TBT: Jefferson in Paris (1995)

There are some definite problems with the Merchant/Ivory film Jefferson in Paris (1995). The story doesn’t quite come together, the filmmakers don’t seem to know which story they’re telling, and the depiction of slavery tries so hard but doesn’t quite get there. However, it’s a well-made, interesting film with some great performances… and it’s HANDS DOWN the best depiction of 1780s French costume I’ve ever seen on screen. I’ve been trying to get to reviewing some of The Frock Flicks Classics that we’ve put off because they’re so good that they require a really in-depth review. I finally tackled A Room With a View, now let’s really Do This on Jefferson in Paris.

Because I have LITERALLY a million screencaps to discuss, I’m not even going to get into a review of the film — for that, check out my short review. Know that the film has great performances by Greta Scacchi, Simon Callow as the foppiest of fops, and Thandie Newton.

Instead, let’s get right to the costumes, which were designed by Merchant/Ivory stalwarts Jenny Beavan and John Bright. Strap in, this is going to be LONG, because when you’re screencapping the COOK, you know things are going well.

First, some interesting bits and bobs from press:

“When this idea of ‘Jefferson’ started eight years ago, John Bright started going from flea market to flea market, picking up original bits and pieces. … Eight years ago — when there was no script, nothing but the idea — he put in a rack in the warehouse called ‘Jefferson.’ Without any pay. Without any contract. Without any money. Without anything” (Michael Wilmington, Tribune Movie Critic (“Team Players Merchant, Ivory and Jhabvala Reveal a President’s Secret Life in ‘Jefferson in Paris,'” Chicago Tribune, April 2, 1995).

“The designers outfitted more than 1,500 extras and, to keep costs down, had the fabrics manufactured in India” (Mira Advani, “Life and Loves of Thomas Jefferson,” India Abroad, April 7, 1995).

“Most of the period fabrics needed for costumes were either found or created in India, where costs are well below prices in Europe, and most of the 400 costumes were assembled in factories there as well” (Merchant Ivory’s Special Take on Thomas Jefferson).

Next, let’s take a look at French fashion in the years depicted in the film, 1784 to 1789. First up, the ladies. I’m not going to be able to go into all the different dress and jacket styles worn in the period, so let’s look at overall silhouette and effect. Women wore dresses and jackets over petticoats (skirts), usually over rear-focused rumps but still occasionally with side hoops. The silhouette was fuller and froofier in 1784-85, and then started getting more streamlined and pared-down from 1786-89. Gowns were fitted over cone-shaped corsets to the natural waist. Sleeves could be three-quarters or long. Trim could be ruffles, ruches, flat bands of contrast fabric, plus smaller things like fringe, braid, etc. Sashes were popular. There were lots of accessories, including fichus, mantles, and muffs.

Hats/headwear was the primary focus of the ensemble. These were worn over bushy hairstyles that were curled or frizzed, wider than tall (although these lowered and narrowed over the decade), with longer, straighter pieces in back. The hats/headwear themselves were very froofy and gauzy, with lots of feathers and ribbons; these got slightly smaller as the decade progressed, and taller, more structured hats also came into fashion.

Now let’s quickly look at the gents. Mostly notice how the ensemble is made up of longer jacket, shorter waistcoat, and knee-length breeches, and how it gets more streamlined over the decade.


Jefferson’s Costumes

You know me, I’m not going to go into detail on the men’s costume, but I will highlight some looks I thought were particularly good. With Jefferson they were clearly trying to make him look very upstanding and starched, and to dress plainly (as a “virtuous American”) in comparison with the foppy French.

Here’s the real Jefferson, who as you’ll see definitely wore powdered wigs in this era. They skipped those for the movie, but I think that made sense in order to distinguish his character.

Thomas Jefferson: by Mather Brown, after 1786, via Wikimedia Commons; by John Trumbull, 1788, White House

“During his first meeting with the designers, Nolte requested a corset to wear under his costumes. He hoped that it, along with a two-inch heel and a lift inside his shoes (to help him match Jefferson’s height), would counteract his inclination to slump. On another level, ‘Jefferson must look absolutely almost impossible to get near because he’s so upright,’ [costume designer John] Bright explains (Costumes of the Rich and French).

Nick Nolte as Jefferson wore a lot of plainer suits:

Except when he went to court to do a formal presentation to the king, when he wears this beautifully embroidered suit AND a wig:

Jacket embroidery detail

This kind of embroidery was very typical of men’s court suits:

A Gentleman’s Court Suit, 1780s, Christie’s

There was more embroidery sprinkled throughout, but it was plainer than the clothes worn by the French:

Notice the squared-off bottom line of this waistcoat:

While waistcoats of the 1760s-70s generally had longer, angled pieces, this squared-off shape took hold in the later 1780s and is spot on:

Waistcoat, 1785-1795, Victoria & Albert Museum

Waistcoat embroidery detail


Maria Cosway’s Costumes

Now, let’s get to the good stuff. As the movie explains, Maria Cosway was born and raised in Italy, then moved to England. An artist herself, she married English artist Richard Cosway. Here’s the real Maria:

Maria Cosway by Richard Cosway, 1785, Sotheby’s; Maria Cosway, Self-portrait, 1787, via Wikimeda Commons

And now, let’s do this. We first meet Maria (Greta Scacchi) at an evening party, where she’s wearing a sheer striped gown — possibly a chemise à la reine, but maybe not — with lace fichu, sash, and bows:

Compare that sheer stripe to this portrait:

Portrait of a Lady with a Book, Next to a River Source by Antoine Vestier, c. 1785, São Paulo Museum of Art

And even if her dress isn’t strictly a chemise à la reine (which we’ll discuss more later), this whole white, froofy, sheer look was super in fashion:

The Comtesse d’Artois and her children by Charles Le Clercq, c. 1780-82, Palace of Versailles

Lace fichu detail

HER HAIR is GORGEOUS. It’s the perfect shape for the era, a beautiful mix of curls and twists, and has ribbons and flowers interwoven. Also note how it’s powdered around the face:

Here’s a similar effect from the period in terms of accessories:

Portrait of Countess de Bavière-Grosberg by Alexander Roslin, 1780, via Wikimedia Commons

For the powdering just-around-the-face, I have seen a few period images where that appears to be the case, which I discuss when I look at this movie in my top 5 18th century hair post. Technically, this is an era when all-over powder was still absolutely required for upper class French people; by about 1788, the trends pushing France toward revolution means that hair powder starts to become optional.

Maria wears this cotton print dress at least three times. The first wearing is on the left, with a straw hat and black bow. On another wearing, it’s no hat and red bow. The third time, it’s black hat and no bow. This style appears to be a robe à l’anglaise (which I explain here and here) based on the fitted back and closed front.

Printed cotton (“indienne” in French, “chintz” in English) was super popular in this era. You’ll find lots of surviving examples:

Dress (robe à l’anglaise) and skirts in chintz, ca. 1770-1790, MoMu – Fashion Museum Province of Antwerp

Colored backgrounds did exist, although green is few and far between (it all has to do with the dyes available and the incredibly laborious dyeing process). I did manage to find this slightly later gown with a darker green background:

Green print cotton dress 1776-1800, Museum of London

Let’s check out a bunch more views. Here’s the outdoors-in-the-garden look, with black bow, sheer white fichu, and straw hat:

The trim around the neckline is gorgeous — it appears to be some kind of sheer white with three rows of black ribbon threaded through:

The back is fitted, and the bodice appears to be cut entirely separate from the skirt, which puts this style firmly in the 1780s:

That straw hat:

… particularly with the fabric-covered interior brim, was super popular:

Chapeau à la Malbrouk, Gallerie des Modes 1785

Note the blue is the lining and bow, but the hat itself (look at the crown) is straw | Portrait of Antoinette-Elisabeth-Marie d’Aguesseau, comtesse de Ségur (1756-1828) by Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, 1785, Palace of Versailles

Later she wears it with a black straw hat with a GORGEOUS accent thingie in front:

They were definitely into tall-crown hats in this era:

Magasin des Modes, 1786

Maria’s next ensemble is a jacket and petticoat. She again wears this jacket multiple times, and sometimes alternates petticoats. It’s made of a dark purple fabric with a woven pattern, with a shawl? collar trimmed with fringe:

In back, the collar is shaped into two points, and there’s a short skirting:

Blue? petticoat on the left, purple print on the right.

Jackets were super popular — probably more so than dresses — in this era. It reminds me a bit of this Pierrot jacket with its fringe trim:

Jacket (“pierrot”), c. 1790, Kyoto Costume Institute

Fabric closeup

She wears several different headweary things. First, this poufy beret-type thing with striped ribbon accent and feathers:

1000% straight out of portraits — all the poufy hats you see in this era was in imitation of Turkish turbans:

Comtesse Charlotte Elisabeth de Selve (1736-1794) by Adélaïde Labille-Guiard, 1787, via Wikimedia Commons

Later she wears this jacket with ribbons:

Next, another cotton print dress. The background is striped I think — I see white, pink, and grey? And then there’s blue/black/grey and darker pink flowers. Another anglaise-type dress.

It’s hard to see what’s going on in the back — is that a separate waist seam?

You’ll find a million printed cotton dresses on light backgrounds in museums, some with  more going on in the background like this one:

Gown c. 1780, Victoria & Albert Museum

Next up, a dressing gown that is styled very much like an early 18th century robe volante, a loose, pleated style that was the forerunner to the robe à la française. All of these gown styles started as dressing gowns, so it makes sense that she’s wearing something loose and pleated for around the house.

Compare it to this 1720s robe volante:

Robe volante, 1720-30, Palais Galliera

At the opera (I LOVE THIS SCENE), it’s ALL ABOUT THE HAIR. Okay, she’s wearing a purple silk dress with a cutaway front and some gold trimmy bits in there. But her hair is HUGE and a bit powdered and she has rhinestone/diamond STARS AND MOONS IN IT.

The spotty powder isn’t 100% for the era, but I get that they were trying to use a light hand.

There’s tons of “coiffures” featuring ribbons and feathers and flowers and bits and bobs:

Gallerie des Modes 1785

Gallerie des Modes 1785

More opera goodness:

Outdoors walking with Jefferson, she wears this embroidered jacket and waistcoat with a solid petticoat:

As many have previously noted, this is basically an exact copy of a jacket at the Kyoto Costume Institute:

Jacket and gilet, c. 1790, Kyoto Costume Institute

It’s got longer tails in back, with pleats and buttons:

It’s been on display:

The hat she wears with it appears to be wool felt or velvet; who cares because it’s covered in a bunch of gorgeous feathers in slightly different green tones:

Hats covered in feathers were super fashionable:

La famille Bergeret de Grandcourt by Jean-Laurent Mosnier, c. 1785, Musée des Beaux-Arts de Brest

Gallerie des Modes 1785

Here’s the hat on display; these don’t appear to be the original feathers (which were curled), which so make the hat:

Riding to a shindig in a carriage with her bitchy husband, Maria wears something sparkly and embroidered with a hooded mantle over it in blue taffeta:

Hoods, either separate garments or attached to short or long cloak-type things (“mantle” or “domino”) were worn for outdoors:

Magasin des Modes 1787

Gallerie des Modes 1786

I so wish we could see what she’s wearing underneath, but I’ll content myself with admiring all her powder and flowers:

This next ensemble appears to be an embroidered jacket and petticoat:

It once again reminds me of this 17th century embroidered jacket, but I think it’s the color scheme, which would have been perfect for 18th century as well:

17th century casaquin, Kyoto Costume Institute

17th century casaquin, Kyoto Costume Institute

Jackets and skirts were super chic in this era:

Caraco and petticoat, 1780-90, Palais Galliera

Caraco and petticoat, 1780-90, Palais Galliera

Next we go fabric shopping in a stripey number with skirts pulled up “retroussée”:

Stripes were super fashionable in the 1770s-90s; they really loved linear things:

Self-Portrait with a Harp, 1791, Rose Adélaïde Ducreux, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Self-Portrait with a Harp, 1791, Rose Adélaïde Ducreux, Metropolitan Museum of Art


Okay, so you have to go a few year earlier to find exactly this same shape:

Gallerie des Modes 1779-80

Gallerie des Modes 1779-80

It’s still around in the mid-1780s, but generally shorter:

Magasin des Modes 1788, Gallerie des Modes 1786

Magasin des Modes 1788, Gallerie des Modes 1786


I’m really intrigued by this stripey redingote-ish number, which sadly we only see briefly:

It reminds me of this kind of open robe with turn-back collars:

Journal des Luxus und der Moden, 1791

Journal des Luxus und der Moden, 1791

Brief shots of a purple dress:

And a dark green printed cotton dress:


Patsy Jefferson’s Costumes

Patsy Jefferson (Gwyneth Paltrow) occasionally dresses up, but she’s mostly in “plain good stuff” to demonstrate her more simple, noble American character.

She starts off in a print dress that we see more of later, with a beautiful ruffled and embroidered fichu:

She goes to the convent school in a stripey jacket and petticoat, with a short, hooded cloak over it:

Luckily she wears that ensemble again later without the cloak, so we can see the cute tails in back:

At a fancy party, she wears ACTUAL SILK with ACTUAL SPANGLES and puts ACTUAL FLOWERS in her hair! What is this world coming to!

I have raved before about the hairdressing scene, so I’ll just point you to my post on that:

Under that wrap she’s got on a blue silk? fitted gown:

At the convent school, it’s red wool, pinner apron, and cap:

She goes with pops to Versailles where she meets the king and queen. At first I thought she was rewearing her stripey jacket/petticoat, and I scoffed a bit, but I was glad to realize she did actually put on a dress for the occasion. Note she has a bit of powder in her hair!

She then spends a lot of time back in that printed cotton gown:

Later we see her being fitted for this pink cotton print gown. I’m not 100% about the pattern — it seems kind of 19th century to me?

When she wears it for real, she adds a fichu and bow:

And of course there’s the dressing scene, where we get to see her very nicely made corset:


Sally Hemmings’s Costumes

Sally wears relatively plain clothes as befits her status as an enslaved person, but they make sure to give her some pretty touches. And, of course, as Jefferson takes an “interest” in her, he gives her fabric to make new dresses (a plot point).

I really liked this ruffly cap she wears a lot:

She spends most of her first scenes in this blue striped jacket:

Later she starts dressing 1% nicer as Jefferson gives her fabrics, like this striped/floral:

Note the back is cut in one piece with the skirt; this is a slightly earlier style, certainly still seen in the 1780s, but going out of fashion.

She then gets this orange-y print dress:

And a red print dress:

Red backgrounds are probably the most popular for extant gowns, after white/cream:

Robe a l’anglaise, 1780-85, Museum Rotterdam

Robe a l’anglaise, 1780-85, Museum Rotterdam

Finally, near the end she gets another stripe/floral dress:


Marie-Antoinette’s Costumes

This is one of my favorite portrayals of Marie-Antoinette. She doesn’t get a lot of screen time, but they do a great job explaining her, and the actress they cast (and the clothes they put her in) are spot-on.

We first see her at court wearing a formal, ceremonial court gown with tons of metallics. Note the swagged fabric on the sides, that connects to the train that hangs down in back. Court dress was a fossilized version of late 17th-century fashion, although it was influenced by current fashions.

I feel like they’re mostly referencing this slightly earlier portrait of the queen, which, props!

Marie-Antoinette by Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun, 1783, Palace of Versailles

Marie-Antoinette by Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun, 1783, Palace of Versailles

At dinner (a formal occasion in which courtiers/the public can watch the royals eat), Marie-Antoinette wears her hair in an older, late 1770s style. I dinged her for this in my 18th-century hair post, because the style is slightly dated and because it’s usually worn with a ship on top. Well, somebody needs to figure out about lighting because yeah, there’s a ship on top!

This is a reference to the famous “Belle Poule” or “Junon” hairstyles, which included models of ships that won important battles for France:

"New Coiffure called the Frigate the Junon"; the "Belle Poule"

“New Coiffure called the Frigate the Junon”; the “Belle Poule”

Playing shepherdess on stage, the queen (and her ladies) wear the robe en chemise aka chemise à la reine, a sheer, gathered style based on the clothes worn in the Caribbean. Sarah did a rundown about the chemise à la reine on screen, so I’ll point you there. Note, however, the YELLOW BIRD along with the poufy cap, flowers, lace fichu, and staff:

With the long fitted sleeves, this gown most reminds me of this surviving chemise gown:

Robe en chemise worn by Madame Oberkampf, c. 1787, Musée de la Toile de Jouy

Robe en chemise worn by Madame Oberkampf, c. 1787, Musée de la Toile de Jouy

Watching the ballooning (poor goat and chicken!), the queen is in a pink and white striped gown with poufy cap:

The gown reminds me of:

Robe a l’anglaise ca. 1780’s, Ulster Folk & Transport Museum

Robe a l’anglaise ca. 1780’s, Ulster Folk & Transport Museum

The sheer, poufy cap was probably THE MOST popular non-hat (i.e., cap) headwear style. You see it CONSTANTLY in fashion plates and portraits:

Gallerie des Modes 1785

Gallerie des Modes 1785

Portrait of Marie Joséphine of Savoy (1753-1810), Countess of Provence by Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, 1782, Musée Hôtel Bertrand, Châteauroux

Portrait of Marie Joséphine of Savoy (1753-1810), Countess of Provence by Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, 1782, Musée Hôtel Bertrand, Châteauroux

During a private session with hypnotist Franz Mesmer, the queen wears what I think is a proper robe à la polonaise, with cutaway front and no waist seam. COLOR ME IMPRESSED. Also, LACE and CAP!

This was the most popular style of gown in the late 1770s through about 1781:

Madame Moreau et mademoiselle de Flinville by Carmontelle, 1762 [there's no way this is from 1762 based on the hair alone; I'm guessing c. 1780]

Madame Moreau et mademoiselle de Flinville by Carmontelle, 1762 [there’s no way this is from 1762 based on the hair alone; I’m guessing c. 1780]

This blue velvet court gown, with matching poufy cap:

Looks directly inspired by this formal portrait of the queen:

Marie-Antoinette by Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, 1788, Palace of Versailles

Marie-Antoinette by Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, 1788, Palace of Versailles

And we quickly glimpse her in the carriage during the women’s march on Versailles in a fur hood:


Adrienne de La Fayette’s Costumes

Adrienne de La Fayette was the wife of the marquis/general. She’s a minor character in the film, but I really love her look. Here’s the real Adrienne, slightly later:

Presumed Portrait of the Marquise de Lafayette (1759–1807) by Adélaïde Labille-Guiard, 1790, National Museum of Women in the Arts

Presumed Portrait of the Marquise de Lafayette (1759–1807) by Adélaïde Labille-Guiard, 1790, National Museum of Women in the Arts

She’s the hostess of the first evening party, where she’s wearing a dark red gown:

At the heads and hearts debate in the garden, she wears the second-best hat in the film:

This shape of hat was SUPER FRICKIN’ POPULAR, and yes, they made it to the correct scale!

Cabinet des Modes 1786

Cabinet des Modes 1786

Through the first half of the film, the marquise’s hair is powered. As we hit 1788-89 and powder goes out of fashion, she starts wearing her natural dark hair color:

Late in the film, she’s in a chemise à la reine with purple sash and lace fichu:

And when Maria says goodbye, she wears this slightly-questionable brocaded fabric gown, which is pale enough that I’m only questioning it because I can peer at it in a screencap.


James Hemmings’s Costumes

James is Sally’s brother, another enslaved person Jefferson brought with him from Virginia to Paris. He starts in this natural linen jacket with EXCELLENT collar:

As he starts advocating for himself, he gets a shinier silk outfit and a wig which has great double braids in back:

Near the end of the film, he has a beautiful printed? embroidered? cotton waistcoat.


Richard Cosway’s Costumes

Richard is an artist, so he’s ultra foppy. He’s also supposed to contrast as a decadent European to Jefferson’s stalwart American-ness. Who cares, because actor Simon Callow gets amazing wigs, makeup up the wazoo, and ALL THE SPARKLES:

He wears this suit twice, and I had to grab details of THOSE BUTTONS because I was in love:

I will say I think the film went a bit TOO heavy with the court makeup on characters like Cosway (and Louis XVI, below). Yes, they would have whitened their face and worn rouge; I don’t think the super red lips and SUPER dark eyebrows (yes, some might darken their eyebrows, but not like this??!!) is a bit much. Nonetheless, it’s clearly there for character/story reasons, so, okay!

And we quickly get a shot of a no-wigged Cosway:


Louis XVI’s Costumes

Poor Louis XVI. So not cut out for kingship! Here’s the real Louis:

Portrait of Louis XVI of France (1754-1793) by Joseph Boze, c. 1784, via Wikimedia Commons

Portrait of Louis XVI of France (1754-1793) by Joseph Boze, c. 1784, via Wikimedia Commons

According to a news report,

A King Louis XVI costume made for the 1995 film “Jefferson in Paris” is based on an original suit from the 1780s. [Nancy] Lawson [a U.S. representative for Cosprop] says while the original mauve velvet frock coat and embroidered green leaves on the front, cuffs and pockets is now in shreds, Cosprop‘s Bright used the remaining pieces for inspiration in his design (“Stitched in Time,” The News Journal, Oct. 3, 2006).

I assume that’s this suit, with tons of sparkly embroidery. He wears it in a couple different scenes:

Louis gets one paler suit with what looks like appliqued metalwork:


Marquis de La Fayette’s Costumes

The marquis is a key minor character who helps explain the French to Jefferson (and the audience). As a military man and a progressive, he’s dressed relatively sedately:

Portrait of Marquis de La Fayette (1757-1834) by Jean-Baptiste Weyler, before 1791, via Wikimedia Commons

Portrait of Marquis de La Fayette (1757-1834) by Jean-Baptiste Weyler, before 1791, via Wikimedia Commons

I just had to screencap a few things, like this embroidered waistcoat:

And this subtly stripey suit:


The Gallery of Amazingly Dressed Extras

I famously once featured a “gallery of shittily dressed extras“; well, this is the antidote. I’m out of steam, so few comments, just a lot of pictures!

Franz Mesmer

The Cook

The Dauphin

He’s wearing a “matelote” or “skeleton suit,” a newly introduced boy’s garment that consisted of a shirt buttoned to trousers:

The Comtesse d’Artois and her children by Charles Le Clercq, c. 1780-82, Palace of Versailles

5 Million Other Fabulously Dressed Extras



This kind of straw brim, fabric crown hat is right out of fashion plates:

Gallerie des Modes 1779






Can you think of a better depiction of 1780s French costume on film? Let me know, but be prepared to fight me!


About the author



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.