18th Century Quest: A Royal Affair (2012)

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I remember having mixed feelings about A Royal Affair (2012) back when it came out, and found it hard to bring myself to rewatch it given it features SO MANY recycled costumes… but, I have a quest! To watch all the 18th-century movies I can get my hands on… and most importantly, to review them for this blog! I think I enjoyed the film more the second time around, since I was prepared for my main issues with it, so hopefully this review will be fairer? Who knows.

A Royal Affair tells the story of Caroline Matilda of Great Britain, younger sister of George III (their father was Prince of Wales and died before he could become king). She was betrothed to the heir to the Danish throne; as wedding preparations were underway, the king died, and her intended — now Christian VII — became king. Christian was, as far too many royal brides seem to have found out in this era, Not Okay. He may have had schizophrenia, but whatever was going on, there was some definite mental illness, which cause major tension in the marriage, which began when she was age 15ish and he was 17ish.

At one point, German physician Johann Friedrich Struensee was hired to be the king’s personal doctor. Over time, Christian increasingly relied on Struensee, even for political matters… and over time, Caroline and Struensee started an affair. Struensee used his position to implement numerous reforms in Denmark, and Caroline supported these. Eventually, the two were found out, and politicians and the dowager queen (Christian’s step-mother) led a coup. Christian divorced Caroline, Struensee was executed, and Caroline lived out her very few years left in exile before dying of scarlet fever at age 23.

It’s a pretty damn good story, I’ll admit! And I think the movie does a good job capturing these in’s and out’s, various motivations, and repercussions. My one peeve is that neither actor cast as Caroline nor Struensee look much like the people they’re playing. Alicia Vikander (Tulip Fever, The Danish Girl) is far too thin to play Caroline, and Mads Mikkelsen is hot but way too casually dressed for Struensee. But, that’s my preference for historical accuracy (and not everyone’s!) — I know the real Caroline isn’t the current beauty ideal, and I think Struensee’s casual dress was there to make the point that he’s practical and down with the people.

Mathilde of Denmark by Carl Daniel Voigts, 1773, Royal Collection.

The real Caroline Matilda was quite curvaceous | Portrait Queen Caroline Mathilde of Denmark by Carl Daniel Voigts, 1773, Royal Collection.

Portrait of King Christian VII of Denmark, half-length, in coronation robes and holding a crown and sceptre by Alexander Roslin, 1772, The Museum of National History, Denmark

Portrait of King Christian VII of Denmark, half-length, in coronation robes and holding a crown and sceptre by Alexander Roslin, 1772, The Museum of National History, Denmark

Portrait of Johann Friedrich Struensee (1737-1772) by Hans Hansen, copy of original by Jens Juel, 1824, Rosenborg Castle, Copenhagen.

The real Struensee did not ignore contemporary fashions in hair/wigs | Portrait of Johann Friedrich Struensee (1737-1772) by Hans Hansen, copy of original by Jens Juel, 1824, Rosenborg Castle, Copenhagen.

Onwards, to costumes!

Costumes in A Royal Affair

The costumes were designed by Manon Rasmussen, a Danish designer who’s done a TON of films including Melancholia (with Kirsten Dunst) and the TV series 1864 (about war between Prussia, Austria, and Denmark).

As I mentioned, MANY of the costumes — particularly on lead actress Alicia Vikander as Caroline Matilda — are recycled, which makes me think there must not have been much budget for this production. I wouldn’t actually be hugely bothered by this, except that most of the styles worn are late 1770s-early 1780s, instead of late 1760s-early 1770s as they should be.

Robes à la française

The classic gown of the 1730s through the 1770s, with long hanging back pleats. The late 1760s/early 1770s version should be open in front over a stomacher and petticoat:

Robe à la Française, 1765-70, French, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Caroline gets a number of these, but:

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This one has a closed front, which would make it 1780s, when the robe à l’anglaise was the height of fashion and so other gowns took on aspects of it, like its closed front. Also, that center front trim is not an 18th century aesthetic. Recycled from Madame de Pompadour (2006) — credit Recycled Movie Costumes.

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Looks good from the back at least (ok I could nitpick those pleats, but I’m trying to keep it to a low roar).

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You never see the back of this gown, so I’m going to give them the benefit of the doubt and say it’s a française, as would befit such a formal occasion. The open front over a stomacher IS right for the era.

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That petticoat embroidery is gorgeous, but a bit more in the 1780s aesthetic…

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Here’s that same petticoat, worn with a française suiting the late 1760s. The main thing that’s right is the open front; they also got the engageantes (sleeve ruffles), and the fact that trimmings were very curvy in this era (as opposed to linear, which is more 1770s-80s).

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From the side. The française is fitted around the torso, in part because there’s a line of stitching hidden under those side back pleats, which connects the gown side back to the lining.

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This dress is practically perfect. They did a good job with the fabric choice — patterns in the second half of the century tended to be delicate and curvy, as this is. Recycled from Aristocrats (1999) — credit Recycled Movie Costumes.

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Another française. Okay, nitpick time – I think this gown (as well as the one above that I said I wasn’t going to nitpick) have only one box pleat at the neckline back, where there should be two box pleats stacked on top of each other, which is making it hang weirdly to my eye.

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I actually have no idea what this maternity gown is supposed to be, so I’m throwing it in here. You never see the back!

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Another française? Maybe? It seems to be missing its overskirt, however! So it could be a travesty from the back, IDK. Recycled from Casanova (2005) — credit Recycled Movie Costumes.

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I’ve decided this must be a française because of that teeny bit of hanging fabric you see to the left of her arm. The closed front and trimmings are again very 1780s.

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A bit more of this gown. Recycled from Marie Antoinette (2006) — credit Recycled Movie Costumes — and yes, it’s a française, now that I’m looking there.

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Another never seen from the back, so let’s call it a française. This is the kind of very linear trimming you see more in the 1770s, but the timeline has shifted to the early 1770s so it checks out.

Robes à l’anglaise

It is plausible that Caroline Matilda would wear the English “nightgown,” precursor to the robe à l’anglaise, since that was a style popular in England throughout the 18th century. However, the nightgown of her era would look like this:

The 1750s-early 1770s nightgown (or mantua) should have an open front bodice AND skirt, and in back the center back pieces should have stitched-down pleats | Robe à l’Anglaise, 1770-75 (but very typical of the mid-century as well), British, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Caroline Mathilda does have one of these:

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This has the stomacher front…

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… and stitched-down pleats in the bodice back, which release into the skirt. Recycled from The Duchess (2008) — credit Recycled Movie Costumes.

Instead, we get many of the later French robe à l’anglaise, which was indeed worn in England and throughout Western Europe (and the American colonies), but not until the 1780s:

Robe à l'Anglaise, 1785-95, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Note the closed center front | Robe à l’Anglaise, 1785-95, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Robe à l'Anglaise, 1785-95, Metropolitan Museum of Art

And the bodice cut entirely separate from the back, without any stitched down bodice pleats | Robe à l’Anglaise, 1785-95, Metropolitan Museum of Art

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We see this from the back, but she’s wearing a giant bergere hat (one of those flat straw hats) hanging down, which covers most of her back. The closed front makes me think anglaise, however, instead of nightgown.

2012 A Royal Affair

Another anglaise which, as I pointed out in my Shit That Doesn’t Fit post, was clearly not made for Vikander given all the center front gapping between hooks and eyes (BASTE, PEOPLE, BASTE!).

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The fabric of this gown is PERFECT, so it’s too bad that they’ve clearly given her a bastardized anglaise with historically inaccurate back-lacing (which we never see, so hey, maybe they went full zipper!).

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Another closed front anglaise. Recycled from The Duchess (2008) — credit Recycled Movie Costumes.

Other Gowns

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This is a really good robe à la polonaise, reworn from Marie Antoinette (2006).

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What they got right, which so many makers AND historians miss, is that the polonaise was cut without a waist seam, and pleated to fit the torso, as this one is.

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This is a lovely riding habit, again reworn from Marie Antoinette (2006). Proof that satin really isn’t a forgiving fabric!

Hair!

This is where things get a bit wonky. Here’s some real Caroline Mathilda hair action:

Princess Caroline Matilda of Great Britain (1751-1775), Queen of Denmark by Francis Cotes, 1766, via Wikimedia Commons

Late 1760s English styles consist of a small, rounded silhouette, side twists ending in a flat bun on top | Princess Caroline Matilda of Great Britain (1751-1775), Queen of Denmark by Francis Cotes, 1766, via Wikimedia Commons

Queen Carolina Matilde of Denmark (1751-1775) by Peder Als, before 1775, Rosenborg Castle

This is a stylized version of the high tete de mouton hairstyle, which was more French-style (I’m sure worn in Denmark too) and has lots of little curls around the face | Queen Carolina Matilde of Denmark (1751-1775) by Peder Als, before 1775, Rosenborg Castle

Portrait of Queen Louise of Denmark by Jens Juel, 1771, Rosenborg Castle

Finally, a slightly higher, rounder French style (again, I’m sure worn in Denmark) | Portrait of Queen Louise of Denmark by Jens Juel, 1771, Rosenborg Castle

Here’s what we get:

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DON’T GET ME STARTED on this messy, unstyled, side-parted “oh I’m young and innocent and English” bullshit.

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She then starts putting her hair up into a good silhouette, except HOLY SIDE PART BATMAN.

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They are SO COMMITTED TO THE (inaccurate) SIDE PART that it’s kind of impressive.

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The hats are really pretty, but because most of them are 1780s style, they all look WAY TOO BIG since the hairstyles of the 1780s were wide and bushy. This look doesn’t balance correctly, visually.

Minor Characters

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Psychic* lady-in-waiting gets a closed-front 1780s-style robe a l’anglaise (*because she knows what will be in fashion 10-15 years from now).

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The dowager queen gets an appropriate francaise, although that fabric pattern is much more 16th-17th century. Also, she LOVES dog-collar chokers set against black ribbon, which seems very Edwardian to me. Also, slight side part!

The Boys

I thought the men’s costumes were great! Struensee is super pared down in order to communicate his progressive “man of the Enlightenment”-ness to the audience. Christian, on the other hand, may be insane but he has a FABULOUSLY SPARKLY wardrobe that I loved!

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SPARKLES!!! I’d love to see some close-ups of this embroidery.

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MOAR SPARKLES. Recycled from Louis XV: le soleil noir (2009) — credit Recycled Movie Costumes.

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Perfect embroidery on Christian, Struensee is all “Man of the People.”

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A bit more of the embroidery, and, sadly, a lace bib.

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Another GORGEOUSLY SPARKLY suit.   

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Behind the scenes. They did such a beautiful job on this embroidery.     

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Promo poster, hence the S&M theme.

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More sparkles! Also, nicely done wigs on the men.

 

What did you think of A Royal Affair?

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About the author

Kendra

Website

Kendra has been a fixture in the online costuming world since the late 1990s. Her website, Démodé Couture, is one of the most well-known online resources for historical costumers. In the summer of 2014, she published a book on 18th-century wig and hair styling. Kendra is a librarian at a university, specializing in history and fashion. She’s also an academic, with several articles on fashion history published in research journals.

8 Responses

  1. Susan Pola Staples

    I enjoyed the movie and thought the costumes so-so but pretty. But now I’m seeing Christian doing George III Hamilton’s song bc he has that vibe.

    Reply
  2. Shashwat

    I always thought the dresses on Caroline were so pretty,but fit too tight around the bust and the sleeves seemed to end much above the elbow point.Otherwise they did well with the renting.
    Those inaccurate side part half updo hairstyles,so pretty they are to behold,so inaccurate in silhouette for the historical accuracy to excuse.But the arranging of the side plait(or rather hot curled sausage of hair)is pretty accurate for some 1740s English portraits(but take my humble statement with a grain of salt and a chalice of vinegar,because said portraits have a weird abundance of similar hairstyles and satin silver dresses,so they might be allegorical.And some of those portraits do feature side parted hair,maybe that’s what the movie referenced?)

    Reply
  3. Lily Lotus Rose

    The movie: It was a mixed bag for me, but it’s been a while since I saw it. I think I expected it to be a forbidden historical romance movie and instead it was a historical political movie with a forbidden affair thrown in. Also, the insane king was off-putting in the sense of “Why does every historical royal movie have a crazy king?” It may be historically accurate, but it just tires me out. I thought Vikander and Mads Mikkelson (sigh) had good chemistry, and I would have preferred a “romantic” movie over a “realistic” one.

    The looks: Is it shallow for me to admit that I would’ve loved for your post to consist solely of stills of Mads Mikkelson?? The best-looking items here are Mads Mikkelson (of course), the portrait of King Christian VII, the Robe a l’Anglaise from The Met, the dress recycled from The Duchess, and the satin riding habit. What color is that riding habit? It seems like a pale grey or pale blue, but I can’t tell from the picture.

    Reply
  4. Aleko

    I think the ‘maternity gown’ is some kind of pet en l’air; there’s a distinct hem at the back just above the bottom of the picture.

    Reply
  5. Aleko

    To be fair to the “lace bib”:

    It used to be a thing for many centuries that at the funerals of royalty and upper nobility.a fully-dressed effigy of the deceased would be carried on top of the coffin. Westminster Abbey has a collection of these.In some cases the clothes were clearly made specially for the effigy, but in others they seem to have been the deceased’s real clothes. One of the latter is the effigy of Robert, Marquess of Normandy, who died in 1715 aged 3, poor little lad, and whose body was moved from St Margaret’s Westminster to the Abbey in 1721. It’s thought that the effigy was made for the move (although there’s apparently a side-bet on 1735-6 when his surviving brother dies and had an effigy made).

    Anyway: wee Robert, not old enough to have been ‘breeched’, is dressed in a long Polish-style velvet open robe over a long coat of French silk brocade, fastened with a silver brocade ribbon sash. He wears a pleated stock of fine linen with two horizontal slits at the centre front; and a cravat made entirely of bobbin lace that’s only 16 inches long and folded to be about 2½ inches wide. It is worn simply slotted through the slits in the stock. This device means there’s no need to put stress on the lace by knotting or twisting it, and allows all the expensive lace to be seen. So it pretty much IS a ‘lace bib’, although a flat narrow one. There’s no telling how commonplace this was, or whether it was specific to small boys’ however, it did exist.

    The arrangement in that picture above could have been (I don’t say it was) produced by similar means.

    Reply
  6. Roxana

    Poor Caroline Matilda! She was in a bad situation, but she showed some bad judgement too. Some historians think that his little sister’s disastrous marriage was the reason George III was reluctant to marry off his own daughters. It could be true. A doating father might well have nightmares over what might happen to his little girl if he sent her overseas to a strange court beyond his power to protect her.

    Reply
  7. Damnitz

    I saw the film in the Cinema.

    I had the Impression, that they did the most difficult part very well (Christian’s illness and the
    situation in the later part of the film with the ruler under the orders of his own doctor) but the easier part very bad (Struensee just looks like a old highwayman and not like a politician). I would suppose that this was a low Budget production or all money went into the two leading roles (Vikander and Mikkelsen). The uniforms were looking poor and we don’t get the Impression of the scale of the Danish castles (Christiansborg for example) and the importance of Denmark during this period (ruling Norway too and Controlling the passage to the Baltic sea). It’s surprising that “1864” obviously had a far larger Budget as a TV-production. Maybe the Story was more important for Denmark.

    Reply

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