The 'Persuasion' costume designer had Patti Smith and Debbie Harry on her mood board
It can be very tricky to reinvent the wheel with a period film’s costumes—you see one empire waist Regency dress, you’ve seen them all, right? Films also live on a spectrum of historical accuracy, and filmmakers generally commit to where their production lands along it. On one end, we have Greta Gerwig’s Little Women, which won an Oscar for its rich, historically accurate costuming. On the other, we have Bridgerton, with its cloyingly sweet, more-is-more approach that eschews period accuracy in favor of visual lushness. But it’s rare to find something like Persuasion (out on Netflix this Friday), which offers something we haven’t really seen before: all of the above. The costumes in Persuasion are precisely, painstakingly rooted in Regency dress; have just enough artistic license to make a statement, and offer an approach to period costuming that feels entirely fresh. When you walk away from this film, you feel as though you’ve watched both a period piece and a modern rom-com—and the costuming plays a huge role in delivering that effect.
The new film, which stars Dakota Johnson as its plucky, intelligent heroine, Anne Elliot, features much of the trappings of Regency dress—women in corsets, a dashing Henry Golding as a suitor in a top hat, so forth—but there are subtle costuming decisions that shape and support the way we experience the story. For example, Persuasion is unique in Austen’s oeuvre in that its protagonist often speaks directly to the reader, giving us insight into her state of mind. So it can’t be just a coincidence that in this adaptation, Johnson’s character wears a number of interesting transparent pieces. And even more shocking than a woman wearing transparency during the Regency era is the fact that the film’s costumes are incredibly dull. It’s almost as if Netflix came in and turned the saturation dial way, way down for Persuasion. But as the story unfolds and the characters develop, you come to understand that this was a deliberate decision to better allow the performances to shine through.
BAZAAR.com spoke with the film’s costume designer, Marianne Agertoft, about how period films have changed over the last 10 years, why there aren’t that many bonnets in the film, and the one piece of costuming that Henry Golding—accidentally—stole from set.
You’ve worked on a few period productions in the past, such as Poldark. How was this different?
Every adaptation from books is very different. Poldark was different because of the number of books there were. I did just the first season, so it was important for us to get it right, because we knew it would have to run as a series. For Persuasion, it’s just one book. But for both productions, it was a collaborative process, and you need to be on the same wavelength with the director.
How do you balance period accuracy with making your own statement in the film?
For me, I’ve always admired the Jane Austen adaptations that have come before, and I think they stand the test of time. But with Persuasion, which is the last novel that Jane Austen finished, there haven’t been many adaptations of it for film. And over the last 10 years or so, the world of period pieces has totally evolved. Audiences have become used to adaptations that are quite free and some that are a bit more fantasy-based, so that allowed us to bring on board some more attitude with the costuming. We decided to lose the period accuracy when it was necessary—bonnets and hats can stifle an actor’s movement, and we felt the permission to use them when we wanted to, but we didn’t have to be as strict with them as was dictated at the time. We aren’t historians, but it was wonderful to have access to historical references to draw upon.
Tell me about a specific deviation from period dress that you made for the film.
For Anne, we made the deliberate choice to slightly lower the empire waistline. For me, it creates a more timeless look.
I was really intrigued by the use of transparency in the film.
Everything in the film is of that era, but the way we layered things, maybe one would have done, but maybe not. I did stretch it a bit with Anne. From that period, they did sometimes have these transparent sleeves, maybe for workwear. But we did use some slightly more sheer 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 before I even spoke to the director: Debbie Harry, Audrey Hepburn, and Patti Smith. It was less about going contemporary in the actual dress and more about where we could take Anne’s character thematically. Anne has all those sides to her. The attitude of these amazing women really resonated with me, and I thought about how they were cool for how they would wear things, rather than what they were wearing. So in Persuasion, Anne has these favourite garments. She chooses things that she really treasures.
Were there any challenges and last-minute fixes on set?
We had these beautiful hats made in Italy that were delayed at the border, and we didn’t get them until a week after filming. So Henry Golding ends up wearing this very well-loved and dented top hat instead that is quite featured in the film. But he made it work. Everything we put Henry in had this sense of ease and swagger. He is so wonderfully suave.
I ask every costume designer this—was there any part of the costumes on set that an actor tried to pilfer?
We were filming this huge wedding scene, and we had to film it around the fact that Henry had to leave and get on a flight. We sent him off in a bit of a hurry, and when he got to the airport, he realised he still had the ring on. I don’t think it was a deliberate steal.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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