By Maureen Lee Lenker
April 08, 2021 at 10:30 AM EDT

It is a truth universally acknowledged that any truly great Jane Austen adaptation also needs fantastic Regency fashion.

When it came to 2020's Emma, starring Anya Taylor-Joy and Johnny Flynn, Alexandra Byrne was there to create an accurate and eye-catching wardrobe befitting Austen's most impudent heroine.

Byrne is an Oscar-winner for Elizabeth: The Golden Age and has a lot of Elizabethan titles to her credit, but Emma gave her the chance to get back to her roots. "The first film I designed back in '96 was Persuasion by Jane Austen," she tells EW. "In a way, it was revisiting a period of time that I've designed for before, but right at the beginning of my career."

"When I was designing Persuasion, I absolutely didn't know what I was doing," she quips. "So I was firing on that energy of naivety and ignorance and trusting my instincts. I hope I've learned quite a lot over the years, but I remembered that feeling of the way I was working then and to reminded myself that actually, you can just trust your instincts quite a lot."

Those instincts led her to her sixth Oscar nomination, so we called her up to get all the gossip on how she made such distinctive, accurate, eye-catching looks. If we loved them less, we could talk about them more, but we'll leave that to Byrne herself.

Credit: Focus Features

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Perhaps more than any other Austen heroine, Emma is very concerned with outward appearances and a bit of a clothes horse. How much did that factor into your design approach?

ALEXANDRA BYRNE: That was quite a challenge because quite often I feel that period films are over costumed. Because people get carried away. But then again, with Emma, she is the queen bee. She's very indulged, and she has everything she wants. [The Regency] was the beginning of fashion becoming a real statement because of the circulation of women's magazines. So, I wanted her to be the kind of the character that has the right clothes for the right occasion, the right season, the right time of day. She can dress entirely at her whim for the statement she wants to make. But we also have a story spanning a whole calendar year, so I wanted to use Emma as the person who has everything for every season. So, I developed a seasonal palette for her clothes, which then dictates the world around her.

Something I loved that films so rarely do is we see Emma re-wear clothes, and mix and match items. How did you hit on that?

I think a lot of people think that Regency is just a a muslin dress and walk away. But actually, there are so many layers involved. You start with the chemise, and then the corsets and a petticoat, then the dress, whether it's muslin or silk. Then, you'd have boots and gloves and jewelry, a bonnet, a short jacket or coat. What I wanted to do was to create a wardrobe so that it really was a proper wardrobe for Emma. We combine all these pieces in different ways. In the film, she really only has three muslin dresses, but they look very different on almost every occasion because of the color of the petticoat underneath or the way it's accessorized. She is following the fashion of the time, and she has everything she wants. But rather than it just being costume after costume after costume, I wanted it to have a sense of reality. Even though it is an extensive wardrobe, she is actually dressing for the moment. On the actual shooting day, the actors quite often they'd start off and get their under-layers on, and then, they'd go to rehearse on set. When Anya came back from the rehearsal, we could fine-tune what the costume was depending on how she felt the scene had worked. And what she wanted to play into or against.

Credit: Focus Features

Were there any specific descriptions you took from Austen's text to inspire an ensemble? She's not typically a great writer of clothes.

No, she's not. But it was more the sense of the spirit of the novel really. As the reader, we both share Emma's judgments and watch her making them because Austen combines the internal and the external. There is a huge sense of humor in there. As I said, it was the beginning of women's fashion magazines. Emma would, without doubt, had these magazines and would have first call on looking at the colored engravings of the fashion of the time. But the reality of that is the magazine would get handed on and different people in the village or her group would see them. So, you'd end up with 10 completely different outfits because the result would depend on your interpretation of the drawing, your ability to sew, your budget, etc. It's that sense of individuality and spontaneity about the clothes. [Director] Autumn [de Wilde] described wanted it to be like sugared macarons, that sense of froth and enjoyment.

Credit: Focus Features

Speaking of which, Emma is so colorful with these bright yellows and blues. And she's always the center of a tableau, matching her surroundings. How did you devise her color palette and collaborate with the production designer to accomplish that?

The sense of color started with trying to define the seasons. Emma dictated the color palette for the season. And then, I love color. I think it's one of the best storytelling devices that we have because you're guiding your audience in terms of who works with who, who belongs in a room, and who is slightly at odds with the room. And because Kave, the production designer, was also working in strong colors, we talked very closely about the dynamics of what the room colors were going to be and what the scene was playing and how people related in that room. It was like choreographing a dance with the colors and how they worked together.

Credit: Focus Features

How integral was Anya to your process?

Hugely. Because this was quite a low budget film, and the prep was quite short. Autumn was very clear that she wanted everything to be real, so that we could draw the humor out of the reality, rather than imposing comedy moments... By the time I started to do fittings with [Anya], she was also working with Autumn. She was having piano lesson; she was having dancing lessons. So, she brought all those areas of the character work that she was doing into the fitting. It's a very spontaneous and organic process where you start to hone in on what you feel is right for for the character in this particular moment.

Credit: Focus Features

There's a tendency to want to soften some of the wilder aspects of period fashion for a contemporary eye, but you really leaned into it with the bows, frilly collars, feathers and bonnets. What prompted that choice?

Autumn loves clothes and fabrics. Quite often, directors panic when they hear the word "bonnet." But Autumn loved the bonnets. They have very different shapes. They're a bit like wearing horse blinkers, so they change how a woman would move her head. We had the bonnets in rehearsals so that the actors learned to work with them, and to understand what it meant to be wearing the bonnet. There are far more extreme fashions within the period. But if somebody was researching a film set in 2021 and they only read Vogue, they would think that we dress in a way that we don't dress, so it's also about about interpreting the fashion and making it practical — you know, the reality and the storytelling.

Credit: Focus Features

The film sits so wonderfully in Austen's satire. Was there anything you did to help sell that via the wardrobe?

No, I think it comes back to working instinctively. I like to really research a period to completely understand what it should be. So that, when I'm working with the director and making choices to help tell the story, those choices become instinctive because all that background knowledge of the period is laid down. And I can work quite freely. I don't think at any point there was somewhere where I went, "Oh, this would be funny or this would tip this." It became an instinctive collaborative piece of work where we were all developing together and trying to build a credible world for this satire and this story to be able to live. It was such a great collaboration. We felt very secure, and maybe that enabled every department to push the boundaries a bit because we felt that we were all adding up to one story.

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Emma (2020 film)

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  • Autumn de Wilde