corner lies sugar frosted macarons, snap baskets laden with wild strawberries and flower garlands decorating the parish church. The hyper-romantic pastoral setting only adds to the intended satire of the original text because, like Austen, behind the exaggerated frill of exteriors, de Wilde has also buried social critiques and suggestive winks.
Costume in Emma is perhaps the most significant vehicle through which the social inequalities and attitudes of the time are portrayed in the film. Alexandra Byrne took the helm as costume designer, a more than suitable choice, considering the repertoire of period dramas under her belt, from Elizabeth to Mary Queen of Scots.
Emma, played by 23-year-old Anya Taylor‑Joy, was given a feast of sumptuous gowns and accessories by Byrne. Emma’s penchant for fashion was of course, also famously alluded to by Alicia Silverstone’s Cher in a modernised rendition of the novel, Clueless. No tartan mini skirts and border collie handbags to be found in de Wilde’s version, however. Empire line dresses fashioned from silk and delicate muslin were ten to the dozen. A fur trimmed coat, elbow length kid gloves, pearls, golden hair pieces and a bejeweled cross adorn the character throughout in a display of luxurious pea-cocking. This sumptuous exhibit emphasises the fact that Emma is, to put it lightly, concerned predominantly with outward appearance (until of course she learns the error of her ways yada yada). Her decadence in the film, also serves to make the social disparities between herself and other key characters more transparent. When we first meet Harriet, the poor 17 year old school girl of unknown parentage (played by 26-year-old Mia Goth), she is taking afternoon tea with Emma in her friend's palatial home. The two sit beside one another in a manner that demands comparison, Emma in her usual finery and Harriet unadorned, in a plain woollen cardigan and gingham dress, the very emblem of a humble country girl.
And so the subtleties of class continue between the two throughout the film, Emma’s influential power over Harriet not only verbally but visually blatant. In one key scene, Harriet asks for Emma’s advice on a proposal of marriage from a local farmer, Emma, quite disgusted by the prospect of what she deems an unsuitable match, dissuades her friend from accepting, despite the obvious feelings between the couple. The scene is played out as Emma stands on a podium, towering above Harriet whilst being fitted for a new jacket.
Meanwhile, Mrs. Elton, the pompous wife of the local vicar, is a symbol of nouveau riche pretentiousness. A Regency Era TOWIE girl, if you will, she is always turned out in the most ostentatious display of disposable income whether she be at a daytime picnic or ball. Her hair consistently towers atop her head in an elaborate style, her person showered with a display of gaudy trinkets not unlike a car boot sale trestle table. The purpose of Mrs. Elton, it can be argued, was originally to lampoon the expansion of the bourgeoisie, something that is still satirically relevant today. The irony is that Mrs. E is a self-proclaimed advocate of simplicity, repeatedly claiming in the film that she deplores the thought of being ‘over-trimmed’.
Aside from a wry commentary on class however, costume (or lack of) continues to act symbolically in other regards during the film. Twice, we see the brooding yet devilishly handsome Mr Knightley, played by Johnny Flynn, get his kit off. The first time is after a long gallop through the idyllic countryside, escaping from the confines of his cravat and breeches before being dressed from head to toe by his valet (he is a gentleman after all). The second time is in a fit of pique following a heated dispute with Emma, ripping off layers as he writhes around the floor, a laddered stocking on show. Taylor‑Joy also flashes her bum at one point for no apparent reason. Not to be outdone, in another scene a premarital Mr. Elton, seductively unties his black woollen cape in in a bid to woo Emma (to no avail, suffice to say). Ok, admittedly there’s no outright bodice-ripping shagathons, but the act of undressing in the film certainly highlights the sexual undertones apparent in the novel (further amplified by a salacious trailer). There is also the obvious desire to throw off the shackles of refined society now and again. The subtle wink, wink, nudge, nudge moments make the film neatly appropriate to all age groups, teasing enough for adults but stopping short of any real raunch.
Another unavoidable theme throughout the film was the lot of women at the time. Of course, the female experience differed between social classes, but in Emma’s world women were expected to marry well, breed robust heirs and fill the time in between with embroidery. If you weren’t married before your mid-twenties you faced the fate of becoming a spinster aunt living on the fringes of family charity. Costume in Emma played an interesting role in depicting this treatment of women. On one occasion, Emma, lacking the duelling pistols and swords owned by men of the time, stabs at a piece of embroidery with her needle as she contemplates her rival Jane Fairfax. This anger and frustration juxtaposes against the placidity and gentleness expected of Regency ladies, the violent motion also a symbolic stab at the patriarchy. Similarly, Emma’s nose bleed during a typically romantic scene and the subsequent throwing of a bloodied handkerchief back at her male companion, subverts the stereotypes attributed to swooning regency heroines.
Moreover, throughout the film, school girls in bonnets and crimson capes can be seen walking two by two and one cannot help but think of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. A comparison can be drawn between Atwood’s red caped handmaids who are essentially professional baby carriers, and de Wilde’s school girls who are being moulded into the shape of an ‘ideal’ wife. In both regards the red cape can be regarded as a symbol of blood – menstrual, virginal, child-birth blood.
So, what can we take away from Autumn de Wilde’s adaptation of Emma aside from an attraction to fellas in top hats we never knew we had, a desire to scour Depop for coral jewellery and an unsettling urge to consume a vast quantity of marzipan in the shape of fruit, that is? Well for one, there is certainly more to the costumes in this whimsical period drama than at first meets the eye. Whilst yes, the usual lacy frocks and fans of any self respecting romantic period drama are still visible, these are used to convey the satirical nature of Austen's original text. Moreover, they are embedded in a wider array of costumes, seeking to reflect symbolic meaning to the viewer, whether that be a commentary on class, gender or sexual undertone.
Emma is out in UK cinemas now, watch the trailer below if it tickles your fancy