…while [Gerwig and producer Amy Pascal] wanted it to be accurate to the period, they didn’t want something that felt too strictly Victorian in a way that meant you couldn’t identify with the characters. –— Jacqueline Durran, costume designer, in interview with Ananda Pellerin, CNN
Greta Gerwig’s new adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s classic novel, Little Women, is delighting us this month, and Greta Gerwig’s original approach (flashing back and forth in time), and decision to give more time and credit to Meg and Amy, are a large part of the movie’s appeal–aside from the fact that so many of us women grew up with the story. (As I get ready to publish this post, they’ve just announced the movie’s many Oscar nominations, including for best costumes–but not, most atrociously, for best direction by Gerwig. Come on, Academy, dammit!)
I love the book, I loved the movie, and I love films with period costumes. People often ask me what I think of the costumes in period movies, and the answer is, it’s always a mixed bag, each movie (or series like Downton Abbey) falling somewhere on the spectrum of Mostly Good to Enh to Well It Vaguely Evoked the Era. (Except for a few which are Just All Bad. I’ll have to do some posts about those so I can really rant.) But I don’t just want to nitpick, I want to discuss how the costume designer interprets and chooses styles of the era to enhance the setting and describe the characters. So here goes, let’s talk about the costumes in Little Women.
Warning: this may be more detail than you care about, but I’m not going to get too scholarly and cite articles, I’m just going to go through what we see, with some period garments and fashion illustrations for context and comparison. (If I go on for too long but you don’t want to give up entirely…scroll down until you see a picture that interests you and start reading there.)
I’ll have to divide this into two sections, the early years and the later, or it’ll be way too long to hold anyone’s attention. (It may already be too long…)
In yet another post I’ll discuss what deviates from history, with what I’ve been able to glean from interviews with Gerwig and with Jacqueline Durran, the costume designer, about why the choices were made. And of course I’ll add my very personal opinions on whether I think it was a good idea and whether it works. (I tried to keep ALL notes on inaccuracies out of my comments below, but that didn’t quite work out.)
For now, though, let’s just enjoy and explain what we saw in the movie. I’m limited to stills that have been in publicity online, and screen shots I could grab from the trailer, so I don’t have images of every outfit.
The movie opens early in the Civil War: is it Christmas 1861? 1862? Not entirely clear. What people will wear “should” be something similar to, but simpler than, a fashion plate for the period: fashion plates were closer to street fashion than, say, Vogue is today, but they were still somewhat exaggerated in skirt size and amount of trim.
Photographs of Americans in the time period will give a better idea of how people really looked.
Then of course there’s the issue of how the March family would have filtered current fashions to make their choices about what to wear, considering several factors: 1) New Englanders were slightly conservative; 2) the March family does not have lots of money to spend on fashion; and 3) their personal philosophy is not to be fashion victims anyway (see: “Meg Goes to Vanity Fair,” the name of the book chapter in which Meg dresses up for the ball and feels guilty about it, detailed in the movie).
In the beginning of the story (the earliest flashbacks, of Christmas when they take food to the Hummels) the girls are, according to the book, 16, 15, 13, and 12. Thus not even Meg is considered fully adult, which means all the girls’ hair is not yet fully Up and their skirts are not yet fully Down. (That doesn’t mean their hair should be loose and flowing like this, but more on hair later. Let’s stick with skirts here.) When you can see the full views, you see Amy’s skirts are the shortest and Meg’s nearly or full length, the others are in between.
Well done, although Jo’s should be closer to Meg’s length, not shorter than Beth’s. The outerwear in this shot is nice: cloaks for the girls, over additional layers like the crossover knitted scarf called a “sontag” on Beth (I’ve seen similar garments in frilly fabrics called a fichu or a fichu-bertha in Godey’s and Peterson’s, but the knitted one is called a Sontag, my friend and colleague Karin Bohleke tells me).
With full skirts, you didn’t need long or fitted coats—cloaks like this which reached to thigh or knee were the thing.
In this scene Jo wears a very “mannish” cap, which suits her character. Meg and Beth should have hats or SOMETHING—you did NOT go outdoors bare-headed (in any weather–and Christmas day in Concord had to be cold!). Gerwig said in an interview that she hates bonnets. Well, ok, but there were lots of things aside from bonnets that could be worn.
This (above) is called an Opera Hood, but made (as many hoods and similar head coverings were) in a homely knitted version, it would be just the sort of thing the March girls could bundle up in while walking in a cold Massachusetts December. And in fact, Kirsten Dunst, as Amy in the 1994 production, wore just such a headpiece.
Moving to indoor fashions, this shot shows the younger three wearing their sontags indoors. Hey, that house had to be chilly—they are strapped for cash and aren’t spending a lot on wood or coal, and an 1800s house would have been plenty drafty no matter how much you stoked the fires.
I love that they are informal at home: here (above), Amy is wearing only the upper layer of her dress, although I’m darned if I know why it’s in several separate floating panels. A lot of girls’ dresses then did have two skirts, one over the other.
I did find this illustration (above, right) of a girl about Amy’s age whose upper skirt has a deep slit, so who knows, maybe the designer was thinking of something like this.
Notice (more visible in the detail below) that Meg’s skirt has a deep applied trim of zig-zagging blue ribbon. (Circle, right; the circle at the left is Jo’s drawers, which we’ll get to later.)
Bold geometric trim at the hem was a big trend around 1860, often in a bold contrasting color and often, in fashion plates at least, in more complex designs. (See the colored fashion plate above, as well as these illustrations below.)
Vanity is Meg’s fault as much as it is Amy’s—this production gives more time to Amy and Meg than most, which I love, so we get glimpses of Meg’s fashion aspirations beyond just her dressing up at the ball. I think the idea here is that Meg has, in her modest way—modest in funds and modest in aspirations; hemmed in by a desire not to give in too much to vanity and fashion—added this trim to be more grown-up and stylish. You barely see it, but it’s a nice touch. (We see it again in later scenes–best view is in the last scene at Plumfield School, at which point this skirt would be eight or more years old, and she surely would have altered it, but that’s for Post #2.)
Also visible are Jo’s red (cotton flannel?) drawers (she’s sitting at Meg’s feet with her skirt hiked up). I’m….not sure about these. I know red flannel petticoats were a thing but I have never heard of red drawers. You often see Amy’s pink striped ones, and at least once, Jo’s blue striped ones. I am pretty darn sure this was absolutely Not A Thing and that drawers were always white (I hate saying Never and Always, because someone’s bound to correct me with a rare exception), but never mind.
Up in the attic, we often see Jo wearing an interesting-looking man’s coat while she writes.
(She’s also got a nice period-style nightgown, but I’ll get to underwear and nightwear in Part 2.) The coat doesn’t look like a real garment that a man would have worn at any time, unless perhaps it’s livery–the richly-trimmed styles worn by upper-class servants to show off their employers’ wealth vicariously. Or perhaps military, which is an area that is foreign to me. The curlicue trim on the cuffs is straight out of a band uniform as far as I can tell–but maybe it’s all some exotic Hussar type of trim, I don’t know. Struggling to find a historical basis here.
But I think that it’s meant to be an old 18th century coat that’s been stored away in the attic and used for the girls’ dressup games and theatrical productions. So many old clothes were used this way. So despite its trim looking like something out of The Music Man, I’m going with the theory that it’s meant to suggest that they’ve added blingy trim to an old coat, and Jo likes wearing it for writing up in the cold attic.
We see a lot of checks and plaids used in the women’s day dresses. Checks on Jo give her a no-nonsense, somewhat homespun look that suits her. I’m not a huge fan of the mix and match checks in this outfit, but it fits in with the designer’s desire to show that they are making do, combining pieces, and–as women really did have to do during the Civil War, and magazines advised them–sometimes taking apart skirts and bodices and reusing them with new tops or bottoms. That’s not to say they did it as we see in the movie–they definitely take liberties here–but I’ll discuss that in the Inaccuracies post.
When Amy stays with Aunt March, we get a better view of her plaid dress (the same one we saw her wearing without the underskirt, earlier). And yes, I’m using the word plaid loosely as a decorative term for a complex woven checked design in many colors; I know there is a more specific definition of plaid. This isn’t a discussion of actual Scottish tartans.
Plaids and checks were very popular throughout the mid-1800s. Here’s a few dresses in the University of New Hampshire collection, courtesy of Astrida Schiffer, photo courtesy of Kimberly Alexander (whose excellent costume history blog Silk Damask you should check out). Plaids had been more or less in fashion at any given time for quite a while: at the beginning of the 19th century, Sir Walter Scott’s Waverly novels fueled interest. At mid-century, Queen Victoria’s love of Scotland, building of Balmoral Castle, and habit of dressing her sons in kilts, put plaid back in style for a good long time. Plus, of course, it’s an attractive design, with infinite varieties of color combinations.
(The UNH collection can be searched online at https://scholars.unh.edu/bowen_collection/?fbclid=IwAR2pbkIsKWKF4aTl4hg3k8wFqj72iO1fMhcEJaRMnzgixGZCVI4fu4r07ZQ
Below is a dress in figured silk–a catch-all term for when a decorative design is woven into the fabric, but it’s not a brocade or a damask–which is also a large-scale check.
Probably the most notable feature of Jo’s masculine style is her use of waistcoats and jackets. It’s a look that has received a lot of “buzz,” and that women are wanting to copy–I’ll be interested to see whether this sparks a new burst of wearing “boyfriend waistcoats”! In the proposal scene, Laurie has lent Jo his vest–which we saw him wearing when everyone sent Meg off to Boston– as well as his jacket (it’s an early autumn day in Massachusetts, it’s probably chilly and windy up on that hill). It suits both her style and their relationship–they are so at ease with each other that she can just wear his clothes, and it signals that they are almost one and the same person–just not romantically so. I don’t know, however, why she is wearing a man’s cut of shirt, with its front placket. That’s just…wrong.
Did girls often borrow their brothers’ vests and jackets back then? Who knows? Maybe. It works for the characters and their relationship.
Jo also likes to wear blouses and skirts rather than dresses, which was an available option in the 1860s, mostly worn by younger women, so that is period-correct. She just should stick to women’s versions–there’s really no justification in my opinion for wearing a man’s cut of shirt. Gender rules were very strict then: it was new and liberating to wear these blouses at all; you didn’t need to go wearing a shirt that was cut like a man’s.
Women’s blouses were usually white, but the “Garibaldi shirt,” named after and celebrating the Guiseppe Garibaldi, the Italian nationalist working towards the unification of Italy, was originally red after the “camicia rossa” (red shirt) worn by his followers.
The caption to the 1862 Godey’s illustration below notes that the shirt can be made up in a variety of fabrics including prints and checks. Both Union and Confederate armies had units which adopted the red Garibaldi shirts, so American women wearing them were not just enjoying the convenience and comfort, but showing support for the troops.
Let’s move on to summer and the outdoors. There’s a lovely scene of all the girls playing on the beach with Laurie and his friends (our first glimpse of the infamous Freddy Vaughn). The only thing I have to say about Miss Vaughn, whom we never hear speak and never see again, is that she has a nice summer frock and her hair is up, thank heavens. Her stiff boater is a bit more 1890 than 1860s, but we’ll let it pass; at least she HAS a hat.
The gentlemen are wearing “sack suits,” the new-ish style that would eventually replace the more formal frock coat and tail coat, but for now is for casual and country use.
Mr. Brooke has matching coat and trousers, Fred Vaughn has matching coat and waistcoat. These were both correct options at the time. The sack suit was, in the 1860s, suitable for, well, a summer day at the beach or a picnic.
Like many innovations especially in men’s dress, it begins as a less formal option; and being new, it was first adopted by younger men, and those not concerned with being in the upper echelons of formal society.
The frock coat was still proper city wear for businessmen (the tail coat was by now relegated to evening dress; formal wear tends to “fossilize” that way.) Mr. Lawrence, as I recall, is always in a frock coat.
The girls are in lightweight summer dresses. (And, thank goodness, they too are wearing hats, which was required not only for propriety, and yes, the March family would care about such basic rules, they’re not all that unconventional– but also to protect their skin from the sun.)
Again we get a glimpse of the girls’ different skirt lengths, although Beth inexplicably has the longest, and why are we seeing Meg’s petticoat? It looks great for the period, although what I thought was scalloped Broderie Anglaise (eyelet) hem is, on closer inspection (which only we costume geeks bother with), crochet, which is wrong for the mid-1800s—which I could leave alone because really who is looking that closely? Worth discussing is that seeing it at all under such a short skirt is just completely wrong for a 17-year-old (or has she turned 18 by this summer?) to be showing it. Her dress should be about as long as Beth’s. Beth’s should be about as long as Jo’s, and Jo’s should be a bit longer too. Notice too Amy’s pink drawers, which I mentioned before. And for some reason Jo has a printed petticoat. Sorry but no. Just, no. Sigh. Costume historians suffer in these movies, folks. It’s tough.
I do like Jo’s sailor style shirtwaist, though. It’s a great choice for her “mannish” style, and the navy and tan are a nice contrast to the pastels of the others. I’m not sure we see sailor blouses in summer wear at this point, but it is in bathing costumes, and I’m ready to give it a pass. Here, though, is where you seem to see her chemise–or is it the neckline of a blouse which is escaping her waistband in this shot of her running? I’ll give her benefit of the doubt, but at other points you definitely see her chemise and collarbone. NO NO NO. But I digress.
Gerwig has said that she used Winslow Homer’s paintings as one of her inspirations. You can see how this painting of a beach at East Hampton NY would influence her beach scene: (here is the link to the article cited: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/12/20/movies/little-women-inspirations.html )
Lastly let’s revel in the evening wear, when the girls go to the Moffatts’ ball and Meg goes to the Gardiners’. At the Moffatts’ New Year’s Eve ball, the book says the girls wear their poplins—poplin being a slightly shiny, good quality cotton. I found this Godey’s illustration of what they call a dinner dress made of poplin, so poplin seems to be a good choice for the evening—but this dress is not low-necked for a dance or the opera or anything high-fashion and formal as that. Americans did not, it seems, do décolletage as often as Europeans. The color plates in American magazines were licensed or pirated from English and French magazines, but many the black and white illustrations could have been done stateside and may more closely reflect American mores and practices.
The March girls’ poplins would be much less fashionable and formal than what most of the other girls were wearing, but still socially acceptable. Here’s some evening wear in a fashion plate, for comparison: hardly anyone would go to the extreme of having fourteen knife-pleated skirt flounces like those in the dress on the left, but it gives you an idea of the styles that were inspiring American fashionable women.
Meg’s dress has short sleeves and is just slightly low-necked without showing much décolletage—she’s old enough for that; Jo’s scorched red dress has a higher neckline (but not all the way to the collarbone) and long sleeves.
Others at the ball wear a variety of silks (note the sheen on the woman on the left), some with low necklines and others not so low.
At the Gardiners’ ball, Meg is dressed up in a candy-pink froth of heavy pink silk, with a truly evening décolletage and bare arms. The shot of the girls on the stairs shows a range of lovely pastel evening dresses—exactly appropriate attires for young women just “out of the schoolroom” (hence, “coming out” for a debutante ball—emerging from the schoolroom into adult society). Only married women wore rich, darker jewel tones (remember this when we talk about Amy’s dress in Paris).
I love this shot of the girls lined up like a box of macarons. The profusion of tulle, ribbons, and lace along the necklines is just right for the period. And look, everyone’s hair is properly up, with Meg sporting a curl on one side remarkably like the ladies’ hair in the fashion plate above. (Note: color-matched gloves? NO NO NO. OMG what is this, a prom? Bridesmaids? White gloves, always. Leather. Thank you.)
We get a yummy shot of the expanse of silk skirt when Meg flings herself on a sofa (this picture shows Greta Gerwig giving her some direction between takes): the armseye is cut much too far back and too low, but let it pass.
Here here is an extant ball dress of the period: Just as candy-pink as Meg’s, with lots of tulle and lace and ribbon emphasizing the neckline.
I’m about done, so let’s finish with some eye candy: four more late 1850s-1860s ball dresses, all in beautiful rich pastels like what we see in the movie.
And lastly, an early Worth dress, about 1860, from the Museum of the City of New York. This concludes my discussion of the costumes set in the earlier period of Little Women’s story.
And if you’re still with me, that’s a wrap for discussing the early 1860s costumes in Greta Gerwig’s Little Women, designed by Jacqueline Durran. Tune in for Part 2: the later years.
There’s a post in The Bookshelf on three books that look at costume in photographs, one very specifically looking at women’s Civil War era fashions.