A very British scandal: listening to sex, scandal and the challenges of haute couture
She was the woman who once stopped traffic – literally – as crowds gathered just to get a glimpse of her wedding dress. Thirty years later, in 1963, it was her sex life that made the headlines as she underwent a very public (and scandalous) divorce lawsuit. Now Margaret, Duchess of Argyll, is the subject of BBC One’s Boxing Day drama, A very British scandal, which revolves around the said trial and the media circus that accompanied it. Claire Foy plays the Duchess, Paul Bettany his Duke and although they both give stellar performances, they are almost eclipsed by their incredible costumes.
Paul Bettany and Claire Foy in A Very British Scandal
For Ian Fulcher, the show’s costume designer, it was never his intention to simply replicate Margaret’s outfits. Instead, he says he was looking for the “essence” of her, visible in the fitted figures, the few animal prints, and the sumptuous fabrics of Venetian silk and wool. “I always kept the figure very close to the body because it was about empowering him in his sexuality,” says Fulcher. If it sounds very modern, it’s because this story is a story for our time.
Margaret in the wedding dress that stopped traffic
The climax of the drama involves the Duke of Argyll starting divorce proceedings against his wife after stealing her diaries, letters and explicit photographs, including one in which she had sex with an unknown man. This led to a national scandal, predictably dominated by sexist attitudes towards female sexuality – attitudes that have not entirely disappeared from contemporary society. This case is often regarded as one of the earliest examples of pornographic revenge, something that is becoming more and more prevalent in society – last year the UK pornographic revenge helpline announced had its busiest year, with the amount of images it processes increasing by up to 60%.
Claire Foy: The Duchess of Argyll
“You could go from being the most beautiful woman who stops traffic to dying penniless in a nursing home and people will always call you the Duchess of Blowjob,” says Sarah Phelps, the show’s screenwriter. “Women are subject to different standards all the time. But I also thought about Meghan Markle a lot, just for what the modern press gives her all the time and compares her to Kate Middleton. Why are [these women] considered fair play just because they are in the public eye? “
The Duchess’s challenge in the face of such a scandal is reflected a lot in what she wears. Throughout, it’s clear that her clothes – from her high waisted pants worn with beautiful silk blouses to her immaculately cut suits – are her armor, protecting her from the outside forces she fights so hard to control.
Margaret, Duchess of Argyll in 1955
During the six weeks of filming, Fulcher says there were 85 costume changes just for Claire Foy, all of which were made especially for her except for the knits, which were discovered in vintage stores. . “She stuck two fingers in the world,” says Fulcher. “She’s sexy, and sometimes it’s looked down upon. But why? We should embrace sex.
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