Emma: Clothes, Manners and Men

The Delights of Jane Austin’s World

She’s back and better than ever. Emma. Feisty, vain, elegant and well meaning she is one of literatures favorite busy bodies. If you are not familiar with the story, the young woman of Jane Austin’s collection of characters is known for her matchmaking skills that go woefully wrong. Not once. But several times. A defined social structure is important to the story, with each segment of society well displayed and the characters interacting between them creating both a flow and tension to the plot. All ends well; but on the way to a foregone conclusion, the characters are sharply drawn from Austin’s wellspring of experiences that continue to delight us. You cannot help but feel that she knew each of them very well. She was the quiet woman at the back of the sitting room watching carefully as her stylish relatives and betters interacted. Her wicked pen would finally gain some reputation while she was alive but sadly, she died before her great fame was achieved. Many consider her stories the greatest in the English language in novel format.

A backdrop for elegant clothes and furnishings: The English countryside

The views. The chairs. The warm fires. The windows looking out onto the garden; each express the experiences of the life led by the men and women of this period known as the Regency. The dinner parties alone give one pause, for the sheer amount of food consumed by candlelight. The Treats and Teas displayed should be of note to the London Hoteliers, who should use them as a theme; the set decorating crew and food stylists of the film, simply amazing.

The clothes; ah yes, the clothes. Scrumptious and delicious in their particular fussiness. Fabrics were all imported during this period. Cottons from India, silks from China, Italy or France and the wool manufactured in England. Each beautifully tailored into long coats, high waisted dresses and all with the deftness of a fairy like touch. The men are “beau brummel” rogues and the women feigned an almost biblical sense of purity in their carefully tailored coats and bonnets. The design team is to be commended for not only exquisite details but the particular (slight) exaggeration of some characters such as the parson, whose winged chasuble gave him a particular comic relief in the local parish. The hats, the ribbons the lace and other parts of the garments were made in England and represented the industry at home during the prosperous 19th century Industrial Revolution.

A word about the men’s styles:

Remember the suit? The famous English tailoring we have come to know was all invented during this period. The coats, vests and breeches (oh my) are all displayed in part of this film that gives Austin fans what they crave: romance, intrigue, luxe interiors and views as a backdrop for their beloved characters. Our heroic pair, Emma and Knightly are well matched for their wit and almost dangerously sensuous edginess. We can see the actors hold back their enjoyment of each other in their tightly wound scenes that take an acre of English gardens to finally resolve.

This version of the story has a certain comic and broader feel to it, with music playing a great part in the cadences of each scene. The lighting and interiors are a marvel giving us day and nights in the drawing rooms, hallways, dining and garden rooms of these stately English homes. Seeing how manners, feelings and intentions were so important for the period will be a marvel for the first time viewer. The truth of human experience is always well shown in an Austin story and this one has both fun and some seriousness of intention. Bravo. This one is on its way to some big awards at the Oscars and Golden Globes next year.

You can rent this movie and binge it or share on Amazon Prime with the whole family.

Once Upon A Time in Hollywood: OSCAR TIME 2020

The Art of Film COSTUME Design: The Wardrobe Mistress, is in. 

What a journey for the past year in film; from the 19th century countryside in Massachusetts (Little Women) to the mean streets of New York (The Irishmen) and modern stories (like Ford v. Ferrari) or Marriage Story and a romp through Hollywood sixties glam (Once upon a time in Hollywood) all with the stars adding the shine. The war picture (1917) was epic both in size and scale for the costumes and surprisingly did not receive a Costume nomination (Best Picture) this year.  

Costume designers are integral to a film’s success and their relationship to the production designer and the overall mood of a film can’t be ignored. It is often said the Costume Designer is one of the last crafts remaining in filmmaking.

Here are the nominated films for Best Costume Design:

  • Sandy Powell,  The Irishman***
  • Mayes C. Rubeo, Jojo Rabbit
  • Mark Bridges,  The Joker
  • Jacqueline Duran,  Little Women*
  • Arianne Phillips,  Once Upon a Time in Hollywood*

What is the process of doing a film from the costume perspective, and how does this work get  created? Teams work together in filmmaking, with the leader taking on the creative point of view with director and producer.

Designers all work from different angles like an emphasis on character or style of a period or with fabric inspirations and some designers like Ann Roth who famously dressed Dustin Hoffman for (Midnight Cowboy) by leaving the clothes she picked for him to work through to decide for himself what his look would be (*this true story I heard in person from Ann herself).  A film could be an extensive period film with thousands of extras (*Sandy Powell dressed over 5,000) for her recent work in The Irishman to small intimate films with just a few characters with budgets ranging from $100,000 to millions. Designers will always tell you that what they do is both an art; a craft; a Psychologist or technician’s job that involves all aspects of making sure a production is both on time and on budget and brilliant, of course. 

Our favorite films (*see above) ranged from period to modern. I mention first the Oscar nominated film (for Best Picture) 1917 (*not nominated for costumes) as this film was sheer logistics in putting all the uniforms, accessories, and yes, even those acres of tragically dead bodies in uniforms, a huge undertaking. The team who did this film should not have gone unnoticed.

Our next favorite was Little Women designed by Jacqueline Duran.  Her unique ability to take a period of time, the 1860’s and make is modern, fresh and very lived in was also an imperative by the writer/director.  The characters were also carefully etched in shape, form, fabric surface and color making the story unfold with various moods as it went backwards and forwards towards its conclusion.  The director also made a concerted effort not to make the film ‘stuffy or period’ in its conception; she rightfully took the characters and their clothes and made them lived in and very easy to understand for a modern audience. 

Our next favorite was Once Upon a Time in Hollywood a celebration of the period of the 1960s in its exuberant color and shape.  A California vibe, and spin to the essence of this period was also well done by Arianne Phillips.  The male leads, Brad and Leo * were also very at ease in their sartorial duds supporting the vision by director Quentin Tarantino. Sandy Powell, who is nominated for The Irishman is a designer I have been following since her first film, ORLANDO that was created with a lower budget; I thought it was always her best work combined with a unique performance by the leading actress. SMs. Powell had very little money to produce this film; it’s a tribute to her that both her projects with vastly different budgets have been recognized in her career. 

Congratulations to all Nominees this year, and the artists of the world of costume for a banner year for the art of costume design.

*Brad Pitt and Leo DiCaprio

***Sandy Powell has won 3 Oscars: Shakespeare in Love, The Aviator, The Young Victoria.  She received nominations for The Favorite, Mary Poppins Returns.

Editor’s Note:   Pikke Allen has been an Assistant Designer, Costume Supervisor, Fashion stylists in Television, Film and Commercials. She currently writes for fashion from Paris and for films in Los Angeles.