All Together Now: Stylish Company in "Little Women"
Want to dress like Amy, Meg, Jo, or Beth? You'd probably look better if you had a few friends to join along for the sartorial ride.
Courtesy of Columbia Pictures/Wilson Webb
In the weeks since Little Women’s Christmas 2019 release, Instagram has frothed like a copper pot with wholesome images of the titular sisters—Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy March—gallivanting in wool capes, tartan scarves, colorful sontags (knitted shawls that crisscross the chest and tuck into a waistband), damask vests, billowing white cotton shirts, sun hats, newsboy caps, bonnets, and the occasional Parisian silk and hoop skirt combo. The Greta Gerwig-directed adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s classic 1860s novel about the March girls and their coming-of-age stories has prompted a style feeding frenzy.
Gerwig’s Little Women (featuring Saoirse Ronan, Timothée Chalamet, Emma Stone, Florence Pugh, Laura Dern, and Meryl Streep) is primarily set in Concord, Massachusetts, a part of the northeastern United States that enjoys picturesque springs, summers, autumns, and winters. Perhaps owing to its holiday release and content, however, Little Women is resolutely a cold weather film. This makes it all the more remarkable that style trackers, who would typically spend January waxing poetic about warm weather spring trends, have shown such a strong affinity for all things Alcott.
The New York Post recently ran the article “Everyone’s dressing like they’re in ‘Little Women’ now.” Like most reports on micro-trends, the Post’s title is hyperbolic, but google “Little Women style” and you’ll find giddy headings like Man Repeller's “5 Ways to Steal ‘Little Women’ Style Without Looking Like an Extra in a Period Piece” and references to “‘civil war chic’” (!!) in The Guardian. The shared critical and populist consensus seems to be that there’s something undeniably appealing about English costume designer Jacqueline Durran’s approach to the March sisters’ practical, yet individuated, 19th-century middle class, mix-and-match looks.
While I’ve relished browsing Little Women style guides, I’ve noticed that most are less cosplay more downplay when it comes to incorporating historical details. This is fair when one considers that today’s contemporary artists are less likely to require a back buttoning, tailored linen smock à la the apron Amy wears to protect her robin’s egg blue silk dress while painting in a Parisian atelier. And despite the prospective pleasure of pond skating in Jo’s (Ronan’s) tartan-lined crimson cape, layering it with a micro puff seems frankly prudent. Pragmatic concerns aside, the larger reality undermining proposed 21st-century interpretations is that looks from the film work better when seen in company.
Pragmatic concerns aside, the larger reality undermining proposed 21st-century interpretations is that looks from the film work better when seen in company.
As its title suggests, Little Women is very much a collective narrative. Jo may ultimately be the protagonist, but Gerwig’s script—arguably even more than Robin Swicord’s screenplay in Gillian Armstrong’s 1994 film version—emphasizes the sisters’ relationships with one another, as well as with their mother, “Marmee” (Dern), and dashing neighbor, Laurie (Chalamet). Garment and styling choices frequently offer the viewers nuanced information about the sisters’ personalities, aspirations, and personal growth. For instance, we see Amy, the youngest, wearing a homemade faerie costume on the evening that Meg (Watson) and Jo attend the theatre with Laurie and his tutor, Mr. Brooke. Seeing prepubescent Amy in a costume emphasizes the precocity of her plea to be taken seriously and included in the older girls’ outing. Amy is not the only character to dress in costume: throughout the film, we routinely see the sisters experiment with fancy dress. In their youth, the Marches perform Jo's play, “The Witch’s Curse,” attended by neighbors who marvel at the girls’ homemade costumes and stuck-on facial hair. They also often play at being characters from Charles Dickens’ The Pickwick Papers, sporting loose, oversized men’s clothes—top and bowler hats, suspenders, white shirts, and ribbon-like neckties—and hold pipes and talk shop in the Marches’ attic.
Personal style bordering on costume also becomes a space for negotiating mid-19th-century social politics. Gerwig’s occasionally heavy-handed references to Alcott’s feminist themes are more effortlessly rendered in Dorran’s styling choices. Nominated for an Academy Award for her work in the film, Dorran incorporates costumes as a means for the characters to explore identity and relationships to class and gender. We see Meg try on a shrill and befrilled version of femininity at Sally Moffatt’s ball, borrowing a Pepto-Bismol pink gown, gloves, neck ribbons, and weaving lurid flowers into her hair. The look doesn’t suit Meg’s down-to-earth persona, but she fairly says to Laurie: “I know it’s silly, but please don’t tell Jo. Let me have my fun tonight. I’ll be desperately good for the rest of my life.”
We also frequently see Jo in men’s clothes, or with men’s inspired styling, as when she writes wearing a vintage military jacket, or swaps accessories with Laurie. In The New Yorker, Rachel Syme astutely reflects upon the significance of Jo wearing Laurie’s “buttercup-colored paisley vest” during his failed quasi-proposal, but I also noticed the parallels between Jo’s style and Friedrich Bhaer’s, the European professor who eventually wins Jo’s heart. In an early scene, we see Jo and Friedrich practically matching in rumpled white collared shirts and sombre-hued woollens—both in dark vests, with a roomy, floor-length skirt for Jo and charcoal trousers for Friedrich. “You’re on fire,” Friedrich tells Jo, as she scribbles in her notebook, not noticing her hem has caught alight. “I have the same habit, see?” Friedrich shares, showing Jo his singed jacket to the audience’s delight.
There are dozens more examples of mirroring, resonance, and dissonance amongst the characters’ styles, but crucially such instances come together to portray a rich and deeply interconnected world. The parallels between Jo’s and Laurie’s looks, and later Jo’s and Friedrich’s, no doubt inform Jo’s family about her compatibility with both men. However, the costumes that work together to most replete effect are undoubtedly the sisters’. After Beth’s tragic death, we see Meg and Amy escort Jo to meet Friedrich at the Concord train station; Jo’s sister tease and groom her, the small carriage a blur of familial excitement and comfortability. Watching Jo prepare to enter adulthood, the carriage shots remind us of an earlier moment in the film. In what is bound to become an iconic still from Gerwig’s adaptation, the four sisters (Beth is still living at the time) move as a unit, arms intertwined, across a snowy lawn in colorful knits and outerwear. They are dressed distinctively, but one can easily imagine that scarves, capes, mittens, and satchels may have been swapped or handed-down over the years. Their style is shared, as are their joys and tribulations.