In "Persuasion," twenty-something Anne Elliot (Dakota Johnson) still mourns the demise of her first true love since she refused the proposal of dashing (and then-broke) naval captain Frederick Wentworth (Cosmo Jarvis) eight long years prior. She finds some solace in a heartbreak "playlist" — paper sheet music stashed in a time-honored ex keepsake box as opposed to a CD or Spotify compilation. Like a Jane Austen classic, it serves as an evergreen and universal salve. That's not the only part of our 19th-century protagonist that's inflected with modernity in the Carrie Cracknell-directed Netflix adaptation.
The anachronisms in Anne's Regency-Era dress reflect both her capable, forward-thinking character and quippy, contemporary vernacular (plus, fourth-wall-busting asides). For a strong foundational knowledge, costume designer Marianne Agertoft heavily researched the time period through imagery, paintings and fashion plates, which then allowed her to expand with creative liberties on her mood boards. "[I then] combined that with more modern images and photographs to illustrate characters and attitude," she says.
"It's more their attitude, like how they come across, not so much about what they wore," says Agertoft, referring to a photo of punk-rock legend Smith in a men's shirt with a jacket tossed nonchalantly over her shoulder.
Agertoft also turned the clock forward a bit, to the late 19th century, by slightly lowering the dress and coat waistlines for both Anne and her financially savvy confidante, Lady Russell (Nikki Amuka-Bird). "We had to go with what gave us the opportunity to say something that felt a little bit different, and I love the simplicity," she says, adding that she jumped on the chance to veer from the empire-waisted "pelisse" silhouette, which remained popular from the early to the mid-19th century. "To me, [the lower waistline] feels more timeless."
Anne's and Lady Russell's forward-pointing waistlines also differentiate them from the former's more conventional sisters: Elizabeth (Yolanda Kettle, below), "Somerset's most fashion forward luminary," as Anne describes her, and the well-married and endearingly self-absorbed Mary (Mia McKenna-Bruce).
Working with Cracknell and production designer John Paul Kelly, Agertoft devised an expressive color palette for Anne and the cast, including a black-and-white theme for the profligate yet debt-ridden Elliot family, beginning with dark grays in tactile, over-dyed linen and sheer organzas on Anne — because she's "stuck in a world of memories, regrets and little action," the costume designer says.
The heroine in Austen's last and most somber work, Anne is considered the author's most mature character, one that observes a time of societal change in England. In that sense, "[the dark gray] just felt a bit more complex and slightly deeper, and resonated really well with me," says Agertoft.
Anne's button-up, collared silhouettes — like the cropped white shirt with rolled up sleeves over a gray dress to ready the family estate, Kellynch, for (gasp!) rental — speak to her love of reading and sharp intellect. Plus, Anne is "practical," says Agertoft: 'She's not about etiquette. She's about what she likes wearing."
Unlike her whim-driven sisters who never wear the same thing twice, Anne repeats her favorite "hero" pieces, like a shawl-collared, lower-waisted linen coat (above) on her travels through the English countryside and on a beach jaunt to Lyme, where she reunites with a still-hurt Wentworth. "It's like having a jean or leather jacket that you just love traveling in," says Agertoft. "It sits on you and it's grown into your shape."
Anne also stays comforted at home in her teal housecoat with delicate puff shoulders and floral embroidery on silk (below). Her cozy underthings reveal more about her character, while also taking period-inauthentic liberties.
"Underneath, she wears Regency front-fastening drawers [for men]," says Agertoft, noting that "a lady of her status" probably never would have actually worn men's underwear at that time. "It's a bit like wearing your long johns. It's, again, that modern interpretation." (At the start of the film, Anne wears thick, slouchy wool socks while swigging wine from the bottle — another anachronistic character choice.)
The teal housecoat fits into Anne's blue theme; her monochromatic motif expands with her journey as she slowly builds to a second chance with Wentworth.
"Breaking a monochromatic look with with a teal is a really nice way of keeping the same kind of character," says Agertoft, whose favorite costume in the film is the aqua dress that Anne wears to visit Mary, her boisterous children and loving in-laws at her Uppercross estate (below).
The button-front collared dress goes through an active, exhilarated and ultimately dejected sequence — so, it needed to be dynamic.
"I found a fabric and it was stiff, like a board," says Agertoft. She and her team dyed and re-dyed the linen mix, while repeatedly washing and breaking it down. "It just became this beautiful piece, much like when you go to a more relaxed household, like a younger sister's house, where it's all about fun."
Anne's ocean-hued theme, connecting with Wentworth's naval blues, comes to a head when the two meet on the cold, windswept beach in Lyme. (Agertoft says that any sort of seafaring symbolism in the colors is unintentional.) Wentworth ultimately friend-zones Anne, as she wards off the literal and figurative chill in a jewel-toned and teal-embroidered wrap over a denim-like dress (above) — the "most amazing fabric."
As the misunderstandings continue and the intriguing yet duplicitous Mr. Elliot (Henry Golding) piques Anne's interest, her monochrome veers into silky ruby tones, like a riding coat at the confectioners and a straightforward but stunning cérise pelisse gown at the opera (below).
"That dress got a lot of attention from our workroom. It was developed slowly, but surely over the whole while we were filming," says Agertoft. "[It was] us trying not to go too much overboard because it still had to fit in with the other people of Bath being there and Anne not looking suddenly like she was a bit overdressed. It was a balance."
Back in Bath with her family, Anne returns to her trusty gray tones, but in more streamlined shapes and a silkier sheen.
"The Bath version of that monochrome, keeping it all very pure and clean, feels less relaxed than in the opening where she's in the library at home [at Kellynch]," says Agertoft, who enjoyed another contemporary play on the period's etiquette-dictated bonnets and tophats by accessorizing Anne with a jaunty knit beret (above).
Anne's headwear also counters the elaborate hat of Lady Russell, who gives Anne what she thinks is another devastating update to top her previous top heartbreak. "That was a little bit the 'bad news' outfit, in that sense," says Agertoft. "Back to where she was in the beginning."
"Persuasion" premieres on Friday, July 15 on Netflix.