The Duchess Deep Dive: Maternity 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 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.

 

Okay, so technically this should be maternity dress #1. Ah, the traditional shot that very quickly explains how an English marriage works:

The Duchess (2008)

“Sorry dear, could you shout a bit louder?”

This is the scene in which the Duke of Devonshire informs a pregnant Georgiana that she will be raising his illegitimate daughter. To her credit, although she’s initially (and rightly) pissed off, she is kind to the girl and embraces her into the family.

Now on to the costume! We don’t get a lot of clear shots of it, as she’s mostly sitting down or in the dark. It’s a nightgown/mantua — see the stitched-down pleats in the back (and read more about this style here and here) — laced open over a sparkly stomacher and quilted petticoat:

The Duchess (2008)

Technically, I should write about the quilted petticoat, but I’m lazy, so instead I point you to the numerous examples listed at the 18th -Century Notebook.

The Duchess (2008) The Duchess (2008)

The fabric of the gown looks VERY upholstery to me. I don’t hate it, but I also don’t love it:

The Duchess (2008)

The puffy sleeves are a less usual style that I’ve mostly seen in the 1750s in France:

Madame de Pompadour, la main sur le clavier du clavecin by Francois Boucher, c. 1750. Musee du Louvre.

Madame de Pompadour by Francois Boucher, 1758. Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

There isn’t a ton of research out there on 18th-century maternity wear. The main source is Linda Baumgarten’s What Clothes Reveal, which focuses on America:

“Because clothing was either adapted to pregnancy without alteration or was made over afterward to reuse the expensive textiles, few maternity gowns survive in their original form from the eighteenth century. Most of the gowns that have been identified as maternity wear date from the last decades of the century, when women’s styles were in transition from stomachers to edge-to-edge center-front closures. This new style without a stomacher was less adaptable to changes in body size and shape… [after pregnancy,] maternity clothing was altered back to regular size or given away to other family members.”

18th century maternity ensemble from Colonial Williamsburg.

This is a rare 18th-century maternity ensemble from Colonial Williamsburg. Baumgarten writes that the petticoat is longer in front than back, and the waistcoat laces both center front and back: “Only after trying it on a padded mannequin did curators discover its original function as a maternity outfit.” Read more about 18th-century maternity wear at Colonial Williamsburg.

Here’s another rare example of a maternity outfit — supposedly. This WAS an era in which gathered fronts and loose drapery were fashionable, so whether it can be said for sure that these elements mean that this gown is for maternity seems questionable to me. However, it does point out how well contemporary fashions suited maternity given their adjustability and semi-loose fits:

Kerry Taylor maternity

“A rare brocaded satin pregnancy robe, 1790s … comprising: petticoat with waist ties and two matching bodices, one high fashion (for early pregnancy) in ‘pierrot’ style cut low and tight with closed front, faux waistcoat panels, short tails to the back lined in striped silk, narrow curved sleeves; the other in open-robe form with inner boned closed front panels and loose deshabillé-like outer panels, the neckline outlined in cartridge pleats, with three ribbon drawstrings to allow for expansion…” via Kerry Taylor Auctions.

And yes, they still wore corsets when they were pregnant. Here’s a diagram of a maternity corset in Diderot’s Encyclopédie:

Encyclopedie maternity corset

There’s a slit along the side with lacing that allows for size expansion. From the Encyclopedia of Diderot & d’Alembert Collaborative Translation. You can see what these look like when made up at A Sartorial Statement.

I continue to be very happy with her hair and makeup, although I feel like her eyebrows are bit too dramatic:

The Duchess (2008)

Compare them with the real Georgiana:

Details from: Joshua Reynolds, Portrait of Georgiana Spencer, Duchess of Devonshire, c. 1780-81, Chatsworth House; Thomas Gainsborough, Portrait of Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire (1757-1806), 1783, National Gallery of Art; and Thomas Gainsborough, Portrait of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, 1785-87, Chatsworth House.

I also find the neck-rose annoying. It feels too modern — yes, they were way into chokers, but these were usually a plain ribbon, pleated all the way around ribbon, or something with a center-front focus.

 

What’s your thoughts on Georgiana’s first maternity ensemble in 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.

6 Responses

  1. Mary Fields

    I love this! The Duchess is one of my favorite frock flicks, and the 18th century one of my favorite periods for style. It’s fascinating to see how pregnancy was handled during that time.

    Reply
  2. Susan Pola Staples

    I don’t hate it. The petticoat is pretty. The flower/ribbon band seems a bit big. I’ve seen smaller ones and jewelled ribbons in portraits of the era usually by English and French painters.

    But what I really love and drool over is the mahogany Chippendale dining table and chairs.

    I enjoyed the movie and wand to get the blu-ray edition, if there is one.

    Reply
  3. Patrick

    I’m not fond of the flower ribbon either, but its a nice dress for sitting at a table, not communicating much with your husband. What I always wondered is – do they really ate on the blank table without any table cloth on it?

    Reply
  4. Nzie

    This is really interesting. I am not in love with the fabric, but the look is overall nice in my opinion. Also, I checked out the blogger who made herself a pregnancy corset and that was also very interesting. I really should watch this film, but I feel like rich people ruining their own and others’ lives in the 18th century is too sad for me right now.

    Reply
  5. Allison Caylor

    Love the discussion on historical maternity fashions! Pregnant women always look so wrong somehow in period drama (screaming at you, Poldark). Regarding corsets, I can attest as a former pregnant person that having something firmly laced around your belly/waist actually feels very very good and relieves a lot of muscle tension. They make wraps nowadays for that very purpose.

    Reply
  6. Damnitz

    It’s all so interesting, but why I’m forced to look then on Keira Knightley, who was just not looking or acting like the real duchess? Please could you not spend your focus on films without her?
    Why not looking at “Nicolas le Floch” (the French series which has similarities with “Brother Cadfael”) in deep or even on “Cartouche” (2009, I think some better work by the notorious Mr. Helmann).

    Reply

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