Thursday, April 7, 2011

A Gold & White Wedding: the Duke & Duchess of Devonshire, 1774

Thursday, April 7, 2011
Susan reporting:

Loretta's blog yesterday about Queen Victoria and white wedding dresses made me think of the wedding of an earlier fashion trendsetter, Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire (1757-1806.)

While Georgiana was only seventeen when she wed on June 7, 1774, her twenty-six-year-old groom was considered one of the wealthiest and most desirable bachelors of the time, and no expense was spared on her wedding clothes. Alas, no pictures of her gown exist, but it was described at the time as being gold and white, rather than the snow-white of the 19th c. brides. (I have to admit I thought of this gold-and-white gown, too.) She wore silver slippers on her feet and pearl drops in her hair. It's also likely she wore the diamonds that were a gift from her new husband, jewels that were breathlessly estimated by newspapers at the time as being valued at £10,000 - a stupendous sum.

A lady of Georgiana's wealth and rank certainly had the means to own a specialized wedding dress, to be worn only once. But contemporary accounts report that she wore it at least once more, to be presented as a newlywed duchess to the King and Queen at St. James's Palace. Apparently even the wedding gown of a duchess became her "best" gown after the marriage, as was the 18th c. practice for less lofty brides as well.

When Hollywood filmed Georgiana's wedding for The Duchess, a 2008 movie inspired by her life (and based on the much-better biography Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire by Amanda Foreman), however, the dress offered special challenges. Michael O'Connor's costumes justly won an Oscar, and are an elegant reflection of late 18th c. dress. The wedding gown costume worn by actress Keira Knightly, above, is technically gold and white, but the silk "reads" more as a candlelit cream that modern viewers accepted as a suitable wedding-white: a happy union of expectations and design.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of Georgiana and her duke, who were one of the 18th century's most infamously unhappy couples. This contemporary description (from The autobiography and correspondence of Mrs. Mary Granville) of their wedding certainly hints at the conflict to come:

It was as great a secret to Lady Georgiana as to the world. Sunday morning she was told was her doom; she went to Wimbledon early, and they were married at Wimbledon Church, between church and church, as quiet and uncrowded as if John and Joan had tied the Gordian knot. Don't think that because I have made use of the word "doom" that it was a melancholy sentence to the young lady, for she is so peculiarly happy as to think his Grace very agreeable. The duke's intimate friends say he has sense and does not want merit. To be sure the jewel has not been well polished. Had he fallen under the tuition of the late Lord Chesterfield he might have possessed les graces; but at present only that of his dukedom belongs to him. Nobody was at the wedding but the Duchess of Portland and Lady Cowper [the bride's grandmother] as fine and gay as the bride herself.

6 comments:

A rootdigger said...

I believe it's hard to distinguish between family tree and family history. Both have to do with the family in on going history.... passage of time.

So I am including your fabulous blog in my list of One Lovely Blog awarded to each.
could you give me a day to finish my post about acceptance of the award and the passing the award on to others.

Heather said...

Funny I thought Georgiana's wedding dress in the movie was an unflattering khaki color, not golden. There were many stunning costumes, but that wasn't one of my favorites. Too bad there isn't a picture of the real Georgianna on her wedding day. Pearls in her hair and ten thousand pounds worth of diamonds must have been something to see.

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Anonymous said...

Obviously not a large wedding. It is surprising that only the needed witnesses were present. One would have thought that the parents and siblings might have attended. Perhaps the account meant the only people other than the family?
However, it isn't unusual to read of weddings with only the two witnesses present. Seems a waste of Georgiana's finery.

Debbie Brown said...

With all the lavish expense amongst the peers of those days, it is nice to read that she at least wore her gown a second time! She is a very tragically interesting woman from history.

Susan Holloway Scott said...

Heather, I, too, liked some of the other costumes from "Duchess" better than the wedding gown. Quite by coincidence, I just saw the new version of "Jane Eyre" this week, and realized the costumes were also designed by Michael O'Connor, who also designed them for "Duchess." I'm in awe! :)

Anonymous, weddings in the 18th c. were very small, even for peers. In this case, there was so much public interest in the wedding (think of it as a Hollywood celebrity wedding today) that Georgiana's family decided to have this tiny, informal wedding to avoid the curiosity-seekers. Georgiana's parents did attend; I'm not sure about whether the Duke's mother was still alive to attend (obviously his father was not.)

Debbie, i thought it was interesting that she wore the gown more than once, too. I wouldn't quite call it "repurposing" but it's good to hear that all that magnificence was seen by a second, larger audience. *g*

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