Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without a period drama to settle down with. This year, it’s the BBC’s three-part adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women that has gained our attention, casting four rising stars as the much-loved March sisters: Maya Hawke as Jo, Willa Fitzgerald as Meg, Annes Elwy as Beth and Kathryn Newton as Amy.
Ahead of the mini-series’ Boxing Day debut, we caught up with costume designer Eimer Ní Mhaoldhomnaigh to learn more about the charm and challenges of bringing the March girls’ wardrobes to life on screen...
Four main characters + three hour-long episodes = a lot of costumes
Little Women sees its four central characters dancing toward the cusp of adulthood – a transition which, in the mid-nineteenth century, called for a change of wardrobe. In practical terms, that means a big job for a designer, especially when the majority of costumes are being made from scratch. 'While Little Women doesn't straddle a huge amount of time when you look at it on paper, the girls go from being adolescents to young women: there's a transformation from episode to episode for certain characters,' Eimer says. 'We wanted to make a lot of the costumes to give them an overarching look; with it being a period piece, I really needed the whole ten week prep period.'
Girls run the world in Little Women – and the costumes had to reflect that
'Vanessa, the director, was very interested in how the clothing, the production design and the set could create this atmosphere of a very feminine world. This house is really ruled by the women,' says Eimer. 'It was important for us to get across that sense of independence through their clothing, especially for Jo. There's an androgynous style to the way she dresses in comparison to her sisters. Most of the time we just gave her one petticoat – she's very tomboyish so she needs to be able to move, with nothing constraining her. We see the 20th century as the birth of the women's liberation movement, but there's a kind of freedom to these characters that we don't always associate with women of that time.'
Even fictional characters have a capsule wardrobe
The book is set during the American Civil War: while the girls are far from the front (where their father is away fighting the Confederates), the conflict has a subtle impact upon their wardrobes, with fabric for new clothes being scarce. According to Eimer, 'it was really important to try and get a sense of the clothes being made at home – it's a bit like the World War II idea of make do and mend. We made an awful lot of costumes but within each episode, the girls only have a few dresses each. We really repeat things over and over: put an apron on it, put different blouses with different skirts to make it as versatile as possible.'
Written accounts provided period details
'While it's much easier to find references for high fashion because society ladies were always having their portraits painted, right back to Tudor England, it's wrong to suppose that people didn't follow fashion in even the smallest of towns,' says Eimer. 'The newspaper would carry accounts of what was fashionable, even if they didn't have photographs and pictures. For my research, I used paintings from the period but I loved written accounts from the Civil War, with women talking about clothing and how they made things.'
It’s all about balancing accuracy with mood
For Eimer, the process of costuming a period adaptation isn't about upholding period accuracy above all other considerations. Rather, it's a case of 'trying to marry the story and the characters with what was real at the time; trying to make something look realistic but also giving it a specific style and quality. It was very much about atmosphere – the changing of the seasons, how they're developing mentally and physically, how that is reflected in the colours and the way the fabrics flow.'
Costume dramas aren’t always all about OTT excess
'Sometimes my favourite designs are the least ostentatious ones,' explains Eimer. 'For the big ball gowns, you just need to find a really fabulous piece of fabric and make sure that there's lots and lots and lots of it. I loved some of Beth's dresses because there was a simplicity to them that really embodied that character: a cotton dress with a little black check was one of the first costumes that she wears, and I used that as a marker for where I wanted to go with the designs.'
Each sister has a signature style
Just as Jo's fuss-free dresses speak to her practical, tomboyish persona, the costumes in Little Women act as shorthand for each sister's character. 'Meg is quite feminine, but in a way that's slightly restrained, very proper,' Eimer reveals. 'She's always trying to be a good girl and follow the rule book. Aside from one Cinderella moment at her first ball (when we dressed her in a beautiful off-the-shoulder dress in a sea green jacquard) she's typically wearing long sleeves, covered up with round necklines. Then Beth is the quietest, with the simplest dresses, while Amy is the youngest but the most coquettish, the most fashion-conscious.'
Little Women airs on BBC 1 at 8pm on Tuesday 26th December, 8pm on Wednesday 27th December and 8.30pm on Thursday 28th December.