The Duchess Deep Dive: STRIPES, BABY

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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.

Today, it’s possibly the most loved costumes of the film: Georgiana and Bess’s stripey gowns! This scene makes the point that Georgiana is having lots of girls (and no male heir), so it should be around 1785-89. In reality, between the dress and the hair, this styles worn in this scene look more early 1780s.

First, let’s look at dress silhouettes over the decade. In the early 1780s, skirts were full and rounded and often worn lifted up (“retroussée” in French, just “up” in English):

1780s-fashion 1780s-fashion1780s fashion timeline

By the second half of the decade, skirts became slimmer and the line was less poufy, with far fewer (if any) lifted skirts:

1780s fashion timeline 1780s fashion timeline

First, let’s look at Bess, who’s actually even more late 1770s than early 1780s, because she’s wearing the robe à la française, which would have been considered pretty formal and/or traditional by the second half of the 1780s. The main thing that defines the française was its long, loose, hanging pleats in back:

Robe à la Française, 1765-70, French, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Robe à la Française, 1765-70, French, Metropolitan Museum of Art

2008 The Duchess

Her française is worn tucked up into the pocket slits, a manner of wearing seen frequently that both creates a pretty line and gets a train off of the ground.

2008 The Duchess
Le lever, 1774, Antoine Louis Romanet after Sigmund Freudenberger, National Gallery of Art

This maid’s française is worn looped up, called “retroussée dans les poches” in French | Le lever, 1774, Antoine Louis Romanet after Sigmund Freudenberger, National Gallery of Art

In front, Bess’s gown has a closed front bodice — rather than a V opening over a stomacher. That and the use of stripes and verticals make the gown more fashionable for late 1770s/early 1780s.

2008 The Duchess
1775-80 sack - Victoria & Albert Museum

This française has a closed-front bodice, a style seen in the 1780s | 1775-80 sack – Victoria & Albert Museum

I will say the longer sleeve (wrist-length instead of 3/4) is more 1780s than 1770s. The gown is trimmed with what looks like layered self-fabric ruches, as well as lace.

2008 The Duchess2008 The Duchess 2008 The Duchess

Now on to Georgiana’s dress. Her’s is a robe à l’anglaise (“nightgown” in England, but that term confuses modern people), much more fashionable for the late 1770s through the 1780s, but the looped-up overskirt makes it more late 1770s rather than later 1780s, when poufy was out:

2008 The Duchess 2008 The Duchess2008 The Duchess
Gown, 1780s (altered 1790s and 19th century), Victoria & Albert Museum

Here’s your quintessential robe à l’anglaise: closed front bodice with V waist, open skirt with train | Gown, 1780s (altered 1790s and 19th century), Victoria & Albert Museum

Now you may have heard that the way Georgiana’s overskirt is tucked up makes this dress a robe à la polonaise, but that’s a different style worn looser and cut without a waist seam.

Gown, 1780s, Victoria & Albert Museum

The robe à l’anglaise has a waist seam that separates the skirt, which is pleated to the bodice | Gown, 1780s, Victoria & Albert Museum

Robe à la Polonaise, 1774–93, Metropolitan Museum of Art

The polonaise style is cut without a waist seam, among several other differences. Read my research article if you want to know more! Robe à la Polonaise, 1774–93, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Zoffany, Johann; Mary Wilkes; John Wilkes; National Portrait Gallery, London; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/mary-wilkes-john-wilkes-158934

The anglaise was often worn with the skirts pulled up, particularly in the late 1770s/early 1780s | Zoffany, Johann; Mary Wilkes; John Wilkes; National Portrait Gallery, London

Now, why do we love both of these gowns, but particularly Georgiana’s? STRIPES! Stripes were hugely fashionable in the 1770s-80s, and they just give such an extra oomph to all kinds of styles. But the filmmakers did a particularly good job with Georgiana’s dress:


2008 The Duchess

2008 The Duchess

We’re in luck, because The Hidden Historian, a blogger who works at Berrington Hall, has a post with a gazillion high-res detailed photos of the original costume from when it was displayed there.

2008 The Duchess

The angled stripes on the bodice are fabulous, although not something you see too often in the period — usually they would be laid out straight up and down. But it makes Keira Knightley’s waist look tiny and it’s a super flattering line.

Robe, 1775-80. Victoria & Albert Museum

A more typical layout | Robe, 1775-80. Victoria & Albert Museum.

Woman's Dress (Robe à l'anglaise), c. 1775, Los Angeles County Museum of Art

But never say never! Woman’s Dress (Robe à l’anglaise), c. 1775, Los Angeles County Museum of Art

2008 The Duchess

The back is very beautifully cut, with angled stripes at the center back.

c. 1775 - Robe à l'anglaise, France, from Los Angeles County Museum of Art

It’s something I’ve NEVER seen in the period… but never say never! c. 1775 – Robe à l’anglaise, France, from Los Angeles County Museum of Art

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

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

2008 The Duchess

In back, self-fabric rosettes mark where the skirt is lifted up. I have never seen a bodice like this one where the center back is cut like this! You either see the skirt pleated all the wait to the center back point, or those center back panels can be cut in one piece with the skirt. I’m sure it was a theatrical/practical choice | (C) The Hidden Historian

The Music Party by Louis Rolland Trinquesse, 1774, Alte Pinakothek

You do often see rosettes (or bows) on dresses worn retroussée, like this polonaise, but they usually contrast rather than match | The Music Party by Louis Rolland Trinquesse, 1774, Alte Pinakothek

2008 The Duchess

The trim is a mix of self-fabric ruches, gathered lace, and faux “fly trim” | (C) The Hidden Historian

I’ve run out of steam so look back at previous posts for discussions of the hairstyles — these are still very firmly late 1770s/turn of the 1780s. See my last post for more about this! I’ll talk about how mid- to late-1780s hair changes in the next post, because I think the film will finally catch up! But let’s admire those hats:

2008 The Duchess 2008 The Duchess

And the embroidery on Georgiana’s gloves!

2008 The Duchess

How much do you love the stripes on The Duchess‘s costumes?

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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.

3 Responses

  1. Boxermom

    Thanks so much, Kendra! I love the fashions from this era (especially the stripey goodness). Pity I don’t have the figure to pull of these looks. Le sigh. :)

    Reply
  2. Saraquill

    I’m distracted by the skirts. The drawings have bums large enough to support a teacup, if not a whole tray. I’m busy comparing them to the skirts in the movie costumes and museum gowns.

    Reply

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