Costume & Feeling: Mr. Knightley's Dressing & Undressing in 'Emma.'

In the midst of all that was happening this year, a little movie came out without much fanfare. It was a new adaptation of Emma by Jane Austen (yes, another one - but bear with me): an original, stunningly beautiful production, with outstanding attention paid to costume and set design. In particular I loved how cleverly director Autumn de Wilde utilised costume as a tool to signpost the characters’ inner feelings. 

Two scenes in particular I found exquisite in how they mirrored each other, and bookended Mr. Knightley's journey (played by Johnny Flynn, who you might remember playing Major Dobbin in the ITV adaptation of Vanity Fair.) 

The first is an elaborate, slow, wordless dressing scene. As we can guess and will shortly find out, Mr. Knightley is preening in view of a visit to Emma (who he has a not-so-hidden interest in.)

We witness his careful 'toilette' and layered ritual dressing, which conclude in a satisfied nod to his butler and a confident stride towards his goal. Dressing up here is all about projecting an attractive façade: it’s best-foot-forward identity-building. And a form of emotional armour.

Later in the movie (without spoiling it too much if you haven’t watched it or read the novel), Mr. Knightley finds himself at a point where his feelings for Emma can no longer be contained, or restrained.


This is captured skilfully in the morning (or dawn) after – when Knightley escapes to an empty room to be alone with his racing thoughts, which have just been frustrated by the circumstances.


As he enters it, visibily emtional, we see him impatiently ripping out the encasing of his jacket, waistcoat and various metres of necktie, almost as if to physically free his heart space.


He is now both liberated and unsupported. As he sinks to the floor of the deserted ballroom with the weight of his thoughts, the grand figures in the portrait behind him look on.

Without the need for words, this scene manages to reveal the character’s innermost feelings in a visually striking yet intimate and sensitive way.


Emma. (2020) streaming on YouTube


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