Challenge: Be faithful to an 18th-century fashion icon in the absence of sartorial records
Regency aristocrat Georgiana Cavendish, subject of Saul Dibb’s period drama “The Duchess,” is widely recognized as one of the first true influencers of fashion, her giant plumed wigs and sprayed-on gowns sparking copycat trends across 18th-century Britain. And yet very little archival evidence of what she actually wore exists.
“If we had been doing a film on Queen Victoria or Queen Mary, it would have been different,” says costume designer Michael O’Connor (“Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day”). “But with Georgiana, there’s hardly anything. Even the portraits generally show her in biblical, classical-type robes — not what she actually wore.”
In all, O’Connor created 27 costumes for the duchess, dressing actress Keira Knightley in the most progressive, flamboyant styles of the era, styles Georgiana is known to have had a hand in creating. Dresses were often stitched onto the actresses, re-creating the “desperately tight, maximum bosom” looks that were popular then.
The gender-bending military uniform worn during a political rally is one look the duchess is known to have actually worn. Though Georgiana was known to have originally designed the outfit in red, O’Connor re-created it in blue, the color of the British Whig party. “That costume perfectly illustrated how the duchess always refused to blend in,” he says.