‘Emily’ Emma Mackey dons costumes in ‘Thunder and Lightning’

Costume designer Michael O’Connor talks about adapting 19th century fashions to Emily Brontë’s dark heart.

“Emily,” by Frances O’Connor, is about the inner life of one of literature’s most moody, badass romantics, embracing moorland life as a clear alternative to much of 19th-century English society. Now available on VOD, it stars Emma Mackey as Emily Brontë—a gang outcast who poured her pain into “Wuthering Heights”—subtly but slyly conveys her place in the world and in her family through her clothes.

Oscar-nominated costume designer Michael O’Connor is no stranger to the 19th century, having done everything from “The Princess” to 2011’s “Jane Eyre.” Within the fashion of the era, she finds a way to make Emily stand out and her uneasiness in her own skin shine through in what she wears.

The film presents Charlotte Brontë (Alexandra Dowling) as a model of how to make it as an intellectual woman with limited professional opportunities (and the first-born sibling syndrome in overdrive). “When choosing textiles, it became very clear when you (looked at) something which girl it belonged to. Charlotte is obviously a bit pompous, the mother of the family, and a bit more grown up. So her clothes reflect a mature, responsible woman,” O’Connor told IndieWire.

“There was something with Emily (where we wanted to keep it) that Emily was darker (while) Charlotte was simpler and more ‘Jane Eyre,’ if you will,” O’Connor said. “One assumes that these novels are somewhat autobiographical for these girls.” How autobiographical it is is impossible to say, and Frances O’Connor’s vision delights in emphasizing what is historically untrue but feels emotionally accurate.

But Emily’s signature look for much of the film came from researching the real Brontë sisters. “(Mackey) is wearing a blue dress that was patterned specifically for her, based on some accounts from a friend of Charlotte’s,” O’Connor said.

EMILY, from left: Alexandra Dowling as Charlotte Bronte, Amelia Gething as Anne Bronte, Emma Mackey as Emily Bronte, 2022. © Bleecker Street Films / Courtesy Everett Collection

Alexandra Dowling as Charlotte, Amelia Gething as Anne and Emma Mackey as Emily in Emily

Courtesy of the Everett Collection

In one letter, the friend wrote that the middle Brontë sister “bought a white thing patterned with purple thunder and lightning, to the barely concealed horror of her more sober companions. And he looked good in it; a tall, lithe creature, half queenly, half untamed graceful with her sudden, flexible movements.”

“At the time of the film, they lived outside Bradford, which was a center for cotton and printed cottons, so there was a huge textile industry there. So they often went into Bradford, and this friend described a cloth that Emily had bought. The pattern was called “Thunder and Lightning”. And if you look back at some of the original designs over time, some of them were quite – not outrageous, but quite bizarre. He didn’t really expect what actually happened at the time.”

The pattern and style of the dress is indeed designed to be as dark and stormy as Emily herself, emphasizing movement as Emily brushes the hills and/or the new vicar William Weightman (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), giving her a silhouette that is therefore slightly more modern, like the hardworking Charlotte or the innocent younger Anne (Amelia Gething). The dress is a clear step in Emily’s quest for independence and self-realization and a visual cue for the audience. When Emily is not at her best, living her turbulent life, we can implicitly feel that she is being stifled.



Courtesy of Bleecker Street Films

“The director told me that this film has three chapters. There was a beginning, and then there was a moment of freedom for Emily. When it is released, you see the thunder and the lightning dress. Then when you fall out of love and the relationship ends, that’s chapter three. So Francis O’Connor was absolutely clear. It starts here. It stops here. It starts here and stops again. So she never wears clothes like the other times,” O’Connor said.

Still, one of O’Connor’s favorite looks in the film is when Emily takes her cues from Charlotte, because their matching outfits make the sisters’ dynamic so clear. “In the end, both in a checkered dress and a checkered dress.” It’s quite common to see Queen Victoria’s children or Dickens’ children, and many period portraits have sisters in matching outfits. And so (they agree) when they go to Brussels because I think that’s the moment they unite,” O’Connor said. “When he bought the (blue) dress, when he bought the material, he bought it on purpose to shock people.”

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