The Persuasion Costume Designer Was Inspired by Patti Smith and Debbie Harry

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It can be very difficult to reinvent the wheel with period film costumes – you see an empire waist Regency dress, you’ve seen them all, haven’t you? Films also live on a spectrum of historical accuracy, and filmmakers typically engage where their production lands along that. On one side, we have Greta Gerwig’s Little woman, which won an Oscar for its rich and historically accurate costumes. On the other hand, we have Bridgerton, with its sweet, sickening approach, more is more, which eschews period precision in favor of visual lushness. But it’s rare to find something like Persuasion (out on Netflix this Friday, July 15), which offers something we haven’t really seen before: all of the above. The suits in Persuasion are precisely, painstakingly rooted in Regency dress; have just enough artistic license to make a statement; and offer an approach to period costume that feels entirely fresh. Walking away from this film feels like you’ve watched both a period piece and a modern romantic comedy, and the costumes play a huge part in achieving that effect.

The new film, which stars Dakota Johnson as its spunky and smart heroine Anne Elliot, features much of the trappings of Regency dress – women in corsets, a dashing Henry Golding as a suitor with a top hat shape, etc. costumed decisions that shape and support the way we experience history. For instance, Persuasion is unique in Austen’s work in that its protagonist often addresses the reader directly, giving us insight into his state of mind. So it can’t be a mere coincidence that in this adaptation Johnson’s character wears a number of interesting see-through pieces. And even more shocking than a woman wearing sheer in the Regency era is the fact that the film’s costumes are incredibly dull. It’s almost like Netflix comes in and turns the saturation dial down for Persuasion. But as the story unfolds and the characters develop, you understand that this was a deliberate decision to better let the performances shine through.

BAZAAR.com connected with the film’s costume designer, Marianne Agertoft, last week to learn more about her work on Persuasion. She gave us her thoughts on how period films have changed over the past 10 years, why there aren’t so many beanies in the film, and the only costume piece that Henry Golding – accidentally! – flew on set.


You’ve worked on a few period productions in the past, like Poldark. How was it different?

Each book adaptation is very different. Poldark was different because of the number of books there were. I only did the first season, so it was important for us to get it right, because we knew it should play out like a series. For Persuasion, it’s just a book. But for both productions, it was a collaborative process, and you have to be on the same page with the director.

NICK WALL / NETFLIX

How do you balance period accuracy with your own statement in the film?

For me, I’ve always admired the Jane Austen adaptations that came before, and I think they stand the test of time. But with Persuasion, which is the last novel that Jane Austen completed, there weren’t many adaptations for the cinema. And over the past ten years, the world of period pieces has completely evolved. Audiences have become accustomed to fairly gratuitous adaptations and some that are a little more fantasy-based, which allowed us to bring a little more attitude with the costumes. We decided to lose period precision when needed – beanies and hats can stifle an actor’s movement, and we felt allowed to use them when we wanted to, but we didn’t to be as strict with them as was dictated at the time. We are not historians, but it was wonderful to have access to historical references to draw on.

Tell me about a specific departure from the period dress you did for the film.

For Anne, we made the deliberate choice to lower the empire waist slightly. For me, it creates a more timeless look.

persuasion l to r dakota johnson as anne elliot, henry golding as mr elliot in persuasion cr nick wallnetflix © 2022

NICK WALL / NETFLIX

I was really intrigued by the use of transparency in the film.

Everything in the film is from that era, but the way we layered things, maybe we would have, but maybe not. I stretched it a bit with Anne. From that time they sometimes had these see-through sleeves, perhaps for work clothes. But we used slightly more transparent fabrics.

What was on your mood board for this film?

I think Anne Elliot is an interesting and complex character, and there were three people on my mood board even before I spoke to the director: Debbie Harry, Audrey Hepburn and Patti Smith. It was less about getting contemporary in actual dress and more about where we could take Anne’s character thematically. Anne has all these sides in her. The attitude of these amazing women really stuck with me, and I thought about how cool they were for the way they wore things, rather than what they wore. So in Persuasion, Anne has these favorite clothes. She chooses things that she really cherishes.

Persuasion L to R Nikki Amuka Bird as Lady Russell, Dakota Johnson as Anne Elliot in Persuasion CR Nick Wallnetflix © 2022

NICK WALL / NETFLIX

Were there any last minute challenges and fixes on set?

We had these beautiful hats made in Italy that were delayed at the border, and we didn’t receive them until a week after filming. So Henry Golding ends up wearing that much-loved, bumpy top hat that features quite heavily in the film. But he made it work. Everything we put Henry in had this feeling of ease and swagger. He is so wonderfully sweet.

I ask every costume designer this: Was there a part of the costumes on set that an actor tried to steal?

We were shooting this huge wedding scene, and we had to film it around Henry having to leave and catch a flight. We sent him away a little hastily, and when he got to the airport he found he still had the ring. I don’t think it was deliberate theft!

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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