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Dressing Jane Austen: The Development of Period Costume Design in Film

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This video essay by Isabelle Kim-Sherman is discussed in the following essay.

When I watched Autumn de Wilde’s 2020 film Emma. for the first time, I found it utterly captivating.  The acting, the writing, and the ambience all contributed to a very faithful adaptation of the book I had read as a child—but it was the costume design that caught my attention most of all.  Every gown, bolero jacket, and waistcoat seemed to have been taken right from an 1810s fashion plate.  It is among the most historically accurate costume design I had ever seen in film.

My preoccupation with the costume design in Emma. stems from an interest in dress history that I developed in middle school, when I first learned about the silhouettes and styles of early twentieth-century fashion, a period of history that has always held a particular fascination for me.  As I spent more time studying the fashion of that time, I wanted to learn more about the eras that preceded it and how they developed one into another.  This area of study was vastly different from what I had learned in any prior history class.  Instead of studying wars, treaties, and global politics, dress historians investigate the effects of those events on clothing.  Instead of merely learning about trans-continental trade routes, I learned how textiles that were imported to the United States were so expensive that a household’s linens often cost more than all the house’s furniture.  Since women typically owned linens and clothing, as Laura Edwards points out, this property provided a measure of financial security that otherwise would not have been afforded to them. 

As my knowledge in this area grew, however, an unintended consequence of my studies revealed itself.  I noticed (with increasing annoyance) that the costumes in so-called “historical” films and TV shows were often inaccurate.  Films set in the eighteenth century would show women wearing blatantly nineteenth-century corsets, characters wore ball gowns in the middle of the day, and the hair of medieval queens would be left loose and blowing in the wind. 

While these inaccuracies started as a simple distraction, I became curious as to why film directors, who deliberate over every aspect of a film’s production, would seemingly disregard the historical evidence when overseeing costume design.  Thus, I wanted to find underlying reasons or patterns behind these inaccuracies, many of which manifested in similar ways across different works and media. 

I chose a video essay as the format for presenting my research.  Given the importance of visual elements, the medium of combined audio and video was the most efficient way for me to discuss and illustrate my points, allowing me to show clips of the films I discuss, as well as photographs and clips of other films to illustrate relevant historical context.  The ability to have visual evidence playing simultaneously with the written commentary is unique to this medium, as in a traditional written essay readers see accompanying photographic evidence after they read the text.  Moreover, video essays offer a more approachable avenue to academic writing, particularly for younger audiences who may not have prior knowledge or interest. 

To investigate the accuracy of period costume design in film more formally, I watched five adaptations of Austen novels that were released over a period of eighty years:  Robert Leonard’s 1940 Pride and Prejudice, Peter Holland’s 1961 televised miniseries De vier dochters Bennet (The Four Bennet Daughters, a Dutch adaptation of Pride and Prejudice), Ang Lee’s 1995 Sense and Sensibility, Joe Wright’s 2005 Pride & Prejudice, and of course, Autumn de Wilde’s 2020 Emma.  I studied these film adaptations in conjunction with background research into the film costume design industry and my knowledge of the original Austen texts to examine potential patterns of behavior across these different works. 

I chose Austen adaptations for a number of reasons.  The primary reason regarded ease of research and exploration:  there is a rich and extensive canon of films that spans decades, so it was easy to choose films that represented distinct periods of time of production.  Furthermore, all of Austen’s works center on approximately the same period, making comparisons between the costume design of different films far more traceable. 

There was an additional reason, however, why I wanted to investigate adaptations of Jane Austen’s novels.  Her novels provide critical and often satirical depictions of English upper-class society in the early nineteenth century.  This social emphasis can be seen in the iconic opening line of Pride and Prejudice, “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife” (3).  As the intricacies of her society are innate to Austen’s work, directors who choose to adapt her novels must keep those same intricacies in mind while producing their film adaptations.  It stands to reason, then, that such films might strive to be faithful to the dress styles of the time period as well. 

Before I analyzed the films, I bolstered my knowledge of Regency-era fashion and costume design in film.  I read Hilary Davidson’s Dress in the Age of Jane Austen and studied artwork from the period to strengthen my knowledge about the trends of early nineteenth-century dress.  According to Davidson, this period was greatly influenced by classical Greco-Roman statues:  light and gauzy materials, simple, flowing gowns with the iconic high “Empire” waistline, and elaborate curled updos.  From Hollywood and History: Costume Design in Film (Maeder et al.), I learned how economic and social stressors during the production of a film can come into conflict with the artistic vision of its costume designers. 

Through my research, I learned that inaccuracies can occur due to budget issues or an intent to deliver what the director believes the audience wants to see.  For example, the production of Robert Leonard’s Pride and Prejudice in 1940 was severely impeded by the looming threat of war.  Production companies worldwide were working with reduced budgets, and, as Lydia Edwards shows, it was more difficult for them to produce new and bespoke garments.  Instead, many costumes were reused from previous films.  Additionally, the silhouettes of the 1830s used in Leonard’s film provide volume and extravagance.  People attending cinemas, eager for an escape from their lives of rationing and wartime stresses, likely would have preferred such a beautiful escapist fantasy over the slim, minimalist silhouettes from Austen’s era. 

Judging by these five films, there seems to be a pattern of more recent costume design adhering more closely to accurate historical styles.  This pattern develops in conjunction with another, related trend:  as time passes, filmmakers seem willing to include costumes that do not conform as closely to popular aesthetics.  From the ambiguously “historical” silhouettes of De Vier Dochters Bennet to the tight ringlets and ridiculous topknots of Autumn de Wilde’s Emma., film viewers can observe a gradual transition from something that is perhaps more pleasant to the modern eye to costuming that clearly adheres to beauty standards of the past. 

One possible reason for this trend could be a greater sense of open-mindedness in audiences.  Since the 1940s, audiences have been exposed to a variety of people and cultures to an ever-increasing degree, and with that exposure has undoubtedly come increased awareness and appreciation of diverse aesthetics.  Perhaps this appreciation extends to fashion of the past as well—just look at the rise of online content surrounding dress history and how things “actually looked.” 

That said, viewers should not automatically snub costumes that they deem historically inaccurate.  While period costume designers do have a responsibility to research and respect the era they are depicting, costume design is, at the end of a day, a tool to convey stories and meaning.  Creative liberties should be encouraged, and I, for one, am excited to see artful costume design that combines well-researched history with modern innovations.  Personally, I find myself more drawn to films with deliberately researched costumes that try to adhere closely to the styles worn in the period depicted.  Particularly in the case of Jane Austen, whose works serve as such specific commentaries on the society from which they came, I enjoy seeing films that depict that society as faithfully and accurately as is realistically possible.  I recognize, however, that audiences who have not studied dress history may be less concerned than I am with the historical accuracy of the media they consume. 

In the end, good period costume design is about more than simply reconstructing historical garments.  As is true in all costume design, what characters wear helps to build an immersive world.  Internal consistency and meticulous attention to detail impart a sense of cohesion and verisimilitude that is evident regardless of an audience’s pre-existing knowledge.  Films that prioritize thoughtful visual storytelling will engage viewers with the world of the film.  And, in the case of film adaptations of novels such as those by Jane Austen, such films may turn viewers’ interests toward the source material with fresh eyes.

Works Cited
  • Austen, Jane.  Pride and Prejudice.  Ed. Pat Rogers.  Cambridge: CUP, 2006.
  • Davidson, Hilary.  Dress in the Age of Jane Austen: Regency Fashion.  New Haven: Yale UP, 2019.
  • de Wilde, Autumn, dir.  Emma.  Working Title, 2020.
  • Edwards, Laura F.  Only the Clothes on Her Back: Clothing and the Hidden History of Power in the Nineteenth-Century United States.  New York: Oxford UP, 2022.
  • Edwards, Lydia.  “Bringing the Bennets to Life.”  Willow and Thatch 13 Apr. 2020.  https://www.willowandthatch.com/costumes-jane-austen-pride-prejudice-period-dramas/
  • Holland, Peter, dir.  De vier dochters Bennet.  NCRV, 1961.
  • Lee, Ang, dir.  Sense and Sensibility.  Columbia, 1995.
  • Leonard, Robert Z., dir.  Pride and Prejudice.  MGM, 1940.
  • Maeder, Edward, Alicia Annas, Satch Lavalley, Elois Jenssen.  Hollywood and History: Costume Design in Film.  London: Thames and Hudson, 1990.
  • Wright, Joe, dir.  Pride & Prejudice.  Focus Features, 2005.
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