Watching Emma (2020) is like spending 125 minutes in a Ladurée shop set in the 1800s. A real life Fragonard painting, the film’s soft-hued colour palette submerges the viewer in a modern vision of Georgian romance and the world of the Jane Austen is re-imagined with frills, pastels and macarons.
Ostentatious bonnets and colourful spencers brighten each scene whilst splashes of mint, pink, yellow and blue are reminiscent of Sofia Coppola’s “Marie Antoinette” and Wes Anderson’s “Grand Budapest Hotel”. With every season being given a specific colour palette, the aristocratic aesthetic of Austen’s England is communicated through everything from extravagant floral wallapaper to delicate bone china.
Oscar-winning costume designer Alexandra Byrne modernises the character of Emma by re-interpreting her as a fashionable woman from the 21st century. Emma (played by Ana Taylor-Joy) becomes a symbol of Victorian vanity as her outfits bedazzle the viewer every time she enters a room. The focus on empirical hemlines is reminiscent of the Parisian fashion journals of the early 19th century which repeatedly showed dresses gathered under the bust and fashioned out of delicate white muslin.
Despite these direct references, Byrne revived the costumes by rendering the designs in unusually modern fabrics and colours. Dismantling the common assumption that clothing was particularly demure during the 1800s, Byrne notes that new dying techniques colour had actually become common practice. On top of the layers of white muslin (the typical costume of choice for wealthy females at the time), Byrne further updates this style with bright accessories. Whilst the students’ bright red hoods seem to come straight out of the Handmaiden’s Tale, Emma’s deep blue pelisse and green checked coat makes her the focal point of every scene. It is worth noting that the milinary shop is featured repeatedly throughout the film: Emma’s world is one of fashion, manipulation and self-image, all of which are essential to her role as style-icon and matchmaker.Colour was a symbol of wealth during the 1810s and Byrne manipulates this to spectacular effect. The colour of each costume is used to vividly express the personality of each character; be it witm irony or ridicule, the viewer mocks Mrs Elton’s outrageous attire, her orange day dress and the comedically large black ribbon atop of her head.
Men’s fashion is granted equal importance in Emma. Raised collars add an almost claustrophobic allure to each outfit, symbolising the rigid definition of masculinity at the time. With sharp cuts and tailoring being more predominant than embroidery for men’s fashion, the natural form of the body was enhanced in order to match with Neoclassical ideals. Indeed, the costumes of Mr. Woodhouse (played by Bill Nighy) and Mr. Knightly (Johnny Flynn) play on traditionally rich colours and materials to communicate wealth and superiority.
The naked body becomes just as important as the clothed body in Emma. Whilst the male form is shown completely (see Knightly’s dressing scene at the beginning of the film), the female nude is treated with irreverence. A stark contrast to typical presentations of the female nude at the time, Emma is shown warming her backside and Knightly’s declaration of love is comedially ruined by a nosebleed.
Using the treatment of the body to subvert the Georgian gender hierarchies, the manipulation of the body is central to Byrne’s reworking of ‘Emma’ and a modern twist is given to a timeless novel which clearly shows that sometimes, less is not more.