Dress in Film: Little Women on the Big Screen

As Academy Award season approaches, there comes a time to reflect over the films that strike us and I believe that many will agree with me in saying that Little Women’s spectacularly intricate and artistic costumes are worth discussing.

The most notable thing about Jacqueline Durran’s costumes for Little Women is that they reflect the personalities of the characters. As each character evolves, so does their dress, illustrating not only the passing of time but clear moments of narrative development. This, along with a wealth of artistic references, means that the movie is likely to bring joy to any art historian watching it. From Impressionism to the Pre-Raphaelites, the movie becomes an Easter egg hunt for artistic references.

Firstly, each March sister is given a colour palette that repeatedly resonates with their character throughout: Meg’s was green and lavender, Beth’s was brown and pink, Amy’s was light blue, and Jo’s was red and indigo. Whilst Durran tried to remain period-accurate, the costumes became a tool to convey mood, season and temperature. Never straying from the dress conventions of the period, Durran still used dress to show each character’s personality and each actor had the freedom to choose and combine outfits.

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Screenshot from Instagram: littlewomenmovie

Set in Concord, Massachusetts during the American Civil War, the girls’ initial outfits clearly reflect that time. Although women were expected to wear bloomers, chemises and corsets, Durran tweaked this framework to reveal the individual personality of each sister. For example, Meg’s conventional attitude towards life and marriage is reflected in outfits that feature corsets and bloomers, whilst Jo’s rebellious and feminist side is clear in her masculine, corset-free wardrobe of vests, blazers and collared shirts. This masculinity is reinstated in the interchanging clothes between her and Laurie. From the buttercup-coloured paisley vest or Jo’s straw hat at the beach, these swaps further instate Jo’s need to transcend social rules placed on her gender. The androgenicity of their outfits also emphasises them as equals and partners.

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Screenshot from Instagram: littlewomenmovie

One of the most memorable scenes in Little Women (2019) would be their trip to the seaside which clearly hints at Winslow Homer’s seascapes. Their use of checks, stripes and paisleys as well as straw hats makes reference to traditional Victorian style and American Impressionism. Each girls’ persona is again emphasised in their combinations of attire. Winslow Homer also often depicted strong-working women in his work which perhaps further resonates with the March girls’ persona.

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Screenshot from Instagram: littlewomenmovie

Further into the movie, the girls put on a play for Christmas. The set-up is a clear reference to Julia Margaret Cameron’s theatrical photography of her daughters: the paper-cut stars, branches, leaves, fairytale-esque costumes all serve to set up a world where the women are equal to men. The flower crowns also become symbols of innocence. The allusion to strong feminine figures in art history clearly parallels the girls’ ambition to be recognised in the art world.

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Screenshot from Instagram: littlewomenmovie

The beauty of the March sisters is also clearly represented in their likeness to Pre-Raphaelites women. Visible in the loose but elegant clothing worn by characters like Jo and Meg, the characters are suggested to have timeless and elegant beauty. Like Rosetti’s muses, the girls engage in artistic activities such as writing, playing instruments or reciting poetry.

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Screenshot from Instagram: littlewomenmovie

Finally, the influence of American Impressionism clearly dominates the ‘before’ portion of the film whilst French Impressionism dominates the later parts of the film. Particularly evident with Amy’s dress after she moves to Paris. Although she was always weary of her looks, older Amy becomes the most decorated out of all the sisters and frequently adorns herself with embroidered dresses, large skirts, embellished coats and hats. This ‘maximisation’ of dress shows the personal growth her character. Paralleling her loss of innocence, it further reflects her determination to become the main provider for her family.

Screenshot from Instagram for little

Screenshot from Instagram: littlewomenmovie

These are only a small number of artistic influences that can be found in Little Women (2019). The three balls also clearly mark the evolution of style from the mid-19th century to late 19th century. As the ideal female figure moves from an Empirical-styled dress to modern French fashion, the movie encompasses a wide range of costumes and dress. Jacqueline Durran’s dress research in 19th century photography and paintings, as well as books and fashion magazines of the time, brings out, for me, the joy of cinematography. Her modern twist on periodically accurate clothes illustrates that filmography is often embedded in dress. All that can be said is this: Go get that Oscar Jacqueline!