'The Duchess' made an 18th century political fashion statement
We tend to think of flying one's political colors as a modern development; red-blooded Republicans, true blue Democrats, red states versus blue states and all that.
But lately, it's getting harder to decipher a colorful political fashion flag.
For instance, Republican First Lady Laura Bush wore a bright red gown to the presidential inaugural ball in 2001 and often wore red for the next eight years. But Republican First Lady Barbara Bush wore blue to her inaugural and kept wearing "Barbara blue" for the next four years.
Democrat Rosalyn Carter wore a blue dress that she'd previously worn when Jimmy Carter became governor of Georgia. And Republican Nancy Reagan, although renowned for wearing red during her eight-year first lady stint, actually wore white to her inaugural.
So far we've seen Cindy McCain look smashing in red and Michelle Obama looking beautiful in blue. But who knows what color either of them would wear to the Inaugural Ball in 2009?
Wearing political colors is nothing new, according to Michael O'Connor, the costume designer for "The Duchess." He says that Georgiana Cavendish, the Duchess of Devonshire, was one of the first women to use color to make a political fashion statement back in the 18th century.
"Georgina was known for setting certain trends, and so they would always caricature them in the press, in magazines and periodicals," says O'Connor, who designed 27 gowns just for the film's star, Keira Knightley.
And she cunningly used color to rally support for her favorite political party, the Whigs, whose hues were blue and buff, at a time when women were deemed mere property, not allowed to own anything, have a profession or even to vote.
Shown above, O'Connor designed a "military style monkey jacket" based on a newspaper caricature of her campaigning for the Whig Party, visiting soldiers who were going to the impending war with France.
"I took the idea based on the caricature that portraying her kissing people for votes. Her campaigning costume started a sort of masculine style for aristocratic women. And because the Whig Party had certain colors, which were blue and buff, the men were often seen or painted with these buff colored waistcoats and blue tailcoats, so I decided she would have her costume in blue and buff. And it would be cut open like that with a buff waist coat, and her accessories would be fox fur."
Why fox? Because the Whig candidate and her secret lover was Charles James Fox, who would become a mover and shaker in Parliament.
Georgina launched a hot-air balloon decorated in the Whig official colors of blue and buff in the 1784 election and inspired other aristocratic ladies to show up at Whig rallies, attired in the party's hues with foxtails in their hair.
At another political rally later in the film, Georgina again appears in Whig blue and buff.
"Her family was a huge Whig advocate and she was also the wife of the Duke of Devonshire, the main patron of the White party," explained O'Connor.
It's been reported that Georgina once launched a hot-air balloon decorated in the Whig colors of blue and buff. And, in the big election of 1784, she inspired other aristocratic ladies to show up at rallies attired in the blue and buff of the Whigs, with foxtails in their hair.
Georgina inspired many other fashion trends. "For instance, she was the first to start a 'pregnancy fashion' with the empire waist crystal-adorned maternity gown she wears when she goes into labor in the film," says O'Connor.
OK, well, that one's still around, isn't it?
"She also set the trend for huge 3-foot-high hair with high feathers," adds O'Connor. "The wigs were so high that she couldn't travel in a carriage unless she sat on the floor, because it would break the hair and the feathers."
Well, thank heavens we don't do that anymore.
Except Sarah Palin's beehive does seem to be getting higher, doesn't it?
Photos by Peter Mountain, Paramount Vantage