Yet Georgiana’s primary signatures were probably her hair and hats. She set the trend in England for showy, sky-high coiffures, some towering three feet. Her hair accessory of choice? Drooping ostrich plumes, a Duchess of Devonshire trademark. In one memorable ballroom scene, Knightley wears an enchanting gown and opulent pearls, but it’s the dramatic feathers that draw the eye. “What we see her wearing tonight,” an attendee at the soirée remarks to the crowd, “I look forward to seeing the rest of you wearing tomorrow.” And, to be sure, a few cuts later, when the Duchess is at the theater, the audience is filled with ladies in feathery updos.
The film’s millinery masterpieces (giant, sweeping wide-brim hats topped with ribbons, baubles, rosettes and lace) come courtesy of English hatmaker Jane Smith. “You wait—no, you live—to have something as gorgeous as this, 18th century [to design],” says Smith.
Still, nothing was made purely for visual appeal. Everything, right down to Georgiana’s cameos, was calculated. “I started her very innocent and fresh, not too fussy,” O’Connor says. “But then, as she enjoys the company of men and politicians...it’s almost like she starts to understand how clothing works, that she has a public duty to be on display.”
Part of Georgiana’s evolution was discovering that she could work her sartorial wiles to her political party’s advantage. Those fancy ostrich headdresses in blue and cream? They’re the Whig colors. And Knightley’s wardrobe includes numerous striped gowns and dresses. “[Politicians] tended to wear stripes in their waistcoats,” O’Connor explains. Then there’s the military-style getup she dons at a rally in support of party leader Charles James Fox. The matching hat is outfitted with four foxtails and a tiny pillow embroidered with Fox’s name.
But for all its fashion and political currents, The Duchess is ultimately about Georgiana’s personal saga: her loveless, strained marriage and her even more complicated friendship with BFF (and rumored lover) Lady Elizabeth Foster, known as Bess, played by Hayley Atwell. Foster would become mistress to the Duke—making for one very awkward threesome under the same roof.
“There’s a relationship between the two in terms of color,” notes O’Connor of the actresses’ costumes. Georgiana starts out in light hues; Bess, dark. By the end of the film, it’s the opposite. “It nods to what comes,” he continues. Without spoiling things, let’s just say Bess turns out to be a forerunner to Eve Harrington.
Regarding the husband-and-wife relations—which prove just as chilling as that initial wedding-night scene foreshadowed—the audience need look no further than the Duchess’s ever present neckwear for clues. It speaks volumes that after an incident of horrible abuse by her husband, she wears a velvet band tied tightly around her neck. “It’s a sort of suffocating moment,” the designer says. In contrast, when she’s with Grey, Georgiana wears a delicate pendant loose and low. Says O’Connor: “There are no accidents in costume.”