High Society by Lucy Moore


A fascinating new film about Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire reveals her to be one of the fashion idols of her day.  Lucy Moore investigates.

In one of the early scenes of The Duchess, a film about the eighteenth-century society beauty Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, the impatient Duke (played by Ralph Fiennes) complains that his bride’s clothes are “damned complicated”.  Instead of painstakingly undoing her corset on their wedding night, he simply cuts through the laces.  “I suppose it’s just our way of expressing ourselves,” explains Keira Knightley at Georgiana.  “You (men) have so many ways of expressing yourselves, whereas we must make do with our hats and dresses.”

Loosely based on the bestselling biography by Amanda Foreman, The Duchess tells the story of Georgiana’s unhappy marriage, her husband’s affair with her best friend, Lady Bess Foster and her own passion for the future prime minister, Charles Grey.  But woven through the ill-fated love story runs another narrative altogether, that of Georgiana’s development from naive ingénue into so-called Empress of Fashion and a leading light in late eighteenth-century high society.

Lady Georgiana Spencer was born at Althorp House in 1757 and brought up, as an aristocratic girl, to be the wife of a rich and powerful man.  Her beauty and charm were important but her ability to produce sons even more so.  Women had a great deal of influence socially, artistically and culturally during that period, but they were still considered the property of their fathers first, then their husbands, and had neither legal nor political rights.

Georgiana lived at her husband’s estate, Chatsworth, and on and off from her marriage till her death in 1806, and to tie in with the film’s release this month, some of the costume, plus a selection of her possessions, are on display there, from accounts of her staggering gambling debts to the letter she wrote in blood to her two-year-old son, when she feared she might die without seeing him again.

The Duchess opens with the teenage Georgiana playing on the lawn while, inside, her parents arrange her marriage to the Duke of Devonshire, a man she has met only twice.  Her innocence is shown by the ribbon in her hair, her fresh face and her sweet, rather old-fashioned dress.  From the moment she marries and enters the world inhabited by her husband, her appearance becomes more sophisticated, her hair is powdered, her cheeks rouged, her dresses elaborate and richly coloured.

Using Foreman’s book and contemporary portraits as inspiration, costume designer Michael O’Connor made everything for the film as authentic as possible.  “The trim on the dresses was stripped, sewed, frayed and pulled by hand, exactly as it would have been in the 1770s.  Nothing was wasted, “ he says.  Even Georgiana’s exquisite corsets, in pistachio or almond silk, and the brown cotton-covered steel frames for the wide hoop skirts of the period (never even shown on film) are marvels of reconstruction.  The only aspect of Georgian style O’Connor reinterpreted was its taste for soft, meringue-like roundness.  Late-eighteenth-century women were all curves and frills, but the slender Knightly didn’t look right in the more voluminous designs.

O’Connor showed me the continuity list, detailing every item of clothing Knightley wears in each scene: clocked stockings and satin shoes, chemises and petticoats beneath corsets, hoops, flounces and bottom pads to create a genuine eighteenth-century silhouette, and over this the dresses themselves – 27 outfits in all.  Each was designed to help Knightly feel a deeper sympathy with Georgiana and the moment in her life she was portraying with the clothes she was wearing “from the inside out”, O’Connor says.

Fashion was the only career available to aristocratic women of the period, and Georgiana quickly came to dominate that world.  She pioneered inconceivably tall feathered headdresses, so high that to make space for their hair, ladies had to travel crouching on the floors of their carriages.  This extraordinary style was immediately copied by women from every rank of society and catapulted Georgiana into the headlines, with contemporary caricatures depicting her wearing astonishing headdresses twice her height.

But while Georgiana was a mistress of the dramatic gesture and an icon for her contemporaries, she was also a woman for whom private life was intensely important.  O’Connor created understated dresses to reflect the intimacy of Georgiana’s interior life.  For this type of outfit, he was aided by the fact that the fashion in portraiture and clothing was increasingly informal.  Georgiana adored the relaxed, sashed dress known as the chemise a la reine, named for Marie Antoinette.  The chemise originated as underwear, so for ladies to appear in public wearing one was as if they had forgotten to get dressed.

When Georgiana began to take an interest in politics – her husband was a prominent Whig – the only way she could demonstrate her allegiance was through her clothes.  Depicted in the film on the hustings, supporting candidates, she wears a historically accurate outfit modelled on a soldier’s uniform, with a frogged jacket over a long riding skirt.  The fox tails which dangle from her plumed, military-style hat are a reference to Charles James Fox, leader of the Whigs and Georgiana’s closes friend.

Her outfit caused a sensation, and women flocked to buy copies.  But there was a deeper subtext to Georgiana’s costume.  Dressing as a man emphasised that she was stepping away from the feminine domain of the home and family into an exclusively masculine world – a daring move.  Georgiana would not fulfil her essential function of bearing her husband an heir until 16 years after their wedding.  Today we might say that she gravitated towards the limelight to console herself about an unhappy marriage: at the time, many blamed her “unwomanly” desire for attention as the cause of her marital woes.

I asked Amanda Foreman whether she thought feminism had made fashion less important to women than it was to Georgiana and her contemporaries.  “Not at all!” she said.  “Look at Gwyneth Paltrow on the front page of every newspaper in her high heels and short skirts.  Women’s clothes are scrutinised and decoded as much today as they were then.”

In many ways, the art of wearing clothes in the right place at the right time has never been more relevant.  The fashion and film industries depend on stars being photographed in the latest, most exquisite styles.  Modern muses such as Amanda Harlech and Daphne Guinness tread in Georgiana’s footprints with their ability to make the most outrageous fashion fantasies desirable.  But none understands the power and necessity of fashion better than Georgiana did herself.
“The Duchess” is released on September 5.

Copyright© 2008 Tatler Magazine