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.
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.”
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 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).
The elbow-length sleeves with cuffs are typical of the era.
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).
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.
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.
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.
What’s your thoughts on The Duchess‘s first dress?