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‘Emma.’ Costume Designer Explains How She Spun Clothes With the ‘Power of Sugared Macarons’

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In the world of costume drama, Alexandra Byrne is one of the true masters of the medium, especially the Elizabethan and Recency eras in England.

After beginning her career in theater, Byrne’s work in films started with 1995’s Jane Austen adaptation “Persuasion,” and continued through 1998’s “Elizabeth” and its sequel “Elizabeth: The Golden Age” (for which Byrne won an Oscar in 2009) and the ambitiously denim-outfitted “Mary Queen of Scots.

She’s also a key contributor to the aesthetic of Marvel’s superhero franchise, having designed the costumes for “The Avengers” and “Guardians of the Galaxy,” among others.

More recently, she worked on a sort of bookend project to “Persuasion,” another Austen adaptation called “Emma.

Directed by photographer Autumn de Wilde (her filmmaking debut) and starring Anya Taylor-Joy (“The Queen’s Gambit”) in the title role, the film offered a sumptuous, fresh take on Austen’s classic — and no more so than in the bold, color-soaked, practically edible-looking clothes.

The designer talked  TheWrap about her adventurous use of color and how a character’s wardrobe can be a focus-pull for the audience.

‘ Film Review: Classic Jane Austen Novel Becomes a Sumptuous, Smart Big-Screen Treat.

Did you dig up your research from “Persuasion,” which you worked on back in the mid-1990s?I did.

It made me laugh because in 1994 those images that I collected for my mood board were so hard to come by.

Now we are inundated with images and the difficulty is filtering out the truths from the untruths.

Did you read through this Jane Austen novel, “Emma,” before starting your work here?Yes.

But the beginning of any film is also about the script and then talking quite a bit with the director.

Whether it’s a superhero film or a period film, whatever I’m doing, I need to know what it should be.

Like when you dressed characters in denim for “Mary, Queen of Scots,” about 300 years before that fabric was widely in use?Correct.

Have you ever worked with as much color as in “Emma.

Working in the theater, we lean so much on black for costumes.

That was when I realized that the use of color is the most powerful tool.

The great thing about designing costumes from the Regency period, as opposed to an earlier time, is that there are archival pieces that you can look at.

In what way is the film deliberately inaccurate?Well, in terms of the amount of clothes.

I wanted Emma to always have clothes that were appropriate for every occasion and every moment and every season and every day of type of weather.

How much did the colors and the costumes influence your director Autumn de Wilde?All the colors came from conversations with Autumn.

The colors told us that this period was full of fun and liberation for the women.

So for the first time fashion was there in print for everybody to look at.

Also Read: ‘Emma’ Sets Per-Screen Average Record, as ‘Parasite’ Nears $50 Million at Indie Box Office.

How did you and Autumn decide on that bright, brilliant yellow?We wanted Emma as  the queen bee of the village.

And so her look and her color defines the her world.

When you use strong colors, it’s all about finding the fabric that takes that color, that hums in that color.

We worked endlessly with fabrics and swatches and colors, and laying them all out, just looking at how they played together.

I would say pastel colors are not my comfort zone.