Little Women costume designer breaks down the March sisters' beautiful, 'radical' wardrobes
Greta Gerwig's Little Women adaptation breathes brilliant new life into Louisa May Alcott's classic novel, and the film's fresh, intellectually modern approach extends to the period wardrobe. While costume designer Jacqueline Durran kept the clothes appropriate to the 19th-century setting, "I tried to think a bit more about the girls as being part of a radical family, and about their life in the countryside, and about how they may have lived, and how we know that the Alcotts lived. I tried to bring all of that context into the interpretation I did of the costumes," she says. "I think that it was about bringing a kind of new life to Victorian girls — keeping it Victorian but not doing it in the way that we're used to seeing it."
A day at the beach
Durran was tasked with developing a distinct personal style for each sister, but the quartet still had to complement each other in the set-piece scenes where they all came together. "The first thing is always the character of each individual, but then you sort of put it all together, and it isn't perfectly coordinated, and it isn't perfectly tidy, but it does represent them as a group," she says of moments like this trip to the beach, which she counts among her favorites. "It had a real feeling of East Coast impressionist America in the late 19th century — the colors and the light and the kind of freedom that the girls had on the beach," she explains.
Meg in love
The personal style for traditional Meg (Emma Watson), who dreams of happy domesticity, was a challenge for Durran to pin down. "To find the thing that represented that kind of aspiration within the context of the March family was quite difficult," the Oscar winner (Anna Karenina) says. She landed on "a Medieval romanticism, or a gothic revivalism" that was en vogue at the time of the pre-Raphaelites. In her research, Durran found a particular use of handmade lace that reflected that chivalric sensibility and incorporated detailing from paintings and contemporary fashion pages throughout Meg's wardrobe.
In contrast with Meg's everyday romantic look, and with the first dance we see her and Jo attend, is the Moffat ball she attends early in the film (from the chapter called "Meg Goes to Vanity Fair" in Alcott's novel). "When she goes to the Boston ball, she is pretending to be somebody else," Durran points out — the girls there address her as "Daisy" — so this aspirational gown (made in silk, which none of the March girls ever wear except in their childhood days) is "a step outside of the world." All of the girls at the event dress in the same pastel color family, and in similar silhouettes, to enhance the "debutante-y feel" of the ball, so Durran and her team tested Watson in a variety of dainty shades, landing on a soft pink that suited her best, and then "made it to be kind of the best version of that style of dress that we could, which was a classic ball gown, really."
Meg was difficult to characterize, sartorially speaking, but dressing tomboyish Jo (Saoirse Ronan), whom Durran kept in reds and blues, was a much more straightforward task. In their younger years, Jo doesn't share clothes with her sisters, but swaps boyish pieces with her best friend Laurie (Timothée Chalamet) instead. "It was a way of representing how close they were, and how much Jo wanted to be a boy, and how much Laurie identifies with Jo, and just a visual representation of them at that place," says Durran. She made jackets and waistcoats that both actors wore during filming, and "Jo was always edging towards wearing trousers, even though she didn't actually wear trousers."
To dress grown-up Jo, living in the city and trying to make it as a writer, "I thought, 'What would you do if you were 18 and you were moving to New York and you wanted to appear to be grown up, but you were still yourself?'" Durran says. "So [Jo's] idea of that still had the overtones of menswear, but it was sort of tempered a bit." Durran made androgynous-looking shirts and jackets for Jo to wear along with her waistcoats and a hat "which is very much like a man's hat — but women wore those hats," she says. "I chose the more boyish things from womenswear."
Beth at home
"Poor Beth doesn't really get a full outing, does she?" Durran observes. As the only sister who never leaves their childhood home, Beth (Eliza Scanlen) never changes her style significantly. She does wear a few of Jo's things, though, and after (spoiler alert?) her death, Jo wears Beth's jacket, as if to wrap herself in the warmth of her sister's memory. "[Beth] sort of represents the house, and family, and home," Durran says of the sweet musical sister, whom she kept primarily in a warm "pink to brown" color palette. "She was a kind of passive statement amongst the kind of strident sisters. She wasn't pushing to be any particular style, but she was a softer person amongst the group."
All grown up
"The thing about Victorian children's clothes is that they're quite similar to grown-up clothes, but they're shorter," Durran says. All of the girls graduate to full-length skirts as adults, but only some with more mature styling. "Jo never wears a corset. Meg sometimes wears a corset. Beth never wears a corset. But Amy always wears a corset," Durran says. Jo also skips wearing a hoop under her skirt, though Durran had originally planned for her to have one. "When we [tried] that, it felt like we'd stepped too far from her character," the designer explains. Maintaining their style continuity, Jo keeps her vests as an adult, while Amy sticks to the light blues she favors throughout the movie, and Meg still incorporates feminine details.
A visual artist herself, Amy's eye for beauty extends to her impeccable wardrobe. "Amy wants to be as fashionable and as in-style as she can at all times," says Durran. "She's the one that has more going on and is more particular, in a way. She's much closer to [contemporary] fashion than anyone else." That includes the childhood section, when she's often seen trying new clothes or trimmings, or messing with her hair or pressing on her nose (in desperate pursuit of an elegant profile!). Even in childhood, her clothes are the fanciest of anyone's — but then when she goes to Europe, "she's just able to buy clothes with Aunt March's money and be as dressed up as possible," Durran says. The dream.
"In the way that the family were radicals, Aunt March wasn't, and she represented society. So she had to be in a strong contrast to the girls," Durran says of the sisters' wealthy, grumpy relative (Meryl Streep). Due to her age and status, Aunt March always wears silk, all in dark colors; she wears lace in her hair as well as "real, actual, original, valuable jewelry from Fred Leighton," says Durran. "She had all of the things that contrasted the sort of quirky, unconventional world of the Marches. That was really her function."