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The spectacle of costume is unendingly bashful when the elements of film are in competition with one another. Its ability to hide in plain sight means its painfully precise formation is often overlooked for more favourable aspects of creation, such as the actors or the screenplay. One woman who appreciates the delicate art of fictitious fashion is the Oscar-nominated costume designer Alexandra Byrne. Her career has spanned almost 30 years working on major motion pictures, culminating in the magnificent achievement in Autumn De Wilde’s fresh tribute Emma earlier this year. As is the circular nature of fashion, what was once considered period dress now begins to flourish on modern runways, including the capes and high, feminine neck wear seen in the collections of Adam Lippes and Michael Kors in the recent New York fashion week.
One thing that can be said about her recent work in Emma (2020) is the indulgent richness of colour, silhouette and layering. Her ability to model her designs on accurate regency clothing while breathing true life into the once muted colours of the period drama is commendable. In an interview with Hero magazine Byrne illustrates her talent in mediating historical accuracy with modern fashions: ‘You have to respect the period but also as a costume designer you need to create a credible world for the story to live in’. Some could say that the once considered modest fashions of the regency period are being reconfigured for a modern winter collection.
Throughout the film, our heroine Emma wears at least five Spencer jackets – a 19th Century, lightweight cropped jacket used to add colour and shape to dresses – that were modelled almost exactly from original Georgian pieces. The balance struck between accuracy and style demonstrates that Byrne possesses unending aptitude and honed flair for the craft.
Most striking is Emma’s bright mustard Pelisse coat, fitted and distinct to the body, standing starkly out against the deep greens and blues of the countryside around her. It characterises her as polished, fashionable and refined: the heroism in her clothing making her the shining star of the film. It is this exact culmination of fashion, meaning and character that sets Byrne out as one of the best costume designers of the last few decades, and no doubt she will treat us to more of her work in future ventures.
It is a mistake to ignore the art of fashion in film, for it is so integral to plunging a viewer into the fictitious world that it is often ignored on behalf of its presumed necessity. Next time you watch a film, whether a period drama or the next action thriller, like Cary Joji Furunaga’s next instalment of the James Bond series No Time To Die, take a closer look at the costumes and clothing as not just a necessity, but an illustration of art, meaning and expression.