Fashion History

Style Icon: Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess Of Devonshire

Portrait of Georgiana by Thomas Gainsborough

Georgiana Cavendish is one of my favourite humans that has ever lived. Her life is so tragic yet she was such a well respected and charismatic woman. Born as Georgiana Spencer to John Spencer and Georgiana Poyntz. She was born on 7th June 1757 in Northamptonshire.

Georgiana is most likely known as the Duchess of Devonshire after marrying William Cavendish, Duke of Devonshire. Together they had three children; two daughters, and a son. Georgiana even raised the Duke’s illegitimate daughter, Charlotte, whose mother had died. William was an emotionally reserved man who rarely showed his feelings. He was regularly adulterous throughout their marriage.

Georgiana takes a place in my fashion hall of fame for many reasons. She was known for her style. As a good friend of the French Queen, Marie Antoinette, she was bound to be very fashion-forward. Georgiana was a trendsetter!  With ostrich feathers imported for headdresses, many women imitated her style, often bribing undertakers for their horses’ plumage to replicate Georgiana. That famous, extravagant hair that is normally associated with the Georgian era was one of Georgiana’s; she started the elaborate trend of high wigs and excessive decoration. The people loved and adored her so anything she wore would’ve been replicated in some way.

Georgiana in the muslin dress by Thomas Gainsborough 1783

In 1783 Georgiana started a trend of wearing a muslin dress that was flowy; a big contrast to the wide, embellished gowns of previous years. This is the same year that Marie Antoinette was painted in the ‘little white dress’ that angered the people of France and became such a large scandal. These dresses were much freer than previous, with a simple ribbon tied at the waist. This was a brave move for Georgiana, one that didn’t work out so well for her friend, Marie. 

Hair is a running theme with Georgiana, and with the Georgian era as a whole. The most recognisable being Georgiana’s previous trend, the powdered wigs, and curls. Georgiana was painted often with a huge hat, usually with that large ostrich feather. Her hair beneath was curled and brushed back with that classic volume you’d expect to see from a Georgian painting.

As a trail-blazer of fashion, Georgiana becomes an icon. She is someone I admire so much, I have a lot of empathy for her and I almost wish I could go back in time and give her a big hug. A feminist before feminism was a thing. An intelligent, powerful woman that changed society. Georgiana was an avid supporter of the Whig party, as were her family. She used her platform to become a political activist for women. An inspiration, truly. A person of the people. It’s a shame there aren’t many people like her, who have her privilege, anymore.

Portrait of Georgiana (left) and Elizabeth ‘Bess’ (right) by Jean-Urbain Guérin 1791

It is also thought that the Duchess had romantic relationships with women, which is a win in my book… Although nothing has been proven, and it’s hard to prove romantic relationships between women from this time, she wrote some pretty convincing letters to women. Most notably, Mary Graham, a gentle and kind woman. Georgiana and Mary became close friends after meeting, they were the same age and instantly clicked. Mary has referred to Georgiana as ‘the love of her life’. It does seem like the two, in fact, did love each other, it is unknown the extent of their relationship, but I like to think they were together at some point. Mary was not the only woman Georgiana likely had feelings for; Georgiana became friends with Elizabeth Foster or Bess. The two became close friends and Elizabeth even moved in with Georgiana and William. Elizabeth and William had an affair and with that, two illegitimate children. Despite the affair between her husband and best friend, Georgiana and Bess stayed friends. Georgiana died in 1806. It is said that Elizabeth was inconsolable over Georgiana’s death. Three years later Elizabeth married William.

Neither Georgiana nor William was faithful during their marriage, although Georgiana did love him at the beginning. Georgiana shared feelings for other women but also had an affair with Charles Grey (Earl Grey). Together they had an illegitimate daughter named Eliza who was raised by Charles’ family. Georgiana secretly visited Eliza throughout her life. Georgiana loved all of her children, even Charlotte, and was incredibly motherly. Her children adored her the same way.

Keira Knightley as Georgiana in The Duchess (2008)

There is a spectacular 2008 film based on the life of Georgiana named ‘The Duchess’ starring the beautiful Keira Knightley as Georgiana. I love this film so much. Knightley really adopts Georgiana’s persona and really does her justice as the strong woman she was. The costumes are so beautiful I could cry looking at them! I highly recommend it even though I think they could’ve gone bigger with her style.

I hope I’ve done Georgiana justice, she is truly an inspiration to me. Her fashion, intelligence, politics, and power are something I aspire to be like.





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