Costume designer Michael O’Connor’s Jane Eyre costumes are a far cry from his elaborate gowns and headdresses for the 18th century aristocratic fashion plate Georgiana (Keira Knightley) in 2008’s The Duchess, for which he won an Oscar. “Jane’s style is very simple, uncomplicated and unfussy,” says O’Connor of his latest heroine, an orphaned child (played by Alice in Wonderland’s Mia Wasikowska) who, after years of hardship, begins work as a governess, only to fall deeply in love with her much older and mysterious employer, Edward Rochester.
O’Connor’s focus might have shifted from outfitting the upper crust to middle- and lower-class society, but there’s no shortage of delicate lace-trimmed dresses, satin lace-up boots, vintage prints and silk-flower embellishments throughout the film, making it one of the year’s most stunning period pieces.
For the 16th feature-film adaptation of Charlotte Bronte’s beloved novel, which hits theaters March 11, director Cary Fukunaga (Sin Nombre) and O’Connor had the same goal in mind: authenticity.
But shortly after starting production on his first major studio film (Focus Features), the director consulted with O’Connor about a not-so-minor fashion glitch. “The book was published in 1847 and takes place 10 years before that, but neither one of us liked the clothing of the 1830s,” Fukunaga says. “They’re not flattering dresses; women look like Valentine’s Day cards, with huge sleeves and triangular shoulders.”
The pair made the decision to take a slight departure from what Fukunaga calls “puff cake” gowns and instead draw inspiration from the 1840s when designing the characters’ wardrobes, creating more figure-flattering dresses.
In bringing to life this story of a woman of simple means who suffered a loveless upbringing, O’Connor wanted the material and pattern of Jane’s clothing to reflect her nature, something the voluminous pieces of the previous decade would not evoke: “For Jane’s wedding dress, I originally created two sketches — the much simpler design prevailed.”
He even designed era-appropriate undergarments (including stockings and corsets) for the actors, an important element for the director: “I wanted to have the freedom to shoot Jane in her points of undress. [Without] those elements, you lose that extra level of reality.”
Unlike many period films, which nowadays rent wardrobes from costume houses, a large majority of the clothes were created specifically for Fukunaga’s 2011 version. “We spent a lot of time on the [story’s] Lowood girls — there were 50 student uniforms made,” Fukunaga notes. “They had clogs with copper nails that turned turquoise once they weathered. You’ll never see it, but you can hear it.” In the two months leading up to filming in England’s Derbyshire and Yorkshire countrysides, O’Connor created 12 individual looks for Jane, including off-the-shoulder dresses of sturdier, less-refined textiles to reflect her social ranking, with bell-shaped skirts, narrow arms and tight bodices.
“My favorite is the plaid dress Jane wears when she comes to Thornfield,” Fukunaga adds. “It had a cape-shawl and a blue collar that looks like it’s dyed from indigo. There was something about the wooden interiors of that world and these midnight blues that worked well, especially the way it matched the moors.”