The Duchess Deep Dive: Georgiana’s Proposal Gown

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You all — especially our Patreon supporters, whose requests we take very seriously! — have been asking for an in-depth review of The Duchess (2008) for a while now, but I’ll admit to being overwhelmed by the prospect. There’s a ton to unpack, both in terms of plot and character, but also in terms of costumes, costumes, costumes. Luckily Trystan came up with a great idea, which is that I discuss the film one costume at a time. So, here’s a new series: The Duchess Deep Dive, in which I will go through the movie, one costume at a time, focusing on those worn by the principle female characters. I’ll be talking about the costume itself, as well as hair, makeup, and accessories, both how they work in the film and how they compare to real fashion of the 1770s-80s.

For a quick overview of what I thought of the film, you can check out my short review. At some point in this process, I’ll take some time out to talk about how well they got the history right or not.

Today, I’ll start things off with the very first dress, what I’m calling Georgiana’s proposal gown, although it may be more accurately called “Georgiana’s being informed she’s getting married gown.”

The Duchess (2008)

Life is all fun races with cute boys until Mom says it’s time to get hitched.

Georgiana was married in June 1774, so the film must start a few months before that. Her first dress is a robe à l’anglaise, the French reincarnation of the English nightgown. It’s rather fashion-forward for 1774 — most English women would still be wearing nightgowns, which would be cut as seen here, but with a pleated center back that is cut in one piece between the bodice and skirt. It would also be more appropriate to 1774 to have an open front bodice with a stomacher. The style she’s wearing, without the pleated back and with the bodice closed center front, is a bit more 1780s than 1770s.

The Duchess (2008) The Duchess (2008)
Fashionable dress of 1774

What would probably be more typical of c. 1774ish — dresses with stomachers. “Two Ladies in the Dress of 1774,” probably from the Ladies’ Magazine.

And possibly a pleated back, as shown here. Zoffany, Johann; The Bradshaw Family; c. 1769; Tate; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/the-bradshaw-family-203037

The fabric of the dress is a subtle brocaded self-stripe, meaning there’s a floral pattern woven into the fabric as well as woven stripes. The pale blue color is certainly fashionable, and works well for making Georgiana look young (she was 17 when she got married).

Brocaded stripes were super fashionable for women’s dresses in this period. Robe à la piédmontaise, 1770s-80s, Victoria & Albert Museum.

The elbow-length sleeves with cuffs are typical of the era.

The Duchess (2008)

A similar cuff can be seen on this detail from: Queen Charlotte (1744-1818) with Charlotte, Princess Royal (1766-1828) by Benjamin West, 1776, Royal Collection

The center-front bow was called in French a “parfaite contentement” (perfect contentment), but I’m not sure if it had a name in English.

The trim is a purchased “rococo braid,” which is a modern, machine-made approximation of what the knotted, woven, and braided trims used in the period. Reproducing those period trims would be painstaking and require only handwork, so I think using rococo braid makes sense. It gives the right effect without 3000 hours of labor.

I’ll nitpick and note that the gown closes with hooks and eyes at the front. Hooks and eyes were VERY OCCASIONALLY used in the era. What was much more common was for the gown to be pinned or basted closed. However, this is a film production — they need to be practical, so I’m glad the hooks and eyes are super subtle (note that they match the gown color).

The Duchess (2008)
Sack Back, 1740-69, Victoria & Albert Museum

Here’s what that kind of trim would look like in the period (although there were many different variations). Sack Back, 1740-69, Victoria & Albert Museum.

I like the silhouette of the gown. It’s a pretty informal occasion — Georgiana is basically entertaining some friends of her own age. But there is clearly some kind of hip padding going on. This was a transitional era between side hoops and bums/rumps (hip and/or rear pads), and I like that they emphasized the hips but kept it subtle.

The Duchess (2008)

A similarly hip-emphasized, but not too big, silhouette. Fashionable dresses of 1771, probably from the Ladies’ Magazine.

I have questions about Georgiana’s hair. The silhouette in the early- to mid-1770s was much more about height on top of the head. I know they’re trying to keep her hair simple here in order to contrast it with the huge hair she’s going to wear to her wedding, but the overall rounded silhouette looks much more 1780s than 1770s to me. That being said, her hair is 1. UP (more than 2 bobby pins were used in this film!) and 2. the ringlets hanging down are very typical of the era.

The bit of poufy froof on her head would be considered a “pouf” in the period. It’s more suited to an indoor event, and she should be wearing some kind of hat like the other girls in the scene. However, from a filmmakers’ perspective, not wearing a hat 1. differentiates Georgiana from the other girls, and 2. allows us to see more of her face.

The Duchess (2008) The Duchess (2008)

A much more typical mid-1770s hairstyle. The Light Guinea, or, the Blade in the Dumps, 1774.

18th century makeup was all about the cheeks. You see a lot of color there, more or less depending on how formal the occasion was, plus some lip color and darkened eyebrows. Georgiana looks spot on for an informal event — just a teeny bit of cheek and maybe lip color.

The Duchess (2008)

What’s your thoughts on The Duchess‘s first dress?

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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.

14 Responses

  1. Joyce

    I’m a lurker of a few months and always love your posts, but this makes me so excited! The costumes in The Duchess are easily my top picks, and I’m loving the in-depth analysis.

    Reply
  2. KayHay

    In the second picture where the skirt whirls away as she turns–what’s going on with the lining of the dress? Looks like swaths of grey/green and rose. Was it common to have a different pattern underneath?

    Reply
    • Andrea

      The striped lining is my favourite part of this dress. It stops it from looking like a cpmplete Laura Ashley couch.

      Reply
    • Andrew Schroeder

      There’s a dress in a museum collection that has a skirt lining in a similar color scheme. My memory is failing me as to which one it is, but I’d bet that’s where the costume designer got his inspiriation.

      Reply
    • themodernmantuamaker

      Hey, good catch, I just noticed that! However, this would have been a very uncommon practice at the time, it just wasn’t a fashion then. I’d be very interested to see in-person the example Andrew mentions to see whether the lining is actually original or a later addition – the Victorians had a tendency to re-make original 18th century gowns according to their own ideas of “Rococo” to wear for fancy dress.

      Reply
      • Andrew Schroeder

        It may be that I saw a dress in the same colors and transposed it as a lining in my memory, however here are two dresses I found that have contrasting linings:

        metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/159432

        pinterest.com/pin/11323422013169750

        Reply
  3. Andrew Schroeder

    Omg I am here for these deep dives hunty!

    I think the thought process behind showing her sans-hat was to show that she is at home and the other characters are the guests, which is more of a Victorian idea than a Georgian one, but whatever.

    I’m excited to see what you’ll have to say about that teal dress she wears in Bath and and accompanying phallic hairdo.

    Reply
  4. A commenter

    It is correct to have such a deep neckline on a day dress worn outside? The period illustrations show the ladies all covered up.

    Reply

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