Back in 1774, on the day she turned 17, Lady Georgiana Spencer married the fifth Duke of Devonshire, then thought to be the most eligible bachelor in England. What happened next has been immortalised in the film The Duchess, starring Keira Knightley. It was some marriage.
Two words: love triangle. When the Duke set his eyes on Georgiana’s best friend Bess (Lady Elizabeth Foster), Georgiana stayed put in Chatsworth even when Bess moved in. We may never know for sure, but it’s thought that Georgiana and Bess might have been more than just friends, too. Relationship status: Complicated.
And yes, Georgiana came from the same Spencer family line as Princess Diana. Both had to endure loveless marriages – with another woman looming large – in a very public way. Both were passionate campaigners, but suffered hard at the hands of their own celebrity.
And both would become fashion icons.
Duchess Georgiana – the Empress of Fashion
Georgiana was a true It-girl and fashionista. By the time she was 22 she was the most talked-about woman in the country.
She was pals with France’s fashion superstar Marie Antoinette. She posed for famous painters like Thomas Gainsborough (the painting is on display at Chatsworth). She started the 1770s trends for big hair towers, even bigger hairpieces, and outrageous hats. In 1783, she set the fashion world alight again with the free-flowing muslin dress, tied with a simple ribbon around the waist.
Even our favourite Chatsworth bride Duchess Debo paid fashion tribute to Georgiana with her white gown for the Beistegui Ball in Venice in 1951.
No wonder the author Horace Walpole called her ‘the Empress of Fashion’. It’s safe to say that if they’d had Instagram back then, this lady would have been worth a follow.
Renowned for her extravagant parties at Devonshire House in London, Georgiana was also a fierce spender and gambler. She ran up enormous debts. One month’s bill from her jeweller in 1799 includes a diamond necklace for £525. Might not sound much, but that’s about £60,000 in today’s money. She was still in deep when she died in 1806. One of her debts was to Marie Antoinette’s dress designer, Rose Bertin.
Sounds like Georgiana knew how to live! Do Amazon do diamond necklaces?
After the debacle with the Duke, Georgiana would later find love with Charles Grey, the second Earl Grey and the man after whom the tea was named. But when news came that she was pregnant with Grey’s child, the Duke forced Georgiana to make a choice: it was either him and their three children, or Grey and the unborn child. If she chose Grey and the baby, the Duke swore it would be the last time she ever saw the other three. Georgiana stayed at Chatsworth. For the time being, at least…
Smuggled abroad in secret, Georgiana gave birth to a girl, Eliza. But the Duke forced mother and child to stay in exile – and separated from her other children – for two years.
And the person who defied the Duke, joining up with and supporting Georgiana in her time of need? Bess.
You couldn’t make it up.
We don’t do love triangles. But we do do designer wedding dresses.