Georgiana Cavendish, the Duchess of Devonshire, was a controversial British late 18th century literary doyenne, political activist and fashion plate. In the biographical film The Duchess starring Keira Knightley, costume plays a signifying role. “We plotted it so that everything she wore was a key part of telling the story,” says Michael O’Connor, the film’s costume designer. “She used fashion to make a point, dressing in political colors or in a military fashion. When she campaigned for votes for the Whigs, she would dress up with foxtails in her hair and colors that reflected the orange and blues of the political party.”
A major inspiration for O’Connor was a famous painting of the Duchess by Thomas Gainsborough with a hat perched on an elaborate wig. “She was the typical Gainsborough lady,” he says. Also some of the caricaturists of the day did sketches of her, which were utilized. In all, there were 27 outfits for Knightley that O’Connor designed, and a dozen for Ralph Fiennes who plays her unfaithful husband, the Duke, along with numerous others for the extended cast. All were all custom-made for the film.
One highlight is the bodice ripping scene that takes place on the marriage night. “Everything was designed authentically from the wedding dress that would be taken off to every piece of underwear—the corset and the underskirt of the dress—so you could understand the reality of what happened that night when the Duke stripped her naked,” says O’Connor. “Everything she and other characters wore was completely authentic to the time, because it was important to how they showed themselves and what they were supposed to express, along with the restrictions of how they moved.”
O’Connor incorporated into the film dresses that French queen Marie Antoinette, who was a contemporary, gave to the Duchess based on Parisian Creole fashion that was popular at the time.
O’Connor went for simpler styles in terms of fabric and design for many scenes. “In the end this is the story about a failed marriage,” he notes. “When the Duchess has a dialogue with her husband or his mistress, you don’t want to overdo the costumes and distract from what they’re saying— this is an intimate story between three people.”
O’Connor’s film credits include costume design for The Last King of Scotland, about Ugandan dictator Idi Amin. He was also an assistant designer on Quills and Topsy Turvey. “I’ve always been fascinated by how costumes inform the history of society,” he says.
Previous Noms and Wins
2007: Nominated, British Independent Film Award, The Duchess.