The Duchess Deep Dive: Marriage Ain’t All It’s Cracked Up to Be Gowns

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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.

Today’s post will be a quick one, since this is a quick scene and we don’t see a ton of the dresses. Georgiana plays cards with her mother and they discuss how marriage ain’t all it’s cracked up to be … Both mother and daughter are dressed very similarly, in gowns of very similar colors, showing how much they’re in tune with each other (for now).

The Duchess (2008)

Both Georgiana and Mom are wearing English nightgowns, a more accurate-to-the-period (1774) option than the robe à l’anglaise Georgiana wears in the proposal scene. The nightgown was a fitted-torso gown, and in this era, it had a V front opening for a stomacher and pleats that were sewn down in back:

Robe à l’Anglaise (more technically called a “nightgown”), 1770-75, British, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Georgiana’s is made from a striped and floral fabric, which was super fashionable in this era and surprisingly close to this original:

A different style, but a similar fabric! Robe à la piédmontaise, 1770s-80s, Victoria & Albert Museum.

The Duchess (2008)

Her cuffs seem a bit fashion-forward to me. Gathered cuffs like these are more typical of the later 1770s and 1780s.

The Duchess (2008)

She’d more likely be wearing elbow ruffles (aka “engageantes” in French) like these English ladies:

Fashionable dress of 1774

“Two Ladies in the Dress of 1774,” probably from the Ladies’ Magazine.

But I am excited to see the stitched-down back pleats that make this an English nightgown rather than it’s French successor, the anglaise:

The Duchess (2008)

That being said, I’m kind of confused by the pleats themselves, which more generally were in a wide V shape:

Robe à l'Anglaise, 1776, British, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Like this Robe à l’Anglaise, 1776, British, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Here’s a shot of Georgiana’s dress on display, where you can see that beautiful trim more clearly AND the fact that it definite has a stomacher:

The Duchess (2008)

Mom’s dress is made from a subtly woven-patterned silk in a similar style:

The Duchess (2008)

She looks somewhat older due to her accessories, which were perfectly fashionable but make her more covered up than Georgiana in this scene. She’s got a lace fichu (neck kerchief):

The Duchess (2008)

And her cute little lace cap has hanging “lappets” or vertical lace strips:

The Duchess (2008)

Like this original:

Accessory set, ca. 1750, French, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Accessory set, ca. 1750, French, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Here’s Mom’s dress on display with Georgiana’s:

The Duchess (2008) The Duchess (2008)

Stay tuned for more from The Duchess!

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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.

11 Responses

  1. Susan Pola Staples

    Thank you thank you thank you for this in depth blog. I love the costumes in this movie. BTW I’m hoping you do the ‘Fox’ campaign dress.

    Reply
  2. Saraquill

    I don’t understand, what the difference between night gown and robe anglaise back pleats?

    Reply
    • Kendra

      Usually the anglaise didn’t have any back pleats – that and the closed front are the main changes from the nightgown.

      Reply
  3. broughps

    I’m curious in this time frame was it men or women designing the clothes?

    Reply
    • Kendra

      Complicated question! In general, make tailors made men’s clothes, and women’s corsets and court gowns. Female seamstresses made the rest of women’s clothes.

      Reply
  4. Milla

    Adore this series, and the little notes about what is and isn’t period correct in each individual costume is a dream for helping me feel out some of my eighteenth-century knowledge. Thanks a million!

    Reply
  5. Lady Hermina De Pagan

    I agree that the cuffs on Georgina’s gown are not period correct or what the other court ladies were wearing. However, since Georgina was known to be avant garde, a trend setter, and very fashion forward I can let that slide.

    Reply

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