Historical Accuracy vs. Creative Freedom: An Analysis of Little Women Costume Design
Resonating with every generation since its release, Little woman saw an all-new remake in 2019. A story of four sisters – Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy March – Louisa May Alcott’s beloved tale reads like an autobiographical description of her own teenage years: navigating the transition from childhood to adulthood. Greta Gerwig’s retelling of this tale puts a new spin on the classic.
Jacqueline Durran, the costume designer, commented on her intentions for the 2019 story. With the story set in Massachusetts from 1860 to 1870, Durran claimed to have sacrificed some historical accuracy to better reflect the characters, in an effort to reflect their personality through clothes. She said: “I tried to make it precise, so that the clothes existed correctly in a period – but let the girls wear them however they wanted.” Despite this goal, many of her clothing choices deviate from the look of the era and make little sense to the March sisters.
“One crime I can’t ignore is Durran dressing Amy March, the youngest sister, in Uggs”
Durran dresses each sister in her own color palette: Meg in green and lavender, Jo in red, Beth in earthy brown, and Amy in blue. While that’s a nice detail, the impact doesn’t translate quite as expected. Considering the era and the economic status of the March family, it is out of the question for each sister to own multiple dresses in a color of her own. The 1994 version shows the sister sharing her clothes; we see Amy carrying a hand from Meg in later scenes. This creates an immersive realism. It’s baffling that Durran doesn’t reuse the pieces for all the sisters given that she said they “used things in different combinations.” Minus Jo and Laurie swapping the odd shirt or vest, the rest of the March sisters have completely bespoke wardrobes.
Being the eldest of four sisters, Meg March displays the typical characteristics of women of the 1860s. Concerned about how she is perceived and her social status among her peers, one would expect Meg to align herself with the latest trends. Massachusetts of the 1860s was known for the hoop skirt, and it was key to the silhouette of that era. Made from steel hoops, these contraptions made skirts and dresses look wide. Being both affordable and simultaneously eliminating the need for heavy petticoats, the hoop skirt was widely worn throughout society, regardless of social class. This silhouette gradually tapered off in the late 1860s, and the 1970s saw the end of the hoop skirt. Meg, along with the rest of the sisters, fails to adopt the hoop skirt in the 2019 story. Additionally, many garments were made from cotton, which Durran said he used instead of silk and fabrics. more expensive in order to convey the poverty of the markets. However, Little woman is set in the Civil War, and during this time cotton was incredibly expensive in the North, therefore they would not have been in a financial position to be able to afford such materials and would have used wool or linen in place. A mismatch between intent and execution.
One scene the 1994 version nailed was Meg’s debut at Sally Moffat’s prom, her dress a clear rejection of the modesty instilled in her in her attempts to assimilate into high society. Slightly low-cut with a V-neckline, the ’90s dress both gave accuracy and served the plot. 2019 was not so successful. Meg’s pink prom dress ended up being the most conservative outfit there.
One crime I can’t ignore is that Durran dressed Amy March, the youngest sister, in Uggs. How they slipped into costume design 120 years too soon is a mystery to me. Another choice that came a century too early was hairstyles for all the sisters. From the side parts to the refusal to put it up, from the 2010 ponytail to the lack of cups, the inaccuracies in the film’s hairstyle are indefensible.
“Poetry and art flow through its veins and seep into its exterior”
Unlike the other March sisters, I can forgive and forget all historical inaccuracies in Jo’s costume design. Based on Louisa May Alcott herself, Jo is reckless and bold, unconcerned with social expectations. Inaccuracies lead to a higher purpose. One detail that I particularly liked was the interchangeable outfits worn by Jo and Laurie. Given how close they are, it makes sense that they regularly swap clothes.
Theodore Laurence, our resident sweetheart for this film, wears hanging white sleeves and loose hair. Even before he speaks, these choices act as a visual cue, giving the audience a glimpse of his character. He’s a romantic. Poetry and art flow through its veins and seep into its exterior.
Period films always follow a similar dilemma: is historical accuracy vital or can it be sacrificed for creative freedom? For one thing, the precise costume design contributes to the film’s realism, allowing the audience to fully immerse themselves in the story. Likewise, modifications to the authentic design may be necessary to achieve the vision and style of the director and costume designer. Always, Little woman fails to get to the core of the intent behind her sartorial decisions, leaving the creative freedom argument pointless. Still, for those without a fondness for 1860s fashion, Gerwig’s clever storytelling and Timothée Chalamet’s impeccable romanticism are enough to offset the questionable costume design.
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