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Persuasion: Costume designer reveals why Dakota Johnson’s input was ‘vital’

As Dakota Johnson appears in the new Jane Austen adaptation, Lorelei Marfil speaks to the film’s costume designer about the input the star had on the outfits and the problem Brexit posed to the film’s top hats

Saturday 16 July 2022 06:00 BST
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Regency-era fashion is here to stay – at least that’s what Netflix wants us to think. Just months after dropping the new season of Bridgerton, the streaming platform has released Jane Austen’s Persuasion starring Dakota Johnson and Henry Golding.

The cast’s costumes were inspired by ephemera from the period: dresses, museum pieces and paintings. And although reviews have been, um, varied, there’s no denying the film is sumptuous to look at. From the colourful empire waist dresses to pared down accessories – all designed in a contrived colour palette – the Regency-era costumes in Persuasion offer period clothing with a more contemporary twist, with lowered waistlines and a more quiet and minimalist aesthetic.

Persuasion’s heroine is Anne Elliot, everyone’s low-key Austen favourite; she is, as was ever thus, entangled in suitor drama. There’s the inappropriate suitor, Captain Frederick Wentworth (Cosmo Jarvis), AKA the man she loved – but deemed inappropriate suitor by her aristocratic family. And then there’s the dashing, curveball suitor, Mr Elliot (Golding). Let the fraught emotions commence.

Ahead of Persuasion’s release, we caught up with the film’s London-based costume designer Marianne Agertoft, whose credits include Poldark, Utopia and Netflix’s Cursed.

How did you prepare for ‘Persuasion’?

We had precious little time on Persuasion and had just nine weeks of prep before we started filming. We started everything from scratch, from getting the team together, sourcing the makers, finding the workroom, and doing the budget.

My mood boards are always the starting point. The mood boards evolve with the addition of more specific details of cut and colours for each character and as the characters’ “journey” or story becomes clearer.

Dakota Johnson as Anne Elliot in Persuasion

How did the costumes come together?

The evolving mood boards are used for communication with the director, the production designer and the cinematographer. We collaborate on textures and colours which bring the overall look and feel of the film together. The colour palette and texture is extremely important to me, I mainly work with patterns when they create a texture rather than a contrast. Much time is spent dyeing fabrics and working texture into each and every garment.

I do very simple sketches and work with the cutter to achieve the final cuts of garments during fittings. This enables me to have the visual and verbal feedback from the actor.

What was the inspiration behind the costumes?

MA: Some designs leaned on paintings of the period. Details were inspired from cuts of historic garments and museum pieces. Another inspiration was the script, which felt contemporary - it had attitude and humour.

(L to R) Izuka Hoyle as Henrietta Musgrove, Ben Bailey Smith as Charles Musgrove, Mia McKenna-Bruce as Mary Elliot

What was your style inspiration for dressing the role of Anne Elliot, and how involved was Dakota Johnson?

My initial mood board had images of three other heroines who I felt style and mood wise illustrated the various sides to Anne Elliot: Patti Smith, Debbie Harry and Audrey Hepburn. I was wanting to create a more simple, timeless ease and unique feel in her style in comparison to her sisters’ more typical regency style.

I shared all the mood boards (with all the characters, not just Anne Elliot) with Dakota, so she was aware where I was intending to go with the characters in order to give her a point of reference to form her own opinions. Dakota was generous with her time and her input was vital.

The fittings were exciting and full on with lots of garments to develop. There were items that were dismissed in the fittings but then were brought in as filming went on. In particular there was a riding hat which seemed too much at the fitting stage but Dakota felt it was right once we were at the location.

What about your inspiration for Cosmo Jarvis’ Captain Frederick Wentworth and Henry Golding’s Mr Elliot?

The attractive and interesting, yet slightly awkward hero that Cosmo portrays was a joy to dress. The civilian costumes were all about the textures and feel of the sea. The deliberate wear on all his clothes adds warmth and sets him apart from Mr Elliot and Sir Walter.

The Western duel feel between Wentworth and Mr Elliot when they first meet on the stunning clifftop was the main inspiration for Henry. This includes a well loved but dented top hat we ended up having to give him to wear for the first days of filming. The Italian handmade to measure top hats we had made for the production were stuck at the border due to Brexit and only got to us a week after we started filming.

Edward Bluemel as Captain Harville, Dakota Johnson as Anne Elliot

How crucial is dressing the supporting roles?

The supporting actors and their contribution in terms of what they wear and how they wear their garments is crucial to offset or enhance the look of the leading characters. Their costumes help us visually set the tone of the leading actors’ characters. It is the way to create and enhance nuances in the story which the audience can then relate to visually.

Did you have a favourite look or character? Was there any look in particular you were surprised by or excited about?

I really enjoyed creating Nikki Amuka Bird’s character, the unique Lady Russel. She is a strong woman who has guarded and inspired Anne, despite persuading her to let go of Wentworth. There are deliberate similarities in the cut and individuality in Anne and Lady Russell’s wardrobes. It was a wonderful opportunity to take artistic license - my favourite garment for Lady Russel is the golden pelisse she wears in the opening scenes.

What was a typical day working on the set like for you?

The filming was entirely location based so you have to move around constantly. This makes the days even more varied and less predictable. The reality is I spent precious little time on set. Generally I start the day on set by establishing costumes to make sure that we have got everything in place. Other days I will have to juggle the filming set to keep the prep in London (or nearby) going for upcoming characters or costumes which are still required for the cast. That often meant going back to our costume base in London unless we had managed to set up a costume space near the location.

(L to R) Yolanda Kettle as Elizabeth Elliot, Richard E. Grant as Sir Walter Elliot, Lydia Rose Bewley as Penelope Clay, and Henry Golding as Mr. Elliot

What was the hardest part of working on ‘Persuasion’?

From the outset we were a small team. We were then challenged by a lot of us having to self isolate due to Covid and the team was stretched. The fact that this may not show in the end, is a testament to the dedication and perseverance of each and everyone who was part of the extraordinary costume team.

Without spoiling any details, what should fans be looking forward to with the film?

The flirting squid conversation.

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