From the delicate romanticism of Keira Knightley’s linen dresses in Joe Wright’s dreamy Pride and Prejudice to the candy-coloured delights in Autumn de Wilde’s Emma, Jane Austen adaptations have long had a track record for delivering memorable fashion moments. So, for costume designer Marianne Agertoft, who was enlisted to create the wardrobe for Netflix’s fresh new take on Persuasion, the pressure was on from the very beginning. Her mission? To reinterpret the classic codes of the Regency period – the Empire line gowns, ruffled sleeves, feather-strewn bonnets – for an adaptation that gleefully rips up the rule book.
Directed by Carrie Cracknell and centred on an ebullient performance from Dakota Johnson, it follows Anne Elliot, a late-twenty-something spinster who, many years ago, was persuaded by her well-meaning godmother Lady Russell (Nikki Amuka-Bird) to break off her engagement with the only man she ever truly loved. When her vain widower father, Sir Walter Elliot (a delightful Richard E Grant), drives their family to financial ruin, they are forced to lease out their lavish estate, Kellynch Hall, and relocate to Bath. At this point, the dashing young lieutenant in question, Captain Wentworth (Cosmo Jarvis), reenters Anne’s life.
Will the pair reconcile, or will Wentworth, still bruising from her rejection of him, instead pursue one of her sweet-natured sisters-in-law, Louisa and Henrietta (Nia Towle and Izuka Hoyle)? And what about the charming, fortune-seeking Mr Elliot (Henry Golding) who takes an interest in Anne, to the chagrin of her self-obsessed sisters, Elizabeth and Mary (Yolanda Kettle and Mia McKenna-Bruce)?
As in Austen’s source material, there are moments of sombre rumination and devastating heartbreak, but Cracknell imbues the film with raucous humour too, adding side-splitting set pieces and Fleabag-esque monologues to camera. Fittingly, Anne’s costumes have a subtly modern edge too, with louche shirting, muddy boots and looser silhouettes that mark her out as a heroine who was well ahead of her time.
Ahead of the film’s release in cinemas on 8 July and Netflix on 15 July, Agertoft talks us through her favourite looks, the details most viewers will miss, and her eclectic mood board, which featured everyone from Patti Smith to Bruce Springsteen.
You’ve worked on quite a few period dramas before this – Death Comes to Pemberley, Poldark, Les Misérables. What sets Persuasion apart, and how did you get involved?
It came to me via my agent who thought I might be interested. I was sort of not working at the time, but I read the script and thought it was amazing. I met with [director] Carrie [Cracknell] over Zoom and we were on the same page in the sense that we wanted to create this fresh new adaptation and we were equally excited. Visually, there are links between Persuasion and the projects I’ve worked on before, but it did feel different because I have evolved as a designer and I think the world of period dramas has evolved beautifully, too, over the last few years. That meant that we could take things a bit further.
How do you inject that freshness into a film like this while also keeping everything historically accurate?
We decided early on that we could loosen up on the period accuracy if and when we felt it was necessary. It all started with the mood board. Anne is quite a complex character and after I read the script, I read quite a bit of Patti Smith and thought about that look. It seemed to connect with Anne’s intellectual side, but Anne also has a more adventurous side which I felt like was more Debbie Harry, and there’s also something about her that’s a bit Audrey Hepburn. Austen’s characters internalise a lot of their emotions so it didn’t feel right for us to do anything too stylised or go overboard. We wanted to bring a more contemporary feel to the costumes in quieter ways, and a lot of it was also about the attitude and how the actor wore the garments.
So, with Dakota as Anne, her stompy boots have something of Debbie Harry in them, the shirting is quite Patti Smith and you see Audrey Hepburn in those jackets with the delicate shoulders. With the other characters, there were lots of paintings and references from the period on the mood board, but I also looked at Katharine Hepburn for Lady Russell, Vincent Cassel for Mr Elliot, and Bruce Springsteen and Steve McQueen for Captain Wentworth.
The colour palette is also quite different from previous Austen adaptations and I think that makes it feel less fussy, too?
Yeah, I think I made everyone a bit nervous because, for Anne, everything was quite dark at the start, but Carrie really went with it. Her daywear is monochromatic because, when we first meet her, she’s gotten a bit stuck in this world of her memories. Then, we brought in more colour, and more jewel tones in particular. That’s not something we’ve seen a lot in Austen adaptations in the past – it’s a bit bolder and some of those colours weren’t really in the palette at that time, but we tried to find moments to bring them in without losing our footing or going too strong. The monochrome then comes back in Bath, when she hears the news of Louisa’s engagement. There’s also quite a bit of transparency in the sleeves of dresses. That is true of the period where people would layer materials like that, but it’s something we maybe haven’t seen a lot in adaptations.
Anne’s look is so different from that of her sisters. What are the specific elements that distinguish it from their style?
When she’s at Kellynch Hall, you get the sense that she doesn’t really fit in that world. I like an Empire line and some of Anne’s dresses have them, but others favour a waistline, like the house coat we often see her in and the linen coat she wears in Lyme. They look more timeless. Lady Russell’s garments often favour a waistline too and I loved the idea of keeping the two of them as these very individual personalities who support and inspire each other. I think Lady Russell has been something of a trendsetter for Anne. One of my favourite costumes in the film is Lady Russell’s gold coat in the opening scene.
What are some of the other details viewers might not pick up on?
We decided that Anne would wear men’s underwear because women at that time didn’t really have underwear. It’s inspired by the underwear men would have worn in the army and Dakota felt really at home in it. We also gave her the option of short stays or proper corsets and she wanted both. The short stays worked brilliantly for the scenes at home and the corsets were great for the evening.
What about her sisters, Elizabeth and Mary, and her sisters-in-law, Louisa and Henrietta? How did you perfect their aesthetics?
In contrast to Anne, Mary and Elizabeth’s lives revolve around social status and etiquette. Mary loves any opportunity to get dressed up and wants to be the centre of attention. She wears a lot of blues and whites, and is often wrapped in a shawl or scarf because she’s always unwell. Meanwhile, Elizabeth sees herself as the most stylish sister. The dress she wears in the opening scene is beautiful – I found that vintage hand-embroidered silk which was then transformed by cutting and draping. A lot of her garments also match the decor of the room she’s in. There’s a breakfast scene in Bath where she’s in a mint green morning dress which resembles a Georgian vase.