Saturday, October 11, 2008

The Dutchess: A Political Fashion Show

Note: Several aspects of the plot will be disclosed here.

After persuading my husband that he did, indeed, want to watch "The Dutchess," a lush period film about the fashionable Dutchess Georgiana Cavendish of Devonshire, with me, I sat down with very few expectations other than knowing I was about to see a film about a miserable aristocratic marriage. It was certainly all that--at some times, it was tediously painful to watch--, but I was surprised by all of the references to fashion in it.
In an early scene, Georgiana tells her marble husband (played by the once handsome but now ever-increasingly creepy Ralph Fiennes) that her dress is of her own design, and as he mechanically undresses her on their wedding night, he complains about the complicated nature of the female dress. She somewhat flippantly responds by telling him that it is their way of "expressing themselves," like the way men have their ways of expressing themselves. What becomes clear throughout the film is that as Georgiana's long-suffering silent submission increases, so does the lavishness of her costumes. Her gowns become more exquisite, her jewels more ornate--all in an attempt to express some part of herself that she sees slowly slipping away. During a political rally, in which her presence alone is able to generate a larger crowd, she is wearing a gentleman's military jacket (see the above photo) as a sartorial message of freedom, another theme throughout the film. (I could hardly deny the political deja vu of the debater who calls urgently for "change.") When she is the most rebellious, her curly hair is natural and flowing, with nary a wig in sight. Unfortunately, as her husband points out, this call for freedom is a dream and not the reality she wishes for; in her reality, three daughters count for nothing when a husband wants an heir, and a woman is not allowed the romantic freedom of an affair the way a man is.
At the height of her despair, her extremely large bouffant (an expensive wig, of course) catches on fire. A member in the crowd pulls it off and throws it to the ground, and after the Duke shouts for someone to douse it, it fizzles in a kind of symbolic show. Ironically enough, it is then that the Duke discovers that she is pregnant, and we later find out it is with the male heir he is so desperate to sire. However, it is not, as Georgiana's mother persuades her to believe, the end of her suffering.
While I won't disclose the ending, I will say that while the character attempts to challenge her restrictive life, she understands that freedom comes mostly through her sartorial and maternal choices. As I am currently teaching The Scarlet Letter, I can't help but also make a comparison to Hester's extravagant expression of her imagination through her daughter Pearl's fanciful outfits: a direct act of rebellion against the somber lifelessness of the Puritan culture.
Thankfully, we live in a different age, when fashion is not the only outlet of a woman's creative expression. But when we dress, do we do so out of a desire to conform or out of a desire to challenge and to express?


Songy said...

I will be watching this movie soon.. very soon even if I don't enjoy the story I would be just as happy watching all the costumes.

miss cavendish said...

Ahh--you're teaching The Scarlet Letter! My students will read that next month, and as a warm-up activity, I'm going to teach them to embroider--and embellish--their own initial on linen. (They don't have to use scarlet--or turkey red.)

BTW, I loved Marie Antoinette for the clothes and the music too . . .

Hammie said...

The trick is to express yourself within the confines of fashion from the last 100 years. Going beyond that becomes costumey, although as we can see from Georgiana's outfits, you can reference historical trends.
I won't follow a fashion blindly, but I will find myself subliminally influenced by a line, such as skinny jeans, which I then incorporate into my personal style. I never ever wore skinnies with flats or court style heels where they bunched at the ankle. But I wore them under boots for 2 winters at least. This year I kept looking at them in the bottom of the drawer and remembering how constricting they are and how round they may me look. So I went back to the long and lean hip cut that actually suits me. (I am short and round but the long and lean does what it says on the tin)

I am 40. I should know what suits me and what parts of fashion to pick up, what to discard but really, for 2 winters I was influenced subliminally to find skinnies attractive. Strange isnt it?


ps. Found you via Songy and the Beautiful Blog award. I am a little behind here!