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.
For the first time in the film, Georgiana wears a chemise à la reine. This gown, more commonly called “robe en chemise” in 18th century sources (at least the French ones), was a further development of the informality in fashion that had been gaining steam over the past few decades.
The chemise à la reine was a gathered gown made usually of fine cotton muslin (although sources point to linen and silk version as well), often, but not always, in white. It’s the ultimate of the dressing-down/country shepherdess trend that was inspired by philosophers like Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who advocated a return to “man’s” “natural” state. Here’s a summary of the style, from my own post outlining the research on the gown and its origins:
- A gown made from rectangular shapes, either entirely open down the front or closed.
- These rectangular body shapes were extremely full, and controlled via gathers at the neckline and waist; there could also be another gathering row at the underbust.
- Early examples were full and gathered all around; later examples have fitted backs.
- Early examples have full sleeves, gathered at the elbow and sometimes higher up the arm; later examples have fitted sleeves.
- There was often one or more flounces at the neckline and/or hem.
- It was often (but not always!) made of sheer fabrics, and often made in white.
- It was usually worn with a wide sash.
The chemise gown appears to have been developed in the French Caribbean colonies, where both free white women and free women of color influenced fashion and where lightweight, simple, cotton fabric clothing suited the climate. There’s several interconnected theories about how exactly it developed (but nothing cut and dry), which you can read more about at the link above. It first became popular in France, where sources date it to about 1781, then the dress became fashionable in other countries, including England.
It’s great that the style was included in The Duchess, because the real Georgiana was known for popularizing the style in England. She had visited France before and become good friends with Queen Marie-Antoinette and one of the queen’s favorites, the Duchess of Polignac. Marie-Antoinette sent chemise gowns to several friends in England, including Georgiana; because it was considered so scandalous, the duchess initially swore she would only wear it in private, but by 1783 it had become wildly popular (for more, check out our own Sarah Lorraine’s thesis on the topic, as well as this biography of 18th-century actress Mary Robinson, who was actually more responsible for the style’s popularity in England).
Now the problem I have with this dress are the fitted sleeves and, especially, fitted/seamed back:
Assuming this is meant to be mid-1780s (Georgiana met Bess in 1782), what was fashionable with this style at this point was a full, gathered back and full sleeves gathered into several puffs:
Furthermore, her hairstyle is more 1779-81, than mid-1780s:
Okay yes, it’s a total nitpick, but I did write a book about this! It is really nicely styled and looks great — it’s just 1779-81ish.
Now, I’m going to jump ahead because Georgiana wears what I think is the same gown again several scenes later, and I believe several “years” later. Now her hairstyle has finally caught up with her dress:
Here it makes more sense that the back of these gowns are fitted, because later iterations of the chemise à la reine did just that:
Bess also gets a chemise à la reine in this scene:
What did you think of The Duchess‘s chemise gowns?