The Duchess Deep Dive: Big Hair, Don’t Care

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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 — designed by Michael O’Connor. Luckily Trystan came up with a great idea, which is that I discuss the film one costume at a time. So, here’s our 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.

Here we go, it’s time for Georgiana’s big ball dress with HA-UGE hair! The dress barely gets seen on screen, but you’ll see it has some very interesting elements. Given that the scene is really all about the hair, let’s discuss that first.

2008 The Duchess

Big hair, don’t care!

Yes, the late 18th century — specifically, the late 1770s and early 1780s — were ALL ABOUT the big hair. Women wore huge updo’s for formal occasions that were styled over “cushions” made of wool, tow, hemp, cut hair, horsehair, or wire. You can see a glimpse of one of these cushions in this period illustration:

"The village barber / H. J.," 1778, Library of Congress

“The village barber / H. J.,” 1778, Library of Congress

Of course, that image is a caricature, so the proportions are probably exaggerated. What did these styles “really” look like, at least according to contemporary supposedly-realistic imagery?

There’s two major silhouettes you see in this era. The first is seen in both France and Britain, and it’s high and triangular:

Maria Teresa di Savoia, Lié Louis Périn-Salbreux, 1776, Musée Cognac-Jay

Maria Teresa di Savoia [the comtesse d’Artois\ by Lié Louis Périn-Salbreux, 1776, Musée Cognac-Jay.

Benjamin West, 1738–1820, American, active in Britain (from 1763), Queen Charlotte, 1777, Oil on canvas, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

Benjamin West, 1738–1820, American, active in Britain (from 1763), Queen Charlotte, 1777, Oil on canvas, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

Gallerie des Modes 1778

“Pouf [her cap] in a new taste in striped gauze ornamented with flowers with a string of pearls,” Gallerie des Modes, 1778.

Lauenbergers Genealogischen Kalendar für 1780: Coëffures Berlinoises, Daniel Nikolaus Chodowiecki, 1779

Lauenbergers Genealogischen Kalendar für 1780: Coëffures Berlinoises [Berliner Hairstyles], Daniel Nikolaus Chodowiecki, 1779, Rijksmuseum

Anne, Duchess of Cumberland by Thomas Gainsborough (Lady Lever Art Gallery, Liverpool UK), c. 1780, via gogmsite.net

There’s also a slightly different silhouette seen primarily in Britain, which is more egg-shaped:

Mrs. Baddely, 1772, British Museum

Mrs. Baddely, 1772, British Museum

Lady Elizabeth Delmé and Her Children by Sir Joshua Reynolds, 1777-79, National Gallery of Art

Lady Elizabeth Delmé and Her Children by Sir Joshua Reynolds, 1777-79, National Gallery of Art

Either way, just how high did these hairstyles really get? The biggest I’ve ever seen are in this fashion plate. Are these to scale? I can’t tell you for sure! They’re far bigger than anything I’ve seen in portraiture, that’s for sure.

Galerie des modes et costumes francais ... (volume I), published 1778/1780, National Gallery of Art

Galerie des modes et costumes francais … (volume I), published 1778/1780, National Gallery of Art

Clearly they were going for the more British egg-shape for Georgiana’s hair in the film — but unfortunately, I think that combined with the MASSIVE height makes her look like Marge Simpson. I’m sorry! I’m 1000% team big hair! If they’d gone this big and wide, I think it would have worked better aesthetically. And according to an interview with the Washington Post, Keira Knightley had to have a custom stand made so she could rest in between takes.

2008 The Duchess

That being said, there are some great details in the styling:

2008 The Duchess

They’ve looped up the back loosely, as was done in the period (discussed at the end of this post and this one).

2008 The Duchess

There’s actually more than one loop!

2008 The Duchess

And those twists on the top of the hair are glorious!

2008 The Duchess

I love how the twists merge at the top | Photo by Peter Mountain

Moving on… what you see here is all you see of the dress in the film — she’s either behind the railing, or in the middle of the crowd. In some ways this makes sense, because they’re focused on the hair. But someone clearly put a LOT of work into this gown that never gets seen on screen!

2008 The Duchess

The dress is a robe à l’anglaise (see my guide, about mid-way through this rant) with the skirts worn “up” (as they’d say in English, “retroussée” in French). It’s made of a pale blue brocade or damask, trimmed with black lace. And, the lower half is covered in embroidery and painted or printed motifs!

2008 The Duchess

This style of embroidered dress was particularly fashionable in the 1780s. Here’s one similar example:

Metallic Embroidered and Sequined Gown, French, 1774-93, Whitaker Auctions via Pinterest

Metallic Embroidered and Sequined Gown, French, 1774-93, Whitaker Auctions via Pinterest

I was all set to get anal about those classical motifs being about 10-20 years too early:

2008 The Duchess 2008 The Duchess 2008 The Duchess 2008 The Duchess

When I found this sucker:

Robe à l'anglaise, 1780, Musée des Tissus, Lyon

Robe à l’anglaise, 1780, Musée des Tissus, Lyon

I’m not 100% sure about how the skirts are looped up here, but that could be the museum dresser’s decision rather than how it was worn on screen:

2008 The Duchess

Usually you see this style drawn up at two points, at each side back. That train on the petticoat looks funky too — I don’t know that I’ve ever seen that in the period. It’s usually the overskirt/dress that’s trained. And it would be SUPER annoying for dancing!

As always, Knightley’s makeup is pretty on point, with a single beauty patch for this scene suiting its formality:

2008 The Duchess 2008 The Duchess

Were you second guessing those classical motifs too? What did you think of the hair?

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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. Saraquill

    I’ve seen that hairstylist plate before. The severed head in the middle of the picture continues to creep me out.

    Reply
  2. Susan Pola Staples

    I was wondering if those Classical Motifs on the skirt had something to do with the Cavendish Coat of Arms and their Motto Cavendo Tutti (Safe throughCaution)? Beautiful Gown and thanks

    Reply
  3. Ricoco

    I always find the sort of marcel wave they put on the front of the wig a bit strange! Do you think it is accurate?

    Reply
  4. nico81

    There is also a portrait of the Princess de Lamballe(by Antoine François Callet in 1776) which gives a good example of the hugeness of the pouf!

    Reply
  5. Roxana

    So it was all their own hair except for the framework or filler? They must have grown it long. Did the weight give them headaches?

    Reply
  6. Damnitz

    I was confused looking the movie in the cinema why she has a wig. We had some events where the women could create most of such a hairstyle with their own hair. On top of that there was no explenation in the film (maybe she lost her hair etc.). They did a better job in “Jefferson in Paris” in the scene with the coiffeur. I asked myself why she had a “mouche” as this was out of date or even (looking on the paintings by Hogarth) not really a good idea…

    All in all – I think that the movie is somehow overrated.

    Reply

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