I love a good costume drama. There’s something quite magical about stepping back in time and seeing what an era from the past was like. That’s not just to say about the costumes, but also the architecture and also how people lived; the accepted etiquette, technological advancements and scientific understandings.
Looking back at the long list of period dramas I have watched, I must confess to being a bit of a junky for them. My first love for film came when I was nine years old and I had chicken pox and so a family friend looked after me and I exhausted her Doris Day film collection. I loved the clothes with weirdly shaped hats and matching heels and handbags, the big clunky cars and the men dressed smartly, wearing their hair like my grandad. There was something comforting and familiar, seeing the characters go through life similar to how we do now.
Going back further in time to the Regency era, a small window of history (1811-1820) but had a huge effect on fashion, architecture and art for many years to come. Do you have a favourite period drama? What is your favourite?
Jane Austen’s Emma has been done several times; Gwynneth Paltrow played bored Emma Woodhouse in 1996 with a sickeningly sweet Toni Colette as Miss Smith and a scarily-haired Ewan McGregor as the flirtacious Frank Churchill. The costumes were designed by the talented Ruth Myers, a two time Academy Award nominee (Emma and the Addams Family). They were light yet structured.
The costumes of the Emma TV drama (2009) starring Ramola Garai were designed by Rosalind Ebbutt who you may know from her costumes in the ITV TV series Victoria (2016 – 2019). She also worked on Downton Abbey in 2011. I love the coral necklace and coral dress combo Ramola wears here – understated and elegant.
But it is the latest adaption of Emma (2020) which turned heads. Bold use of colours and shapes by Alexandra Byrne.
I was lucky enough to talk with dress historian Hilary Davidson about why she thinks the Regency era costumes in the period comedy-drama Emma are sublime. This is what she said:
Overall for my money, the costumes by Alexandra Byrne, who’s an incredibly skilled and experienced costume designer that she made for the 2020 adaptation of Emma. I think they are the best versions of Regency costume I have ever seen on screen. They are just. Immaculate and not just immaculate in historically accurate ways, but the clothing is used in the way that they did.
So you’ll see Emma wearing the same muslin gown, but one day she’s got a pink silk slip underneath it or the slip, you know, like we still call it now as a kind of a petticoat or an underdress. And then the next day she’s got a blue one underneath. So the actual gown changes into a pastel pink or a pastel blue because of what she’s got underneath and the way that they use the possibilities of fashion to make Mrs Elton exaggerated and completely period, but also over the top and vulgar, but in really exact ways, I just thought it was delicious. So for me, the whole costumes are just fabulous. And they’ve been nominated for an Oscar, rightly so.
To learn more, listen to our London History podcast Episode 49: Myths of Regency Dress.
Hazel Baker is an award-winning London Tour Guide and qualified CIGA guide who delivers guided walks and private tours in London. View all of Hazel’s walking tours.