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Emma 2

An archival article relating to Emma 2.

Emma 2 Costuming: Emma's Exotic Empire

Jane Austen is all the rage, but Regency styles are not. However, that was before Gwyneth Paltrow wore them...

By Hilary Alexander
The Telegraph, 1996

With the opening today of the latest Jane Austen Hollywood blockbuster, an ITV series being filmed and a BBC mini-series "on the back-burner", the world of entertainment appears to have been transformed into an empire of Emmas. But what of the Empire-line, that risque Regency dress with its swooping decollete neckline that emphasised the bust even further with gathering, in the manner of modern under-wiring? Film-makers seem mesmerised by this long, romantic look, essentially an early 19th-century neo-classical revival of ancient Grecian dress. George Eliot's Middlemarch, televised for the BBC two and a half years ago, sparked the Regency boom. [???] Emma is the fourth Jane Austen novel to be filmed for Hollywood and/or television within the past 18 months, following Persuasion, Pride & Prejudice and Sense & Sensibility. Now, Anne Bronte's The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is scheduled to become a BBC series. The world of fashion, however, has been curiously resistant to Regency charm. The designers' flirtation with retro appears stuck in a Seventies groove - with an occasional foray into the Flapper era. But that may all be about to change. The reason lies with the choice of Gwyneth Paltrow, girlfriend of Hollywood superhunk Brad Pitt, to play Emma, Jane Austen's self-assured heroine. Whereas previous Austen-ised actresses, such as Emma Thompson, Susannah Harker and Julia Sawalha, looked ill-at-ease in their high-waisted, ankle-grazing gowns, Paltrow gives the Regency silhouette a modern, sexy allure.

The key lies not in mimicking the period, but in extracting certain elements from it and bringing them up-to-date.

She could almost have stepped off a John Galliano catwalk, for it was the British fashion genius who zeroed in on the Empire line in his second haute couture collection for Givenchy in Paris in July. His cream muslin and lace gowns, as fragile as a butterfly's wings - as transparent, too - were Empire in the purest sense, inspired by the style popularised by the Empress Josephine. Galliano's sensual Empire-meets-boudoir interpretation is, sadly, beyond the reach of all but the wealthiest of social butterflies, being made-to-order for around £5,000 in the Givenchy atelier in rue Georges V in Paris. But for the girl who wants to inject a little Regency romance into her life - and attract the appropriate dashing hero to match - there are a few treasure troves of Empire-inspired exotica to be found. The key lies not in mimicking the period, but in extracting certain elements from it and bringing them up-to-date. Some of the best dresses are made by Idol, the London label designed by New Zealanders Kerrie Hughes and Penelope Meachin. Tiny, low-cut, elasticised bodices finish under the bust; long double-skirts in finest silk flutter to the floor. Meanwhile, designer Ben de Lisi, holder of British fashion's Glamour award, has created an ultra-modern minimalist version in ribbed jersey. Empire-line evening gowns, reminiscent of all those Sixties Hollywood film premières, can be bought new or secondhand from places such as Cornucopia, and Austen-ised with period accessories. Look for opera-length gloves, crochet mittens, dainty jewellery, embroidered pouch bags and little headdresses. For shoes, seek out plain, classic ballet pumps in leather or the wonderful baroque mules Emma Hope has always specialised in - and which cobbler-extraordinaire Basia Zarzycka interprets with extravagant exuberance. For a finishing touch, add a shawl, an accessory worn by most women at the beginning of the 19th century. At that time, Indian shawls of cashmere were just becoming widely fashionable - and they still are today. Maybe you have been wearing a touch of Regency all along - and never even realised it.