The Duchess: Dominance in headwear

The stunning silhouettes on display in ‘The Duchess’ are all thanks to costume designer Michael O’Connor, who won a BAFTA for Best Costume Design for his work on this historical film. It is a British drama film based on Amanda Foreman’s biography of the 18th-century English aristocrat Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire. A simple google image search of ‘Georgiana Cavendish’ provides an assortment of portraits of the Duchess by the likes of Thomas Gainsborough and other eighteenth-century painters. For anyone with memory of the film, these paintings will resonate strongly: We can see for ourselves where O’Connor got his inspiration for!

The film itself is all about the beauty and fashion that made Georgiana famous, as well as her extravagance, gambling, and her unhappy marriage to a cold, much older and unfaithful husband. All these elements are found gathered together in the eponymous heroine, her appearance and her attire. Such beauty and bold fashion can be seen in my sketches illustrating this page. The film depicts how women in the eighteenth-century were restricted in marriage and the restricted chances they had to express their voices directly, along with the indirect and subtle ways that determined women, such as Georgiana, found ways of trying to get their voice across, however successfully or not.

And this is where the value of Georgiana’s fashion and O’Connor’s costume finds its glory. The young Duchess expresses herself in her hats and dresses, their colours, designs, and unusual adornments such as large ostrich feathers. Keira Knightley speaks the line ‘You [men] have so many ways of expressing yourself, whereas we must make do with our hats and dresses.’ It is a lament. The attire that Knightley wears as she plays Georgiana both shouts about the character herself, as well as remaining eternally silent.

Notice also, however, that the costumes O’Connor has created are not only mimicking the attire of the real Georgiana, but are symbolic of her state as well. Notably, she is physically restricted by her corsetry as she is socially restricted by her sex. Now consider this when viewing the scene when her husband cuts her out of her corset. While doing so, he talks about how he does not understand why women’s dresses need to be so complicated. He is removing her sole form of expression, reinforced by his words. The character of Georgiana is being stripped away, leaving a cold, naked and uneasy girl.

The dresses worn by Knightley in this film are at once displaying her characters restricted and repressed state, as well as showing her desire to have her voice heard. The colours of the dresses are bold, the hats very large with ostrich feathers or high brims reaching up to the sky to elevate her stature, perhaps giving her a greater appearance of power. And certain pieces such as the fur hand warmer that she wears partway through the film are bold, giving a suggestion of dominance in their dark colour and solid presence.

As Georgiana falls apart as the film progresses, so does her appearance. The fresh and open faced girl of the initial scene, who runs around in her free-flowing dresses while playing on the lawn with her friends, changes to a mother playing cards with her young child while wearing a hat that has a brim that comes low over the front of her face. Wearing this stunning hat, her character appears as boldly as ever, but for her face to be seen, she must lift her head and peer out. With her face thus hidden, she is losing her identity. And later in the film, when drunk at a ball, the Duchess knocks into a candelabra, which sets her hair alight and so her wig is knocked from her head and put out unceremoniously with a bowl of wine. She is left sitting on the floor, dejected, surrounded by a turmultuous sea of her voluminous skirts and with her stylish headwear smoking beside her. All that is left to surmount her head is a plain white cap that she wore under the wig. Her attempts to express herself and subsequently improve her life with her fashion have fallen apart, quite literally, leaving her with a broken identity. In such a suffocating atmosphere, she is forced away from her desire for expression, which is made visible as her attire morphs and falls apart around her.

‘The Duchess’ is stunning to watch, and the dialogue is not just comprised of the words of the actors, but also the voices of the costumes. Georgiana’s attire certainly does speak of her character, and if we listen, we can certainly hear what it is saying.

Bravo O’Connor!