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SCREEN STYLE / FASHION

Victorian Secrets

October 05, 1995|BETTY GOODWIN

The Miniseries: "Buccaneers" (PBS, Sunday, Monday and Tuesday at 9 p.m.)

The Setup: Four nouveau riche American girls set sail for England in search of suitable husbands. Based on the Edith Wharton novel.

The Costume Designer: Rosalind Ebbutt, who had worked mainly for the BBC in England.

The Look: A swirl of stand-out Victorian frou-frou, including little hats poised on big heads of hair. An extravaganza of silks, bustles, bows and dipping necklines sets apart rich sisters Nan (Carla Gugino) and Virginia St. George (Alison Elliott, pictured) and friends Conchita Closson (Mira Sorvino) and Lizzie Elmsworth (Rya Kihlstedt).

In America, they prove the long-held maxim that money can't buy taste; frocks are a notch too colorful and over-trimmed for their world of demure pastel debutante balls. Cut to England, where money and a certain shabbiness go hand in hand. The girls learn fast (with proper coaching) and tone down considerably.

From 1873, when we meet them, to 1879, when we leave them, fashion evolves. By then, the bustle is gone and full skirts have been replaced by fairly narrow ones. As Ebbutt points out, "As fashion became more constraining, I was able to use the change in the shape of clothes to echo what was happening to the girls' personal lives."

Inspiration: Period photos; original clothing at the Worthing Museum in Sussex, England, and paintings, primarily those of James Tissot and James McNeill Whistler. The image of Idina Hatton (Jenny Augutter), the mistress of Virginia's husband--always seen in corsets, dressing gowns and embroidered Chinese shawls--came from Holman Hunt, a Pre-Raphaelite painter. "He did wonderful mistresses," Ebbutt says.

Trivia: Of the four American actresses, only Elliott, who appeared in "Wyatt Earp," had ever come close to a corset. The laced and hooked undergarments can be a challenge, Ebbutt says, especially during 12-hour shooting days. "It's quite a relief to take them off," she says. "Your organs go back to where they should be."

You Should Know: For nuances among the men, notice the variations on the rigidly starched collar --the stuffier the man, the stiffer the collar. The Duke of Trevenick (James Frain), who must look absolutely impenetrable, wears the stiffest collar around, known as an "imperial." His foe, the likable Guy Thwaite (Greg Wise), by contrast, wears wing collars with small, turned-down corners.

Sources: Most of the principals' costumes were custom-made at eight London workrooms. Some featured antique textiles and ribbons. The foundation of Virginia's elaborate wedding gown was a wax-flower encrusted Victorian wedding dress "that was half there," Ebbutt says. "It was in pieces."

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