The Duchess Deep Dive: Georgiana’s Wedding Dress

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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 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.

And now we come to it, probably the biggest dress in the movie: Georgiana’s wedding dress. Georgiana married the Duke of Devonshire on June 7, 1774. According to her biography by Amanda Foreman, “She wore a white and gold dress, with silver slippers on her feet and pearl drops in her hair.”

The style shown in the film is the robe à la française (in French), known as sacque or sack in England. It was a long established style and the dress to wear for a formal occasion.

Here’s your basic française/sacque. The dress is open in front in a V shape to the waist, then an upside down V shape to the hem. Underneath would be worn a stomacher (a V-shaped piece) and petticoat to fill in the gaps. The back of the dress has two long, stacked box pleats that float away from the body. The bodice front and side front is fitted. It was usually worn over side hoops that made the hips look bigger. The sleeves were elbow-length and worn with stacked ruffles.

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

For Keira in Georgiana’s dress, the filmmakers made a sacque out of ivory silk taffeta, trimmed with gold:

2008 The Duchess

They were clearly inspired by this surviving robe à la française at the Victoria & Albert Museum. This gown is from the late 1770s according to the museum (with alterations done in the early 19th century). This bodice style is more typical of the 1780s, when the style was to have a bodice that closed entirely in front. This dress is also missing whatever originally trimmed the sleeves.

1775-80 sack - Victoria & Albert Museum

1775-80 sack – Victoria & Albert Museum

The other main change is that the original gown was made for MUCH wider hoops than Keira/Georgiana wears in the film:

2008 The Duchess 1775-80 sack - Victoria & Albert Museum

Although looking again, I think they must have taken off her hoops for the carriage scene (she’s just gotten out of the carriage in the above and below shots):

2008 The Duchess

Because compare that with this:

2008 The Duchess

I’m really impressed with the craftsmanship on the movie gown. Compare the stitched-down pleats in back:

2008 The Duchess

While this isn’t on the original:

1775-80 sack - Victoria & Albert Museum

It is something you see on a lot of these dresses:

Robe à la française, 1770′s From Kerry Taylor Auctions(back detail)

Robe à la française, 1770′s From Kerry Taylor Auctions

The trimming on the film dress is made of self-fabric, meaning they used more of the same silk taffeta. They used strips to make little puffs in vertical and horizontal lines, then larger puffs in zig-zags down the overskirt sides and across the petticoat.

2008 The Duchess 2008 The Duchess

They basically literally translated the trim from the original gown, which, props!

1775-80 sack - Victoria & Albert Museum

The puffs are edged with a looped trim in the same color:

2008 The Duchess

Again, straight out of the original. Really the only change in terms of skirt trim is that they made the hanging tassels gold on the movie dress, which I think is there to tie in with the gold stomacher.

2008 The Duchess 1775-80 sack - Victoria & Albert Museum

The stomacher is the gold triangle, which appears to be pinned or basted on top of Georgiana’s corset. You do see decorative stomachers like this, although more often you’d see the stomacher matching the gown and/or petticoat.

2008 The Duchess 2008 The Duchess

The movie dress had to be made to be taken off, as a key post-wedding scene has the duke take over from Georgiana’s servants in undressing her. According to the designer:

“Everything was designed authentically from the wedding dress that would be taken off to every piece of underwear—the corset and the underskirt of the dress—so you could understand the reality of what happened that night when the Duke stripped her naked. Everything she and other characters wore was completely authentic to the time, because it was important to how they showed themselves and what they were supposed to express, along with the restrictions of how they moved.” (Contender – Costume Designer, Michael O’Connor, The Duchess)

The duke uses scissors to cut the dress apart. This is historically accurate. Gowns in this era were usually pinned or basted closed. If you used basting stitches, you would need to cut those threads to get the dress off.

2008 The Duchess

Here’s the back of Georgiana’s stays, as well as her hoop and pads. The cage-y hoop isn’t something you see as often as ones made of fabric, but they do exist.

2008 The Duchess

There’s a couple in French museums, like this one at the Musée des Arts Decoratifs in Paris.

Panier - Musée des Arts Decoratifs Paris

Panier – Musée des Arts Decoratifs Paris

Finally, let’s talk hair! The hair in this film is excellent. The back of her hair should be a little bit more distinct from the front and sides, but otherwise, they got a great silhouette. The powder is a little patchy, but hey, they actually used some powder (clearly they weren’t willing to commit to a full powdered look)!

2008 The Duchess

Compare her hair to this drawing from the same year:

The Light Guinea, or, the Blade in the Dumps, 1774.

The back is really the only place it gets a little fudgy. The back hair SHOULD be looped up loosely, like in this bust of actress Mademoiselle Luzy at the Musée Carnavalet:

Mademoiselle Luzy Musee Carnavalet

Mademoiselle Luzy, Musée Carnavalet

Instead it’s a little less distinct back there:

2008 The Duchess

The other question I have that’s hair-related is that when the Duke arrives to undress her, Georgiana’s hair is combed out smoothly. Giving them the benefit of the doubt, I hope they’re implying that her lady’s maids have taken down her hair and combed it out. Because ladies didn’t wear full wigs in this era, so they’d better not be implying that her “real” hair looked like this underneath!

2008 The Duchess

 

What’s your thoughts on Georgiana’s wedding gown and hairstyle?

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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.

7 Responses

  1. Angie Wilson

    For this series, will you be reviewing Bess’s costumes too? Also, you should do a series like this for Gone With The Wind.

    Reply
    • Kendra

      Yep, I plan to include Bess as well.

      GWTW is SUCH a can of worms, we haven’t really gotten into it because we don’t want to gloss over the racist aspects. Someday? Maybe?

      Reply
  2. Susan Pola Staples

    The Duchess is one of my favourite historical films. I love the casting, the costumes and hair, and locations. I must have been a Georgian in a past life.😇

    The wedding gown is one of my favourite costumes. It did remind me of the Sacque Gown in the V&A. All the V&A one needs is jewels similar to the Pearl and diamond stomacher. (see tweet as cannot add pic).

    Reply
  3. Saraquill

    When the tall hairstyles tilts back like that, how does it maintain balance? Is it light, or does the weight cause headaches?

    Reply
    • Trystan L. Bass

      If you’re prone to headaches, it’ll cause headaches, sez heahache-having tall-hair-wearer ;) Sure, there are ways to mitigate this re: balance & anchoring, but no matter what, it’s a lot of weight on one’s head, so if that’s a trigger, there ya go.

      See also: beauty is pain.

      Reply

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