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.
Here we go, it’s time for Georgiana’s big ball dress with HA-UGE hair! The dress barely gets seen on screen, but you’ll see it has some very interesting elements. Given that the scene is really all about the hair, let’s discuss that first.
Yes, the late 18th century — specifically, the late 1770s and early 1780s — were ALL ABOUT the big hair. Women wore huge updo’s for formal occasions that were styled over “cushions” made of wool, tow, hemp, cut hair, horsehair, or wire. You can see a glimpse of one of these cushions in this period illustration:
Of course, that image is a caricature, so the proportions are probably exaggerated. What did these styles “really” look like, at least according to contemporary supposedly-realistic imagery?
There’s two major silhouettes you see in this era. The first is seen in both France and Britain, and it’s high and triangular:
There’s also a slightly different silhouette seen primarily in Britain, which is more egg-shaped:
Either way, just how high did these hairstyles really get? The biggest I’ve ever seen are in this fashion plate. Are these to scale? I can’t tell you for sure! They’re far bigger than anything I’ve seen in portraiture, that’s for sure.
Clearly they were going for the more British egg-shape for Georgiana’s hair in the film — but unfortunately, I think that combined with the MASSIVE height makes her look like Marge Simpson. I’m sorry! I’m 1000% team big hair! If they’d gone this big and wide, I think it would have worked better aesthetically. And according to an interview with the Washington Post, Keira Knightley had to have a custom stand made so she could rest in between takes.
That being said, there are some great details in the styling:
Moving on… what you see here is all you see of the dress in the film — she’s either behind the railing, or in the middle of the crowd. In some ways this makes sense, because they’re focused on the hair. But someone clearly put a LOT of work into this gown that never gets seen on screen!
The dress is a robe à l’anglaise (see my guide, about mid-way through this rant) with the skirts worn “up” (as they’d say in English, “retroussée” in French). It’s made of a pale blue brocade or damask, trimmed with black lace. And, the lower half is covered in embroidery and painted or printed motifs!
This style of embroidered dress was particularly fashionable in the 1780s. Here’s one similar example:
I was all set to get anal about those classical motifs being about 10-20 years too early:
When I found this sucker:
I’m not 100% sure about how the skirts are looped up here, but that could be the museum dresser’s decision rather than how it was worn on screen:
As always, Knightley’s makeup is pretty on point, with a single beauty patch for this scene suiting its formality:
Were you second guessing those classical motifs too? What did you think of the hair?