BOUND BY A RIGID CODE
Georgiana Spencer, who became the Duchess of Devonshire at age 17, was an 18th century beauty revered and reviled for her wit, intellect and political activism, as much as for her fashion sense, gambling, drinking and partying. In “The Duchess,” Keira Knightley portrays the trendsetter whose massive gowns, towering hairdos and elaborate makeup were ravenously emulated by the “ton,” an elite group of aristocratic ladies.
No small feat for costume designer Michael O’Connor to create an array of iconic gowns for Georgiana, as well as dressing her best friend and rival, Lady Elizabeth (Bess) Foster, who openly had an affair with Georgiana’s rigid, unfeeling husband, William Cavendish, the Duke of Devonshire, played by Ralph Fiennes.
There is a moment in the film that I have never seen in a period costume drama. When the duke cuts Georgiana out of her wedding dress, we see deep marks on her sides and back from the corset cutting into her flesh.
I’m glad you noticed that scene. It was great to see the lacing and the marks left on her skin. Also, all the chokers, necklaces and black ribbons she wore around her neck reflect the restricted lives these women led, that they were laced-in, tied down, choked and suffocated in some way. They’re men’s chattel; they’re property.
The press often wrote about her outfits, didn’t they?
She was known for setting certain trends and so they would always caricature them in the press. . . . Especially the feathers. One cartoon that we used for reference showed her and another girl sitting on the floor of a carriage because, otherwise, the roof would break the hair and the feathers.
Such elaborate costumes were their way of expressing themselves?
Well, I think it’s like a fashion statement about the psyche of the time. As Keira’s character says in the film, men have so many ways to express themselves whereas women have only their appearance, their dresses and hats.
Tell me about the color palette.
I wanted to start Georgiana off very pale and innocent. It’s only at the end, she’s almost in mourning and she’s dressed very dark. . . . By contrast, Bess [Hayley Atwell] starts off wearing dark colors and goes through the film to become paler at the end. In the very last scene, the two women are together at a party, Bess is in a color very similar to what Georgiana wears at the beginning of the film, as if they’ve kind of swapped places.