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18th Century Costumes from Period Pieces

Costume design is so pertinent whilst creating a film. In order to bring a character to life, the subject must be able to act through what they’re wearing and the garments which adorn an actor carry a story of their own. This is particularly true of period pieces and I will be sharing some of the history and thoughts behind my favourite costumes from films set within the Eighteenth-century. 

Eighteenth-century fashion was distinctive in its acute attention to detail and profound ornamentation. France was at the helm for the creation of elegant gowns such as the Robe à la Français (the French Dress) which became popularised by Madame de Pompadour within the court of Versailles. The flourishing of such a well-attired populace emerged during the reign of Louis XV in 1715, who helped to establish the Rococo culture – which exuded elegance, refinement and decoration. 

Dangerous Liaisons (1988) 

Picture credit: The Oscar Nerd

Set in France in the 1760s, Dangerous Liaisons (adapted from Les Liaisons dangereuses by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos), follows the story of the Marquise de Merteuil who plots with her ex-lover, Vicomte de Valmont, to wreak revenge upon her ex-husband Gercourt who is betrothed to the ingenue, Cecile de Volanges. With costumes designed by James Acheson, Dangerous Liaisons presents a delightful array of historically accurate dresses which would appear in the court of 18th century France. Many of the pieces worn by the lead female characters possess a striking resemblance to portraits of royalty from the period. 

Marquise de Merteuil’s first
gown (see previous picture) and the 1767 portrait of
Marquise de Caumont La
Force by François Hubert
Picture credit: Wikipedia

‘We set it back 20 years to make the silhouettes stronger. If we’d set it later, it would have all been very big wigs and hats and layered, billowing bodices. We wanted to make it simpler, stronger and less elaborate. We experimented with a more powdered, made-up look but it’s difficult when the whole film is shot in close-up. So the artificiality of Glenn Close is left until the end and used as a dramatic statement.’ Acheson

The style of the film is centred around the Rococo period of art and fashion which arose during the reign of Louis XV (it would soon be left behind during the French Revolution in 1789.) Thus, Acheson’s designs focus upon the time of history before Marie Antoinette’s reign with designs that are elaborate but also muted…

‘There’s a richness there, but it’s controlled. Costumes in the paintings of Boucher and Fragonard are more elaborate but we chose not to do it because you don’t want to give an actor something so elaborate that he has to act out of it. In film, there are moments that can make an impact with color or shape, even with a hat.’ Acheson

Acheson and Frears decided to create costumes which would not deter from the film’s primary aims, character development and emotion – there is always a danger that characters could become subsumed in their costumes and the story will be lost.

Picture credit: whitneyadams.com

Picture credit: IMDB

The change of colours of Cecile’s costumes from ivory to a satin pink coincides with her emergence from innocence and sexual awakening – in between these two scenes, Cecile (played by Uma Thurman) wears a Scalamandré strawberry-print gown whilst embroidering. This fabric has also been used in Sofia
Coppola’s Marie Antoinette, although the impact with Cecile’s ensemble (with her cap and white chemisette) emphasises her innocence. 

Madame Marie de Tourvel (played by Michelle Pfeiffer) is both pious and virtuous, which is reflected through her ensembles of white and chemisettes.

Picture credit: IMDB

Marie Antoinette (2006)

dir. Sofia Coppola, costume designer, Milena Canonero

Picture credit: theflorentine.net

In Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette, we see eighteenth-century court dresses brought to life in an array of pastel colours, silks, satins, ruffles which reflect Marie Antoinette’s enduring love affair with extravagant gowns. An abundance of the costume changes which take place throughout the film mirror the stages of Antoinette’s life and reign. In the opening, we encounter her as an ingenue, Austrian archduchess, clad in a soft, pastel blue
Robe à la Français which conveys her innocence.

When she arrives at the Palace of Versailles, she must leave her Austrian heritage behind and adapt to the French court and the ostentatious mode of dressing in large hoop skirts, lace bodices and vibrant pastel colours; striking gowns in satin, fuschia pink and floral embossed robe a la française with cascading trains which almost blend and melt into the wallpaper adorning the interiors of Versailles.

Picture credit: A.G. Nauta Couture

During motherhood and through her escape to le petit Trianon, Marie opts for the white Chemise, a simple peasant-style ensemble which caused a sensation when she was first painted wearing it by Elisabeth Louise Vigee Le Brun. Not only was this simple dress viewed as an insult to the population of France who was desperately in need of sustenance, but it wasn’t easily accepted by the court of Versailles, who saw the Queen masquerading as a peasant as an insult to the monarchy and its history. Dressing and undressing become entrenched within her life and daily routine at Versailles – and she must conform to these ‘ridiculously’ elaborate rituals in order to be adored and accepted.

The Duchess (2008)

Picture credit: frockflicks.com

The Duchess follows the real-life journey of Georgiana Cavendish, whose marriage to the Duke of Devonshire completely alters the trajectory of her life. Born within the Spencer family (the same lineage as Princess Diana), Georgiana was expected to make a noble and advantageous match but her union with the Duke proves disastrous inlight of his penchant for infidelities and emotional reserve. With costumes designed by Michael O’Conner, The Duchess offers us an insight – through the wardrobe – into Georgiana’s journey as a young woman entering into the world of experience and responsibility.

Picture credit: frockflicks.com

In the film’s opening (1774), Georgiana (played by Keira Knightley) is clothed in a powder blue robe à l’Anglaise (an English reincarnation of the dresses we saw in Marie Antoinette) the soft pastel colour and brocaded stripe pattern contribute to the depiction of Georgiana’s youth and innocence (she was just 17 years old when she married the Duke who was 25 at the time!) At the front of the gown we see a centre-bow (parfaite contentement) which adds to create an air of ingenuity to her nature.

As the film progresses and Georgiana faces an abundance of hardships within her marriage, the colour palette of her wardrobe becomes darker and more austere. Georgiana’s hair rises to new heights as she courts the attention of public debate and forms social connections with politicians. Her wardrobe correlates this transition as she establishes authority by wearing vibrant feather hats, which became one of her signature looks. 

Belle (2013) 

Belle follows the tale of Dido Elizabeth Belle, a British heiress who was born into slavery and taken under the care of the Lindsay family of Evelix. Dido’s mother was a slave in the British West Indies and her father, Sir John Lindsay was a naval officer – whilst a young child, Lindsay brought Dido to his uncle William Murray to secure her protection. The film follows Dido’s journey as she enters into London society and encounters strong, pervasive prejudices. During this period, the movement for the abolition of slavery is just starting to take hold. The film’s costumes were designed by Anushia Nieradzik but it is worth mentioning that the clothing does not reflect accurately on the historical events presented to us. The film focuses on the Zong case which emerged in 1783 but the portrait of Dido and Elizabeth was painted in 1778 and many of the costumes appear to match the fashions of the 1760s.

Portrait of Dido Elizabeth Belle Lindsay & her cousin Lady Elizabeth Murray, c. 1778. Attributed to Johann Zoffany.
Picture credit: frockflicks.com

Nevertheless, the costumes are significant to the plot, particularly when we consider the ever-so-famous painting of Dido and Elizabeth, whose clothing communicates much about their positions within society. Nieradzik dressed the women in pastels when they were younger, living in the country and as they mature, Dido is clothed in pinks, fuchsia and burgundy and Elizabeth wears shades of blue and teal.

Picture credit: SBS

One of the striking features of the costumes in Belle is the way in which both Dido and Elizabeth’s Robe a l’ Anglaise compliment one another – the colour palettes correlate which strikingly evidences how despite the prejudices of the time, Dido’s presence within the Lindsay family and her position as an heiress allows her to engage with fashions of the period. This is intriguing when we consider that the infamous painting of the cousins is distinctive in that although Dido is placed beside Elizabeth – she is immediately ‘othered’/orientalised by the painter through depicting her in exotic garb.

Fruzsina Vida is the Arts & Culture Editor at The Yorker. If you have any questions or queries, please contact her at arts@theyorker.co.uk.