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.
And finally, we meet Bess! Lady Elizabeth Foster became good friends with Georgiana before becoming her husband’s mistress (and, after Georgiana’s death, his wife) — AWKWARD.
In reality, Bess and Georgiana looked very alike, and played that up too:
In the film, she’s played by Hayley Atwell, whose dark hair contrasts with Keira Knightley’s blonde and so helps the audience distinguish between the two (because, apparently, otherwise we’d get confused?):
Bess met Georgiana in 1782, so I’m assuming that’s about when this ball is set — in which case I am now REALLY questioning Georgiana’s huge Marge Simpson hair, as hairstyles had become much lower by then.
Bess is wearing a dark orange-brown gown, which I assume is a nightgown/robe à l’anglaise, although we never see it from the back:
Just like Georgiana’s blue gown, we only ever see Bess from the waist up on screen:
The focal element is the lovely trim around the neckline:
Looking closeup, it’s made up of two rows (one shorter, one longer) of gathered taffeta, topped with a fringey tulle layer, and then “rococo trim”; the neckline is edged with lace:
It makes a great effect on screen, but I have to laugh because I and every other costumer I know has that same lace.
These kind of layered trims were super popular in the period:
Modernly, we call the woven trim with the various loops and tufts on it “fly fringe,” which as I heard from someone at Colonial Williamsburg came from someone there who fished and who noticed the similarity to modern fishing lures. You can see a number of examples at the 18th Century Notebook site (which is a gold mine), and a number of people have been teaching classes and writing blog posts about recreating it — just google “18th century fly fringe.”
Modern “rococo ribbon” (named for the artistic movement of the 18th century) derives from this trim, and works well as a modern reproduction that doesn’t involve literally hand-tying all those little tufts:
Once again, luckily this dress was put on exhibit, and here we can see the beautiful trimmings on the skirt that never made it to screen:
Once again, the hairstylists have knocked it out of the park on Bess’s hair. The hair designer for this film is Jan Archibald (chief hair stylist on Interview with the Vampire, Rob Roy, Sense and Sensibility; hair designer for Gosford Park, Arsène Lupin, Parade’s End, Taboo; department head hairstylist for John Adams), Stephanie Hovette (Arsène Lupin, John Adams) did wigs, and Loulia Sheppard (hair stylist for Gosford Park, Possession, Vanity Fair, The Phantom of the Opera, Mrs. Henderson Presents, Amazing Grace, Elizabeth: the Golden Age, John Adams, and many more; hair designer for The Three Musketeers and Victoria & Abdul) was Keira Knightley’s hairstylist.
Compare the side of Bess’s hair:
With these contemporary images (which, granted, are from a few years earlier, but clearly they’re not ready to move the hair into the 1780s yet):
Finally, I’m no jewelry expert AT ALL but these earrings totally ping my “Georgian!” antenna. Feel free to weigh in!
Get excited, because next up are the STRIPEY GOWNS!!
What do you think about Bess Foster’s ball gown?