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Interview: Talking ‘Emma’ with Oscar-Winning Costume Designer Alexandra Byrne

As a costume designer who has designed everything from Elizabeth: The Golden Age (for which she won an Oscar) to five Marvel superhero movies, including The Avengers and Doctor Strange, to The Mauritanian, Alexandra Byrne has the magic touch. Her second Oscar could very well be on its way this year, thanks to her sumptuous feast of costumes in first-time director Autumn de Wilde’s luscious adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma, starring Anya Taylor-Joy.

I had the opportunity to talk to Byrne about the research that went into her designs for the film and the crucial collaborations with the actors and the other designers, as well as how designing clothes is like Tetris, how the weather played a major role and what exactly those collars were all about.

Catherine Springer: This film, Emma, is an absolute feast. Every scene, whether out in the countryside or inside these lavish beautiful estate houses, is like a painting. 

Alexandra Byrne: I think one of Autumn’s successes was making the exteriors as painterly and as dramatic and as successful as she did, because, quite often, when you’re working on a period film we conjure all this magic on the interior as it’s beautifully lit. But when you go to the exterior, suddenly everything changes, and it becomes almost a suburban unknown. I think the composition and choice of the locations was brilliant. There was also an element of luck that we had fantastic skies that were like paintings. Between the proportion of sky to ground and the wind, I think she did an amazing job.

Was it all shot in England? 

It was, yes.

And you had the weather on your side!

Yeah, but also she was brave enough to use it. Like when we are at the March’s farmhouse, when the two daughters are cleaning out the washing, I think quite a few directors would have abandoned that day’s work because it was blowing a gale and they had to really fight with the washing. But what Autumn wants to do is find the reality, in the period, the research, and in the quality of the scenes, and to bring the humor from that. We had the gale blowing, so she went, “Right, let’s use it.” So you’ve got these women fighting with the laundry to get it on the line. She just used everything that came from real life and she embedded that into the story.

I was struck by how the costumes blended so perfectly with the interiors and even the exteriors. It’s almost the chicken and the egg question, which came first.  How hand-in-hand did all the designers work?

We were totally hand-in-hand. Whether it’s chicken or the egg, I’m not quite sure. But one of my starting points with Emma is she’s an incredibly self-deluded young woman with leisure power status to meddle in the lives of her neighbors. She’s a big fish in a small pond. What I didn’t want to do was make it an endless costume parade. I wanted her clothes to tell the story, to support the story, but it’s very difficult when you’ve got your central character so privileged that she has the right clothes for every time of day, every occasion, each and every moment. So, because the story goes through a calendar year, I decided to make her wardrobe the central pivot, where everybody else is in relation to Emma or reflected by Emma or in opposition to Emma. So, in talking to Autumn, I came up with the idea of dictating the seasonal palettes through Emma, because she has this wardrobe to be able to be appropriate to every moment. We created a palette of colors for Emma that was seasonal, and then I started to work with Kave [Quinn, Production Designer] because she was also going to be using colors in the interior. So once we had the seasonal palette, obviously the rooms didn’t change colors, but what we could do is work together to create a language of who belonged in their environment, who was at ease in their environment, who was at odds in our environment. We played with colors a lot and I love color.  I just think color is one of the most exciting tools you have as a costume designer in terms of subliminal guidance of your audience in storytelling.

The colors are amazing. I noticed the family that arrives, and they are all in varying shades of blue.

That’s when we were in the cool palettes, the blues, the grays, the certain sorts of dark browns, the graphite-y colors. It was really just reflecting the palette but also blue is an interesting color on film. It lights very differently, under warm lighting interiors. There are blues that are comfortable and blues that are slightly jarring, so it was a kind of a play on the use of blue. And also, the whole story of how some people wouldn’t have enough money to have more than one warm top layer. It’s a bit like a game of Tetris, but with clothes. [laughs]

But Elton, for example, is such a vibrant character, but he’s just blacks and whites. 

It is black and white. Then he acquires a wife who is sort of a ricochet of color. Her color and pattern is all a bit too much and a bit acidic and a bit jarring. But I also wanted to express Elton’s vanity. Black is amazingly structural, so it’s all about shape and silhouette with him. His shirt is immaculate and starched, which is a sign of his kind of vanity, but again, in doing the research for the period, what I discovered is that a man shows status by having clean laundry, and the degree of starch, and his color and crevettes. So, by using that fact, we made choices to support the story.

You’ve done period pieces before, but is there a different approach to a period piece based on literature, as opposed to just history?

Yes and no. I mean, there are many strands to the research. I find in any period, whatever choices I need to make, I try to research the period as much as I can for the clothes, the politics, the social etiquette. Everything I can, so that the knowledge is laid down in a deeper layer that you rely on to inform the choices that you’re going to make. Obviously, this is from the novel, so I read the novel, I read it several times. That’s about trying to absorb the spirit and the flavor of the novel so that is another layer. That’s just feeding into your decision making. Then it becomes working on the scripts, talking with the director, talking with other heads of department to select from the information what you feel you can pull to the front to support the story that the director wants to tell. There have been other adaptations of Emma, but they’re all very, very different, so it’s about what story that one director wants to tell. And, obviously, we don’t have endless time or money, so you can do all the research in the world but there’s a point where you have to get on and do it. You also have to be quite pragmatic with the level of research, the foundations of the collaboration to work out the kind of the rules of the story, and how you’re going to tell it. Then you don’t have to work quite as extensively. It’s difficult to pinpoint what decisions work were, it’s about building these layers of research and collaboration and then be able to move forward and make choices that can support it. In costuming there’s an element of serendipity as well. When you’re doing a fitting for a period you can try on existing pieces from costume houses. I always like to start that way because you learn about an actor’s shape and proportion— how they wear clothes and what style of pattern they can wear. And there is a serendipity that layers in another kind of decision making where you go, “Oh, that works, I didn’t expect it to but that tells me that about that character.” So it’s sort of heady process.

How many of these costumes were made and how many were found?

I would say 99% of them were made.

And how many did you have to make?

I don’t know, everybody is asking me that. I just keep moving forward. [laughs]

Do you know how many you made for Emma alone?

Well, that’s difficult to answer because that was another thing that I chose to do, I wanted there to be a range of looks. Again, I wanted to be true to the period, and more characterful in giving her a working wardrobe. So, rather than being a zip-up-the-back, all-in-one costume and off you go, all the layers were done authentically. Emma actually only has three muslin dresses in the entire film, but by layering them over different petticoats—because you can see through the muslin, to the different palette of petticoats underneath—and working with all the accessories like the little infill pieces at the neck, the gloves, the bonnet, the police coat, the jewelry. Actually, a lot of pieces got re-used in different ways to create a different feeling, which worked particularly well on this film because we didn’t have to do stunt repeats or action repeats. Everything was very much a one-off. When working with Autumn and with the actors, the day would start and you would get the actors ready in their base layers and then they would go and rehearse the scene. And then they would come back to us to finish up. So, in working with the actors from the rehearsal, particularly with Anya, we could make a choice of certain pieces for the day and we could really work with what she felt had come out of the rehearsals, whether to play into the moment or play against it in the way that she was dressing. So I can’t tell you how many costumes she had because it was all an inter-woven wardrobe.

So much of this film is about class. Talk a little bit about how class is communicated through the costumes.

Class is interesting because this was a period where there started to be women’s journals, which carried fashion plates. These images played a crucial role in securing the definition of fashion as a kind of a fast-moving cosmopolitan phenomenon. Emma is an entitled young woman who would probably have the women’s journals firsthand, they might get passed around the village so other ladies in the village would be seeing them months later. Emma, as a privileged lady of means, would have a dressmaker, and we see that in the film. But Harriet, for example, would be making all her own clothes. And what I learned from the research, both researching these fashion images and looking at pieces in museums, was you could show a fashion plate to 10 different women, and you’d get 10 very different wardrobes at the end of it because the way the clothes were made. The outcome of the clothes depended on your finances, your ability to sew, or whether you were altering clothes to modernize them to another period. Very much is your interpretation and your ability and your finances as to how your clothes turned out, which is fascinating. So, yes, I tried to reflect that. Obviously, we don’t see women sitting and sewing every moment of the film, but I wanted that individuality. And I tried to show that most clearly between Emma and Harriet, in terms of ability and finance and their means to follow fashion. And there is also between them that fantastic interplay that we all know of, you know, having a best friend and how you end up dressing slightly alike. One person is more in control of tastes and style than the other, and that’s a sort of seesaw play between the two women. 

And let’s talk about the men as well, those costumes are amazing. I have to ask you about those collars!

Again, it’s a reflection of class. And part of the research is not just looking at images, it’s about reading journals. There was a description I read of a gentleman being dressed by a valet, with the colors and the crevettes, starched—and it’s not spray-on starch, it’s proper old fashioned oil starches, which we did experimented a lot with. We eventually got the strength right, but we did have a few sheet metal moments, where the shirts were so stiff, we couldn’t use them. [laughs] But with the man dressing, his valet would tie his crevette with the gentleman’s chin pointed right up to the ceiling, so the crevette could be tied. And then he lowered his chin into the crevette, with the sound of the starch cracking. It was all about this kind of elongation of the line, and we shaped everybody’s collars to their jaw bone and to where their ears sit, because you get dangerously close with starched collars, to the ear. So, again, it was all about character and vanity and means. Robert Martin does not wear a starched collar. Because he’s in practical, working clothes.

Again, clothes weren’t washed every day. Certainly top coats would get wet in the rain when you’re out riding, then they would dry, and they would become molded to the body. The way the cloth was woven, it was a much tighter weave and with all the body heat and rain and sun and weather, these clothes really became three-dimensionally molded to bodies through wear.

There are a couple of scenes with Mr. Knightley, where he’s either dressing or undressing.

Again, that came from Autumn, because she was fascinated to know, after looking at fitting photographs and working with the actors, she said, “What was the underwear like? How did these men dress, what do they do?” So we took her through the process and she just said, “I’ve never seen that on film. We have endless scenes of women in corsets, I’ve never seen a man dressing, and this is really fascinating.” Knightley is a gentleman of means and she wanted to show what it meant for him coming home, and he would have clean laundry, he would have a valet, and he would change after riding because he didn’t just go for a walk around the countryside, you know, he would he would ride for hours around the estate and come back and need to wash and change, so part of his ritual was to change his clothes. 

You are extremely good at these period pieces, you won an Oscar for your work on Elizabeth: The Golden Age, but you’ve also worked on Avengers films, and The Mauritanian this year, all very different. Do you have a favorite genre that you like to work on are you happy to jump around and keep challenging yourself?

I’m happy to jump around. What I like is when I read a script and I feel that the clothes can help to tell the story. It’s very much in response to the script, as to whether I feel I can contribute to the storytelling through the clothes.

So, there’s got to be a different approach, say Emma versus an Avengers movie, because one has to be based on historical accuracy, but the other one can be completely inventive.

Well, yes and no. In both cases, I’m telling a story. For one there is historical research, and for the other there is comic book research. And even in Emma, where I do all this research, I’m not doing a museum piece. I do the research, and then I make choices from that to tell the story, which kind of is the same for the superhero films. The big difference is that, for Emma, nearly everything was a one-off, and things in that period were hand-made, they weren’t always finished, they were just whipstitched and featherlight, like tissue paper. For a superhero film, you make 20 rather than one, and they have to be made for action, for movement, so it’s a very different method of construction. But, as a costume designer, yes one thing is to help the story, but you’re also problem solving, whether it’s budget, logistics, how the fabric works, movement, you’re problem solving.

Do you have a favorite costume that you’ve ever designed?

Oh wow.  That’s a really hard question! [laughs]

How about something that you thought was a really big challenge and you didn’t really know how you’d go about it and then you felt really good about what the end product was?

I made a film that I think went straight to video called Garden of Eden. I think I can safely say it wasn’t a great film, with Mena Suvari, and there’s a moment where we made a dress for a particular story point. It was a very simple ‘20s dress, but it had an amazing impact, and Mena wasn’t sure and we discussed it, and we agreed on it and when she walked on set, it caused the freedom that was exactly what that story needed. That was the kind of moment where you go, clothes are so important. We can do a lot.

On Emma, how much daily maintenance was needed? How many people did you have on set?

We were quite a small crew because, again, the clothes were built as clothes. They were very practical in how they behaved and what they did. I like to work with a small but incredibly skilled crew, and I had the privilege of that on this film. We were quite a small team. Everybody knew what they were doing,

What was the biggest challenge?

Time. [laughs]

Always, right?

Because I knew, with Autumn’s vision, that we would have to make nearly everything. And we didn’t have a lot of prep, and it’s quite a big cast. Just the time to achieve all the fittings and make all your deadlines and do it in the way that you want to do it, we all worked very hard.  But, across every department there was a great sense of collaboration, led by Autumn. And that’s very energizing, particularly when you start shooting and you see the results and you think, well this is really exciting. Autumn loves clothes, and she embraced all the bonnets and everything. A lot of directors would want to say how quickly can we get the bonnet off. Autumn responded to the clothes and wanted to use everything she could, in a way to enable the characters.

How was it working with Anya Taylor-Joy? 

It’s a collaboration. We did a lot of fittings, and during that period of doing fittings, Anya is also working in rehearsal with Autumn, she’s having piano lessons, she’s having dance lessons, she’s rehearsing in many areas, and working on the script. So every time she came to rehearsal she’s bringing me information from outside. And she’s beginning to understand the period and how the clothes work, so it’s not about me saying, here you go, this is your costume. It’s, very much a collaboration and I need to learn from Anya, and she needs to learn from me, so we talked a lot, we worked together a lot, and, as I said, we had the luxury of being able to do the finishing details to some of her looks after she’d actually rehearsed the scenes. Anya is incredibly bright, and really knew a lot about Emma and it’s about us all working together. As well with the hair and makeup designer, we were all in and out of each other’s trailers, discussing it, saying, do you think this works with that, is that good? You know, collaboration. That’s when it all adds up. I can’t do it on my own.

The fact that everything works together so well is a testament to the director, and the fact that this is Autumn de Wilde’s first feature is just phenomenal.

Yeah, it’s a major achievement, absolutely.

Who inspired you to be a costume designer?

Piero Tosi, I suppose. I trained as an architect, and I was a theater designer for many years, designing sets and costumes, and through doing that work, designing the whole look, I began to realize the power of clothes in storytelling—and I love fabrics and I love working with actors. Clearly, it’s the way I was going to go. 

Interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

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