Fashion in Film: Literary Heroines

Monday, July 20, 2020

In this edition of my series diving into cinematic costumes, I wanted to spotlight literary heroines that have come to life in film. I picked three characters who made a huge impression on me growing up: Anne Shirley, Elizabeth Bennet, and Jo March. Anne of Green Gables (1985) and Pride & Prejudice (2005) specifically were my introduction to a whole new genre of costumes and film as a child: the period piece.

Almost as inspiring as the headstrong characters wearing them, were their costumes: ribbons, straw hats, delicate ginghams and plaids, high necks and ruffles, muddy skirts, puffed sleeves and pinafores - let's get into it!

Anne Shirley in Anne of Green Gables
As a kid, I was often deemed "so dramatic, like Anne of Green Gables!" and that was my introduction to Anne Shirley’s world. Instead of resenting the comments (I’m not sure they were meant to be compliments...), I drank in the comparison, memorizing scenes from the TV movies Anne of Green Gables (1985) and Anne of Green Gables: The Sequel (1987) starring Megan Follows.

The books take place in the late 1800s, and I was so young when I first read them, I didn’t understand what half of the references represented. These films helped me visualize and understand the distant time period, and opened up the world of Gilded Age-era clothing to me. We watch Anne grow out of her childhood of red braids, pinafores, and straw hats, into a young lady with Gibson Girl inspired, swooping updos, high-necked gowns, cameo brooches, and of course: puff sleeves.

Anne wearing a dress with her beloved puff sleeves

Anne bemoaned the sturdy gingham and plaid patterned clothing her strict but loving adoptive parent Marilla outfitted her in and asked her guardian to make a singular dress with one of the latest fashions of the 1870s: voluminous, "puffed" sleeves. Marilla shuts her down immediately, saying "I hadn’t any material to waste on puffed sleeves. I think they are ridiculous-looking things anyhow." (Chapter 11)

Later, in Chapter 22, Marilla’s soft spoken brother, Matthew, gifts Anne her first grown up dress for Christmas. It’s described as a dreamy "soft brown gloria [1] with all the gloss of silk; a skirt with dainty frills and shirrings; a waist elaborately pintucked in the most fashionable way, with a little ruffle of filmy lace at the neck." But perhaps the most beautiful aspect of the dress is the sleeves: "Long elbow cuffs, and above them two beautiful puffs divided by rows of shirring and bows of brown-silk ribbon."

Finally, a dress with her beloved puff sleeves! Anne, with tears in her eyes, remarks "It did seem to me that I'd never get over it if they went out [of style] before I had a dress with them."

Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice
Joe Wright’s Pride & Prejudice (2005) looks and feels like it was filmed in perpetual golden light. Wright took a unique approach with his version of the classic, setting the film in the time period it was written, rather than released [2]. For example, in the film the Bennets sport the lower waistlines of the 1790s, contrasting the very fashion focused, rich characters who would be wearing the newest trends of the time: including the empire waist trend of the early 1800s.

What I love about this film’s version of Elizabeth’s wardrobe is how lived in it feels. She tracks in mud from her skirts and boots after her long, pensive walks, and is dressed almost entirely in subdued earth tones or contrasting, swan-like cream and white dresses. Costume designer Jacqueline Durran stated Wright wanted this Lizzie "to not be very interested in current fashions," instead, "to be interested and involved in nature and the things around her." [3]

But one of my very favorite details of the costuming in this film comes from an unlikely place: Mr. Darcy. Jacqueline Durran says: "If you see closely Darcy costumes in the course of the film change quite radically. In the early scenes he's wearing a very buttoned up, very rigid, very stiff style of costume. In the middle stage, he's wearing the same style but in a softer fabric and a softer cut and, by the end of the film, he’s wearing a much looser cut, an open jacket, a more country style, less uptight, less rigid. His costumes reflect the other changes in his character." [4]

Jo March in Little Women
A patterned waistcoat is passed between Jo March and Theodore "Laurie" Laurence in Greta Gerwig’s imagining of Little Women. Both pair it with billowing sleeves, but Jo specifically adds a red handkerchief, tied at the neck. To me, Jo March was brought to life perfectly in Gerwig’s version of the film. The film highlighting how, for many girls, Jo represented their first androgynous icon. Jo frequently rejects gender roles of the day in the novel, openly lamenting and questioning what behaviors were expected of her because she is a girl. This is beautifully underscored in Gerwig’s adaptation, specifically within her wardrobe which is frequently matching, clashing, and/or inter-mixing with her male counterpart Laurie. From Refinery29:

'"Jo is a girl with a boy’s name, Laurie is a boy with a girl’s name," Gerwig said. "In some ways they are each other’s twins." Leaning into this, the film's costume director Jacqueline Durran had the two actors subtly exchange items of clothing throughout the movie, further blurring the lines between where Jo begins and Laurie ends.'

I love Jo's moment of celebration and freedom running through the streets, when we caught a glimpse of trousers worn in secret. If any literary icon was secretly wearing menswear in the 1870s, surely it was pioneering Jo March! I've been inspired to attempt incorporating a bit of menswear into my wardrobe these days, and I will be starting with the Laurie Top from Miss Patina, which was inspired by this film!

Meanwhile, if menswear inspired 1860s looks aren’t your thing, Jo is perfectly contrasted by her sisters, especially the prim and proper Amy (brought to life, with relish, by the dazzling Florence Pugh), whose wardrobe consists of beautiful corsets, hooped skirts, and dainty accessories.

Out of all of these, which wardrobe would you steal? Are you more of an Anne, Lizzie, or Jo?

While doing preliminary research for this post, I unearthed my old Anne books in the garage, and it inspired me to create my first ever Book Club! We started out by reading another book by Anne author, LM Montgomery: Emily of New Moon. Now, we are digging into Jane Austen's Emma. Sign-ups are now closed, but I hope you will join us for our next book!

[1] According to Clothes in Books, gloria is a fabric made from "a mixture of wool and silk or similar material".
[2], [3], and [4] Pride & Prejudice Companion Book via The Pride & Prejudice (2005) Fan Blog


  1. I could stare at period piece waistcoats all day! They're just so pretty and Jo's/Laurie's is yellow one is beautiful.

    1. Thank you so much Jasmine! That was my favorite piece of Jo/Laurie's wardrobes as well, so striking xo

  2. I LOVE STYLES LIKE THIS! Recently I just discovered that they tend to call this the "academia" look. there's a dark and light academia version and I personally lean more towards the dark side more lol

    1. YESS I love that aesthetic so much √Člise! Though I think I'm more on the light academia side hehe. I also love cottagecore! <3

  3. Great post, Thanks for sharing, x
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  4. Oh my gooooosh this blog post is a historic fashion DREAM! I'm still head over heels in love with Pride & Prejudice costumes, just wow... x

    1. Thank you so much Gabrielle! I'm so glad you liked it <3

  5. I love period pieces so much, be it books, shows or films. I love the simplicity of how they lived, and their outfits too! Thank you for sharing this lovely post.

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