I’m probably the only person in the Frock Flicks community who cares that the newest Jane Austen adaptation — Love & Friendship — was directed by Whit Stillman. Stillman is a comedic-arty director who created a number of modern-set films that I adore, including Metropolitan, Barcelona, and The Last Days of Disco. Each of these films are dry, funny, sarcastic, and super talky (in an intellectualish way) look at the somewhat upper crust.* So it makes Stillman perfect, in my opinion, to adapt Jane Austen’s lesser known novella, Lady Susan — given Austen’s focus on the somewhat upper crust and a brainy, talky approach to plot and character.
* Note: if you’re going to watch any of these, note they’re VERY talky. After seeing Barcelona, my mother famously said, “Well, THAT’S not going to win any Oscars!”
Although I’m an Austen fan, I admit I’ve never read Lady Susan — apparently not the same thing as Love and Freindship [sic], a juvenile story also written by Austen and, confusingly, the source of this film’s title. Don’t ask me.
What’s fun about Love & Friendship the movie is that the main character — Lady Susan, played by Kate Beckinsale — is actually a pretty horrible person. Oh, she follows social niceties to a T, but she’s a bitch who’s looking out only for herself, a social climber, a temptress of men, and happy to throw her daughter under the bus. It’s like getting to watch 2 hours of Fanny Dashwood or Caroline Bingley or another of Austen’s bitchy minor characters, without wasting your time on the sweet and moral heroine. I mean, I would SO get drunk with Lady Susan. (Okay, then she’d say something bitchy in a kind, compassionate tone, and I’d only realize the next morning that she totally cut me, but whatever).
Beckinsale (Much Ado About Nothing, Cold Comfort Farm, Emma, The Golden Bowl, Pearl Harbor, Van Helsing) is great in the role, and she really carries the film, although the rest of the supporting cast does a great job. The only slightly-off note for me was Chloe Sevigny as Susan’s American friend Alicia, but that’s just because hearing an American accent in the midst of an Austen adaptation is jarring.
I will offer one hot tip, and that is, don’t space out during the first 10 minutes of the movie, as all the plot that follows hinges on understanding what’s just happened before the movie begins. I did, and was confused about certain plot points throughout the film. I thought I’d better rewatch the movie before I reviewed it, and I found that simply through the magic of paying attention. all my confusion was cleared up. Yeah. So I’m not always brilliant, sue me!
Costumes in Love & Friendship
The costumes were designed by Eimer Ni Mhaoldomhnaigh (Becoming Jane, Brideshead Revisited ). The source novel was published in 1794, and the filmmakers were clearly aiming for around that era, which makes me happy because in my world, late 18th century > Regency. That being said, it’s a transitional era in fashion (okay, so most eras are) and not one that’s seen a lot on film, so let’s take a look at the real history before we get into the film.
From 1785ish to 1790ish, women were wearing the classic late 18th-century silhouette: gowns with V waistlines but otherwise at the natural waist, cone-shaped stays, 3/4 or long sleeves relatively close to the arm, and full skirts open over a petticoat.
By the late 1780s/early 1790s, that silhouette had streamlined. Waistlines might be a teensy bit above the natural waistline, but more often they weren’t. Skirt silhouettes were much narrower, though.
By 1794, waistlines were rising. This doesn’t mean they went full “Regency/Empire,” but rather that they were anywhere from about 2″ above the natural waist to just under the bust, and you see a lot of variety. You also start getting more gowns with closed-front skirts, as well as cross-over gowns.
By 1798, the waistline was pretty much right under the bust in the classical “Regency/Empire” look. The main difference from your usual Austen adaptation look is that the skirts are waaaay fuller than you’re used to seeing.
So where does Love & Friendship fall in this timeline? I’d say around 1790, with the long bodices and open overskirts, but narrower silhouettes. There’s no closed-front gowns, higher waistlines, or cross-over gowns that would push it to 1794. So the era is a few years earlier than Lady Susan‘s publication date, but it probably made sense in terms of finding rental costumes (c. 1794 not being seen on screen very often).
Turning to Eimer Ni Mhaoldomhnaigh’s work, she hasn’t discussed the time period so much as color and character, which we’ll get into as I talk about specific characters. She did mention that “All of Kate Beckinsale’s costumes and the majority of Chloë Sevigny’s were custom-designed; certain pieces for the men’s looks were bespoke as well” (Eimer Ni Mhaoldomhnaigh on Costuming Jane Austen Film ‘Love & Friendship’). In terms of budget, it’s unclear exactly where they hit on the spectrum, but director Stilman said, “I have to say we kept increasing the costume budget because we were so thrilled with what Eimer was doing” (Love & Friendship’s Whit Stillman admits discovery of Austen story accidental).
Lady Susan’s Wardrobe in Love & Friendship
Lady Susan is played by Kate Beckinsale. She’s middle-aged but that doesn’t mean she’s not a hottie — she’s known for being a flirt and charmer. She’s a widow and doesn’t have a lot of money, but she clearly sponges off of friends and acquaintances and is able to dress herself well.
The Hollywood Reporter discusses how Susan’s wardrobe changes over the film in terms of color, from a widow’s black to cheerful colors: “Mhaoldomhnaigh helped elevate Lady Susan’s fearless behavior through a series of costume changes, starting with an all-black ensemble that revealed her as a mourning widow. But as the film progresses, Lady Susan starts shedding off her grief. ‘If you actually laid out the costumes, it goes from black to black and grey to mauve, more of the mourning colors for the time, and every time she’s in the country she’s affecting the widow and trying to be discreet,’ says Mhaoldomhnaigh, who designed all of Beckinsale’s wardrobe. ‘But when she goes to London, the colors change … she’s a social butterfly. She starts to wear colors and is back on the scene'” (Kate Beckinsale’s ‘Love & Friendship’ Wardrobe Brings Color to 18th-Century Widow).
Looking beyond color, Susan tends to be the most chic character in that she wears dramatic but streamlined silhouettes.
Alicia’s Wardrobe in Love & Friendship
Played by Chloë Sevigny, she’s kind of the Greek chorus of the story. “‘Chloe’s character is an American city girl, she doesn’t know much about the country life, which was totally important if you were an English woman at the time, and I just wanted her to really look like somebody who looked like they lived in the city.’ To capture that, Mhaoldomhnaigh wanted ‘her to look quite ornamental and that she spends a lot of time on what she wore.’ That includes large corseted gowns with ruche shawl necklines and oversized cloaks” (Kate Beckinsale’s ‘Love & Friendship’ Wardrobe Brings Color to 18th Century Widow).
Everyone Else’s Wardrobes in Love & Friendship
Boy-costume wise: “The idea of the dandy also started taking root in England around the late 1700s, and the men in the film carry that refined look on screen. ‘The men, they’re not wearing corsets, but the clothing is cut so tightly and so fitted it makes them stand very erect and straight,’ Mhaoldomhnaigh says (Eimer Ni Mhaoldomhnaigh on Costuming Jane Austen Film ‘Love & Friendship’).
Hair in Love & Friendship
Reader/friend Amy O. has been bugging me to review this film, and she keeps saying that she can’t figure out why the costumes annoy her, and she thinks it’s the hair but she’s not sure. So, Amy, this is for you!
Yeah. I think it might be the hair! I actually quite like the women’s, except that it all seems too solid. I feel like it should be a bit looser, and tousled, and airy. The general silhouette looks okay to me to me if a bit high, but it just feels like they plopped some heavy, solid hairpieces on their heads. Meanwhile the gents are all in 1810s at the earliest.
Let’s start by looking at real women’s hairstyles from the mid-1780s through 1800:
These start with the typical curly halo around the face, usually wider than tall, with long hair in the back. The halo gets smaller around 1789-90ish (although you still see the wider style for a few years). By 1794-95, it’s all about long ringlets, although what you might not be able to see is that it’s still shorter ringlets around the face. By 1797ish, you’re starting to see “up” hairstyles that we might associate with “Regency” (but note that the 1800 image shows one of those short on top, long in back earlier cuts).
English men’s hairstyles about 1786 are generally in the short on top, long in the back style that we associate with “18th-century wigs,” although powder and more formal side rolls are going out of fashion. By 1790, they’re still doing short on top and sides, long in back, but the side rolls are usually gone. About 1795 the boys start going long or short and shaggy/windswept. By the early 1800s, there’s this huge trend for cropped, forward-brushed hair. And by the 1810s, we start getting the cropped, falling naturally look we often associate with the Regency era.
Now let’s look at the film:
What did you think of Love & Friendship? Was it, indeed, the hair?