Emma., along with a handful of other films recently in theaters, hit VOD today as studios figure out how to cater to audiences waiting out the coronavirus pandemic in their homes. Thanks to streaming services like Netflix, people are turning to movies, TV shows, and books to pass the time — sometimes even ones about pandemics. But for those of us who’d rather not be reminded of the current state of the world, there’s no better movie than Emma. to function as an escape, and it’s in large part thanks to its bright, detailed, and sometimes silly Regency-era clothing.
Anya Taylor-Joy as Emma and Johnny Flynn as Mr. Knightley tops off a cast filled with British baes for a retelling of one of the more comical of Jane Austen’s stories. About a well-to-do young woman who amuses herself as an informal matchmaker, Emma. is a story of class, prejudice, and love in the small fictional English town of Highbury.
There are a number of elements of the 2020 film that contribute to its overall coziness. There’s the music, composed by Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s sister Isobel Waller-Bridge, and the costumes, designed by Alexandra Byrne, and the historically-accurate aesthetic brought to life by director Autumn de Wilde, who hopped on the phone with Refinery29 while safe in her own quarantine. The director said fans had been asking for some time for her to release the film digitally for them to enjoy while trapped on their couches. It’s no skin off her back — she’s thrilled people finally have the chance to see the film not just once, but multiple times to pick up on the small details she and her team wove in to make it such a rich, cheerful, and ultimately distracting story.
Refinery29: Dropping this movie on VOD early because of a pandemic is probably the last thing you ever expected, right?
Autumn de Wilde: “The thing about this movie [is] I was feeling very depressed about the state of the world anyway. My goal really was to make an escape film. If someone doesn't know this story and loves the movie and then decides they love this period, then they will have — I don't know how long this quarantine is — but they will have endless [research].”
What makes this film so comforting to watch are the costumes and overall aesthetics. What was your vision for those things?
“Alexander Byrne, the costume designer and Kave Quinn, the production designer, and Marese Langan, the hair and makeup designer, together we laid a lot of character details into the movie for people who can watch it more than once. You could watch it just to watch it, you could also watch it just watching the hair story, you could watch the costumes. Emma especially, her costume story was very specifically designed to show how [she was] changing. She has a lot of collar action going on, [like] a bird of prey or Venus flytrap.”
How did you decide on Emma’s outfits?
“Emma's wardrobe was designed as a wardrobe. So Anya was very much a part of, 'Okay, and in this scene you're wearing this dress, which of your earrings and shoes would you want to wear with it?’ So you'll see certain jewelry and shoes repeat, not because there wasn't enough, but because she had an extensive wardrobe that was bespoke and handmade for her with vintage pieces incorporated.
I was obsessed with [her coral earrings]. And also they were a nightmare cause her curls kept getting caught. We call it curl-gate. And we also had bonnet-gate. My DP Christopher Blauvelt, who is amazing, he and I were obsessed with framing. He would call out, ‘Maintain that bonnet! Keep the whole bonnet in the frame!’ It was part of the reason why we shot the format we did, cause it's just a little bit taller.”
How important was it to you to keep the beauty and fashion historically accurate?
“You'll see a movie that's supposed to be in the ‘30s, but it was made in the ‘70s and it had a ‘70s spin on it because they were uncomfortable going completely ‘30s. You know, ‘Hold on folks. We still want them to be sexy.’ So I was really excited cause I was actually being encouraged to use my vision. Anya wasn't pressured to make every scene like she's a sex symbol. Of course she does look very cute, but when she's pissed off, it makes it more comedic. These really tight curls were very much, in my opinion, inspired by the classical sculptures from Italy and Greece. If we ever get to go back to a museum again, you'll see a lot of the hairstyles that are in Emma.”
So, sculptures, but what else did you use as historical inspiration for their clothing?
“I was very influenced by caricatures, which are a cartoonist exaggeration. I looked at the fashion illustrations of what the women were getting in their magazines. And then I looked at the caricatures of the fashion. Having the balance between the beauty of those national illustrations and the comedy of the cartoonists take on that same fashion was really fun. [For instance, Emma] warming her butt by the fire was actually from a caricature of exactly that, a woman reading a little novel and warming her butt by the fire. To me, it was like when we as women take our bra off when we get home.”
There’s just as much detail when it comes to men’s fashion in this film, as well. Particularly the first scene with Mr. Knightley when he’s getting dressed and we see his butt.
“Mr. Knightley dressing was [done] for a very specific reason: He's so comfortable in his clothes and that is very important because later on when he's losing his mind because he's completely going nuts because he loves Emma so much, those clothes are in his way. In order to really believe that he's having a panic attack and tearing his clothes off, you needed to see that never has happened to him in his life.”
My favorite little costume detail from the movie is the reticules, designed by Liria Pristine. What was the historical function of those tiny bags?
“The things they needed to carry would have been smaller. So they would have carried around something called a vinaigrette, which looks like a little snuff box or it could have been in a cane. Mr. Woodhouse was carrying a cane where the top spins off and lavender seeds are put in it. So, he's carrying the cane to smell it. Not for walking. In this time period, they didn't know how infection was passed yet, so they really thought that their environment potentially could make them ill.”
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.