Alexandra Byrne is an Oscar winning costume designer, who has worked on Hamlet (1996), Elizabeth (1998), The Phantom of the Opera (2004) and Murder on the Orient Express (2017). She has also designed the costumes extensively within the MCU – including Thor (2011), The Avengers (2012), Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) and Doctor Strange (2016).

We spoke to Byrne about Autumn de Wilde’s Emma (2020) and her costume design for this film has already been longlisted for a BAFTA and is very likely to be Oscar-nominated. We discussed the men’s costuming, the use of bold colours and the ball scene which has become a talking point for a costume-related reason…

I love the fact that I can ask you as much about the men’s costuming as the women’s. Knightley (Johnny Flynn) being undressed and redressed is a really pivotal scene at the start of the film – why was it so important to show that process?

That sequence came from Autumn. I research everything and Autumn wanted everything to be correct to period and she wanted to bring the humour out of the reality, instead of imposing things that were meant to be funny. So everything was very researched and we were talking about the men’s dressing routine – the vanity and the show of status.

She asked me “what was men’s underwear?” and I said “they didn’t wear any, they used their shirt tails and they tucked them through their crutch and that was their underwear.” And the show of class was that the gentlemen could afford to wear clean linen and freshly laundered, starched cravats every day. So she (Autumn de Wilde) became very interested in this and said “show me,” so we showed her what it took, for Johnny to dress as Knightley in a real costume. And she said “we’ve never seen that, that’s really interesting” so that’s really how it came about.

The whole film was very collaborative, so that’s how that kind of thing developed. Through conversations with Autumn and with the actors.

Accessories such as collars, hats and gloves seem to tell us a lot about Emma’s (Anya Taylor Joy) emotional state and her status within any given scene eg. she wears a really spiky collar in an argument with Knightley and she wears very ostentatious Church hats. Do you have a favourite example of an Emma accessory and its purpose within a scene?

What I enjoyed about the period is that Emma is like the Queen Bee, she’s a big fish in a small pond and the way I wanted to show that is a woman of her status and her class would have the right item of clothing, the right accessory for every occasion. It’s like she has a constant running net-a-porter account, she has everything she could want. And the people around her don’t have that.

But equally, I didn’t want it to look like it was an endless parade of costumes, as it were. What’s interesting about the period is that everyone thinks of “white muslin dresses” but actually the clothes are built up of many layers. So you have the chemise, then a corset, then a petticoat, then a muslin or a wool dress and then you have the little infills, you have gloves, you have bonnets, you have the little Spencer jackets.

So actually, Emma within the film only has three muslin dresses, but with all the accessories and the layers, because the muslin is so sheer, you can put a yellow petticoat underneath, or a pink petticoat and it changes the nature of the dress. If you put a different collar, a different infill, different gloves, different jacket, different bonnet, different jewellery – you can change the whole flavour.

For once in this film, we didn’t have action doubles, or stunt doubles or anything like that, everything was a one-off. So we could make things with whimsy and fun, but it meant that with Anya on the day, to a certain extent, we could actually fine-tune her look, because it was comprised of so many layers. After Anya had rehearsed the scene, we could really decide what we wanted to play into or play against, in terms of the nature of Emma within that scene.

So, it was fun! It was a really collaborative and enjoyable experience.

Frank Churchill’s (Callum Turner) outfits are more colourful than the other male characters and he seems to favour floral waistcoats in particular. Do you view him as a peacock type, do you think there was a performative aspect to his costuming?

Yes, in that I was trying to counter him with Knightley. Knightley is very much the classical country gentleman and he’s restrained. I wanted to honour the lines (from the book) when he’s questioning Churchill going to London for a haircut (which is actually an excuse Churchill is using). So I wanted the clothes to underline that.

And also Churchill is coming into this community – they didn’t have mobile phones or the internet – all these little communities were quite self-contained and Churchill is this gust of energy and intrigue coming into this rather contained community. So, I didn’t want him to stand out as something extraordinarily different, but I wanted him to bring a different sensibility into the village.

I have to ask about the ball scene, because it’s become quite iconic already. The reason it has caused such a stir is actually a lack of costuming and in this particular case, it’s the gloves which are removed. Why do you think people have reacted so strongly to something which is so simple, really, which is just the fact that Emma and Knightley are not wearing gloves when they dance together?

Well, from the research of the period, the etiquette was that you wouldn’t touch, skin-to-skin. And the etiquette would be set by the woman and the man would follow. Emma is quite headstrong and it felt like the right statement for her to make at that point – in that she’s making a move, but she’s not making a move. To us, of course, we don’t wear gloves, we don’t have any of that etiquette. But to set up the world around it, so that moment was such a trigger point, was actually great. Because as you said, something which is so simple, as taking off the gloves can cause – not a shudder, not even a gasp, but it causes a reaction. And it’s a demonstration of when costume can really help with not so much storytelling, but story sculpting, in that you’ve caused a moment.

My favourite Emma outfit is the one near the end, with the green and yellow embroidered flowers and I’m wondering why you chose that dress for some really important scenes towards the end? (She wears it in the scene where both Emma and Harriet [Mia Goth] become upset with one another and also when Knightley fumblingly tells her how he feels under the tree).

It was for many reasons. The balance and counter-balance that goes on between Emma and Harriet throughout the film, the counterpoint of their styles and their dresses. I wanted that balance of Emma wearing the colour against Harriet wearing a plain muslin dress.

Also I knew that the scene with Knightley was going to be an exterior. Quite often I find (laughs – this is going to sound really strange) green grass in a period film quite difficult to work with. It becomes – not suburban or domestic – it just can jar in a period piece. But because Autumn chose such amazing locations and the way that the green of the grass was used eg. the scene where we first meet Frank Churchill and we got the wind, the hill, the grass, the sheep and nature is sort of heightened, so I thought I would actually play into that.

So it just seemed that Emma with the muslin with the green and floral embroidery was a really good counterpoint to her mood at that time, in terms of what she’s wearing and then Knightley finding her as she’s walking back.

It’s also great to have the nosebleed – the green with the nosebleed and the flowers – that was another moment. We discussed the scene and every dress was a one-off and when Autumn was talking about the nosebleed it was just like: “OK dripping blood, white muslin dress, there’s only one of them, it’s an exterior, wind is blowing, how is this going to work?” But actually, we were fine!

There’s quite a few instances where you use bold colours, more bold than we usually associate with Regency TV and film eg. the red cloaks of the schoolgirls and the use of yellow is often quite bold. Was there any discussion about making it stand out from what we normally associate with the period, which is obviously mainly white and pale pastel colours?

It’s actually all true to period and I think there is a tendency with period, to make it faded and sepia because we think of antiquity like that. But from doing the research, both on fashion plates and looking at garments in museums – when you look at the fabric on existing original pieces, where it hasn’t been exposed to sunlight (so inside a hem or within a seam allowance) the colours are actually astounding and the colour combinations are astounding. So that gave me the courage to think; actually yes, we really can use colour and as a designer, I think colour is one of our best storytelling tools. Autumn (who has a background in music and fashion photography) is also great on colour.

The story happens within a year, so with Emma – the girl who has everything, we decided to create a seasonal palette for her. We worked up a big book of textiles and swatches and patterns for each season, so there was a seasonal tone, as set by Emma. So, colour became very important, both for character and storytelling. And indeed, Kave (Quinn) worked in the same way with the production design and we worked very closely together, because the moment you start to use colour, you have to immediately consider “does somebody belong in that room? or are they at odds with that room?” So we really worked closely to make the colours add up and have subliminal messaging.

There are a lot of pastels and they are not my comfort zone at all, actually, but by looking at the fashion plates, you realise how you’re going to use them. Like with Emma, when she’s first going to the wedding, she wears pink and yellow together and you know, one thinks of Battenberg cake, but it has to be precisely the right shade of pink and the right shade of yellow for them to work. It’s very exciting, but you have to be very precise with your colours.

Mr Woodhouse (Bill Nighy) – I loved the contrast between his public outfits and his private ones – so he’s in various layers and shades of grey in public, but in private he wears these amazing brocade dressing gowns and he’s comfortable with Knightley seeing him in that private space and in his private clothes. Could you tell me a bit about the decisions behind Woodhouse’s costuming?

Yes – that was working with Bill, he had very strong feelings about it and he wanted Woodhouse to be immaculately elegant and we decided to keep him in sort of an oatmealy colour that he wears, so he’s in totally neutral colours to balance Emma’s huge array of seasonal colours.

The dressing robe that he wears at home is based on one that I saw in the V&A archive and the men had these beautiful dressing robes with built-in waistcoats and they were quite often patterned or in a cotton print. Again, that was working with Kave because when he was at home, I wanted him to entirely belong in the furniture and behind his screens and in that world. So we developed a print and a colour world that would work for him. I suppose it’s his version of comfort gear, his at-home gear, but it still had huge style and elegance.

I really like Mr Elton’s (Josh O’Connor) costuming because obviously you were quite limited with him being a vicar or a parson, but I think what you did with him and his collars, for example, is that you really got to say something about his character even within those limits.

That was very instinctive, I was working in black, so it’s all about black, off-black, texture, silhouette, shape, line. And the collars again were taken from period research, because he’s so vain, I wanted him to try and aspire to be in with the gentlemen. And the men’s vanity, basically, they were very proud of their legs because legs were a sign of good breeding and high status. Also their cravats – there’s a great description of a gentleman having his cravat tied by his valet and the collar would be “so starched that their chin would point up the ceiling as the cravat was tied and then they lowered their chin into the cravat…to the sound of the starch cracking” and that was really where we started with him.

Just before you go, I want to quickly say that we loved Mary Queen of Scots (which won the 2019 Odyssey award for best production and costume design) as well!

Oh, good! It was very different (to Emma), but I really enjoyed doing that film – it was a labour of love and mud!