The Duchess Deep Dive: Bess’s Party 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.

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:

Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, with Lady Elizabeth Foster by Jean-Urbain Guérin, c. 1791, The Wallace Collection

Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, with Lady Elizabeth Foster by Jean-Urbain Guérin, c. 1791, The Wallace Collection

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?):

2008 The Duchess

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.

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

What 1782 hair should really look like | Portrait of Marie Joséphine of Savoy (1753-1810), Countess of Provence by Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, 1782, Musée Hôtel Bertrand, Châteauroux

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:

2008 The Duchess

Just like Georgiana’s blue gown, we only ever see Bess from the waist up on screen:

2008 The Duchess

The focal element is the lovely trim around the neckline:

2008 The Duchess

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:

2008 The Duchess

It makes a great effect on screen, but I have to laugh because I and every other costumer I know has that same lace.

Mood Fabrics - Lace

Here it is at Mood Fabrics in white, but I’m sure you can find it many other places too, including in my stash.

These kind of layered trims were super popular in the period:

Dress, 1778–80, French, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Dress, 1778–80, French, Metropolitan Museum of Art – click for a bigger version, or link through to get super high-res, zoomable photos!

Dress, 1775–80, probably British, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Dress, 1775–80, probably British, Metropolitan Museum of Art – click for a bigger version, or link through to get super high-res, zoomable photos! Note that that stomacher (the solid peach center section with all the trim on it) is, I think, a modern repro.

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.”

Cuffs, 1770s, probably French, Metropolitan Museum of Art

A historical example of what we modernly call “fly fringe”: Cuffs, 1770s, probably French, Metropolitan Museum of Art – click for a bigger version, or link through to get super high-res, zoomable photos!

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:

Rococo Ribbon via Timeless Trims

Rococo Ribbon via Timeless Trims

Rococo Ribbon via Aliexpress

Rococo Ribbon via Aliexpress – personally I think this kind of woven-swoopy-things-through-the-main-chain make a better effect.

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 ParkArsène LupinParade’s End, Taboo; department head hairstylist for John Adams), Stephanie Hovette (Arsène Lupin, John Adams) did wigs, and Loulia Sheppard (hair stylist for Gosford ParkPossessionVanity FairThe Phantom of the OperaMrs. Henderson PresentsAmazing GraceElizabeth: the Golden AgeJohn 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:

2008 The Duchess

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):

1774 The light guinea, or, The blade in the dumps

The Light Guinea, or, the Blade in the Dumps, 1774.

Portrait of Mrs. Grace Dalrymple Elliott (1754?–1823) by Thomas Gainsborough, 1778, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Portrait of Mrs. Grace Dalrymple Elliott (1754?–1823) by Thomas Gainsborough, 1778, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Finally, I’m no jewelry expert AT ALL but these earrings totally ping my “Georgian!” antenna. Feel free to weigh in!

2008 The Duchess

Get excited, because next up are the STRIPEY GOWNS!!

2008 The Duchess

You KNOW you’re excited to see more of these!

 

What do you think about Bess Foster’s ball gown?

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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.

15 Responses

  1. Molly Weiss

    Hah, I also totally nailed that lace as being in my stash! (I’ve gotten it from Joyce Trimming before, unclear if they still have it)

    Reply
  2. Alexander Sanderson

    Fabulous! Thank you so much! I luvvv the extra info on the suitability of the hair and adored the trim, especially that used in the image of “Dress, 1775–80, probably British, Metropolitan Museum of Art”… I will most certainly have an attempt at recreating that from scratch. Much fun! :) I am amazed at the Jean-Urbain Guérin portrait of Georgiana and Bess. They do look SO alike in profile; I wonder how much of a true likeness it is and whether Guérin was asked to exaggerate their similarities. I adore the neo – classical, ‘mythological Graces’, gowns that they are wearing – sort of Chemise a la reine but with interesting, theatrical differences. Wasn’t Georgina presented with her first Chemise a la reine by her good friend Marie Antoinette? I believe that she certainly made it fashionable in Britain. Is this so? Many huge thanks again.

    Reply
  3. GinaP

    Tangential to this post, HA was seen with Tom Cruise at Wimbledon recently, and is rumored to have converted to the “S” religion for him.oppp

    Reply
    • Kendra

      There’s not much hair powder to be seen, period. The English weren’t quite as into powder as the French, but it’s definitely something that would show up in this era for something this formal.

      Reply
  4. Colleen

    1782 hair might not have been high any longer, but it certainly went wider, based off the photograph used for the example.

    Reply
  5. Damnitz

    I love your look on all the details (although I don’t understand the focus on the same movie again and again). Great work and I’ excited to see and read more.

    Reply
  6. Lynne Connolly

    Did they put the stomacher over the top of the gown? I can’t see properly, but that’s a big mistake, if they did! Stomachers were always worn under gowns, which were put on like a coat over the top.
    Although many of the costumes in the movie were great, I couldn’t get over how the actresses walked. They should have glided, but they trotted, and all that hair wobbled with every step. Ungainly!
    And yes, for a formal occasion like a ball, hair would have been powdered. You could get brown powder.

    Reply
  7. Black Betty (Bamalam!)

    Ooooh, thanks so much for introducing me to rococo ribbon and Aliexpress!!!

    Reply

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