What makes great costume design?

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Obviously as a costume maker I am incredibly interested in costume design. And recently, by sheer coincidence, I have watched both Sense and Sensibility and Emma in the space of a week. Perhaps it has been something to do with the time of year? Two Sundays in a row of torrential rain have created the perfect conditions for Sunday afternoon period dramas and coming across the DVD while at my parents house I decided to rewatch Sense and Sensibility for the perhaps 20th time.

Now if you are any kind of costume drama fan you know the one I mean. Emma Thompson, Hugh Grant, Kate Winslet and Alan Rickman lead an all star British cast in the film that won Emma Thompson an Oscar for her adaptation of the novel. Kate Winslet gets soaked to the skin several times, Emma Thompson gives a stoic performance as Elinor Dashwood and the late Alan Rickman delivers unrequited love in a performance that makes his portrayal of Snape look mediocre. To put it shortly, this is a great film and a great adaptation.

The version of Emma I am referring to is the 1996 film with Gwyneth Paltrow. This is also a pretty spectacular adaptation. I was surprised to find it genuinely funny. Jane Austen’s cutting satire comes through beautifully and this is largely due to the amazing Alan Cummings as Mr Elton. In spite of the slightly dodgy British accent Gwyneth Paltrow does a great job as Emma, and the surprise appearance of Ewan McGregor as Frank Churchill was another great addition.

In short both are pretty great films. And yet, visually, Emma isn’t a patch on Sense and Sensibility. I have since been looking and looking at stills from the two of them for this blog post and I feel that these two perfectly demonstrate something I have been trying to articulate about great costume design for a very long time.

For me, the TEXTURE of Emma is wrong.

Does that sound really weird? Maybe it does – I shall attempt to explain.

As pretty as the dresses in Emma are, they appear too smooth and too light. In Sense and Sensibility you can feel the difference in the weight of fabrics used and see the presence of the correct underpinnings. Well at least I can.

Maybe the average viewer doesn’t know that the petticoats make all the difference, but they might notice the lack of them in Emma without knowing exactly what is missing.

A Closer Look

Let me show you what I mean with these black and white stills from the IMDB pages for both films.

First of all Emma:

If you look at the back of the dress where the pleats start, they are relatively flat and the creases created are small and sharp. Look at the way the dress hugs her legs and knees. It looks like a single layer of fabric, closely following the lines of her body.

Emma (1996) - What makes great costume design? - Retro Claude

Now compare that dress to this one worn by Elinor in Sense and Sensibility. There is much more kick from the pleats at the back with more noticeable volume. At the front the dress doesn’t cling; we can’t see the outline of her legs at all.

Also look at where the light hits her arm. You can see the texture of the fabric. It looks so dense and rich compared to the insubstantial sheen of Emma’s dress. Sense and Sensibility (1995) - What makes great costume design? - Retro Claude


Something as simple as fabric choice can make such a difference to great costume design. What do you think? Have you seen both films and understand what I mean?

Since I started writing this post it has become very sunny, so hopeful this Sunday I can venture out into the warmth.

Love Claude xx


  • deanna.bohae

    I totally understand what you mean! The costumes in Emma although very pretty kind of feel like fancy dress up clothes while the costumes in Sense and Sensibility feel very real and down to earth. In some ways, the costumes reflect the tone of the movies. Emma is more sparkly and amusing, but Sense and Sensibility is more dramatic and serious.