"She is so desperate": The armor and vulnerability of Cressida, "Bridgerton's" devil in a red dress

The "Bridgerton" creative team reveals how Cressida's outlandish, avant-garde ensembles reflect her bleak outlook

Published June 20, 2024 1:30PM (EDT)

Jessica Madsen as Cressida Cowper in "Bridgerton" (Netflix)
Jessica Madsen as Cressida Cowper in "Bridgerton" (Netflix)

The following contains spoilers for "Bridgerton" Season 3, including the finale

"It is Lady Whistledown!" a member of the "Bridgerton" elite exclaims in shock. But it's not the real Lady Whistledown. It's Cressida Cowper (Jessica Madsen), "Bridgerton's" resident mean girl in charge draped in a ruby gown fit only for her — ready to scandalize mamas and the ton at large. 

"She's a fun character to dress because we can be a bit wilder with her and push her."

As Cressida creeps through the crowd at the ball, all of high society's judging eyes are locked on her while Vitamin String Quartet's version of Demi Lovato's "Confident" plays. In British Sign Language, one of the mamas tells her daughter, "She is the devil." 

Cressida smirks at the frazzled reactions. The whispers appear to bounce off of her because she is the embodiment of confidence, starting with her gravity-defying hairstyle adorned with dangling crystals that move with her every step. The real showstopper is her attention-grabbing scarlet gown, from the blood-red rhinestones and cunningly structured sleeves to the giant ruby bow that trails behind her.

"The writers wrote she enters in a red dress. So we were bound by that," costume designer John Glaser said. "She's a fun character to dress because we can be a bit wilder with her and push her. She's interesting but all that fluff and all those extremities are for a serious reason."

Adornment as armor

For Cressida, making a splash through her appearance is both an offensive and defensive play. Like former wallflower Penelope (Nicola Coughlan), Cressida has entered her third season on the marriage mart. Amid the whirl of balls, carriage rides and other social engagements, she needs to attract a husband, which would allow her to escape the tyranny of her father but also keep her family solvent. Like wild plumage on a bird, her looks attract attention while simultaneously making her seem proud and unbothered.

BridgertonJoanna Bobin as Lady Cowper, Jessica Madsen as Cressida Cowper and Dominic Coleman as Lord Cowper in "Bridgerton" (Liam Daniel/Netflix)However, having let another promising suitor slip her grasp yet again, Cressida is without any appealing prospects. As a result, her father betroths her to the elderly and wealthy Lord Greer (Richard Durden) who seems determined to keep his future wife both away from any fun and pregnant with his heirs. At this point, Cressida's elaborate ensembles become even wilder.

"We see it [her wardrobe] as an armor for Cressida for when she's out socially," explained "Bridgerton" women's clothing designer George Sayer. "It's her third season out. She still hasn't found her husband. She's desperate to find one. She's about to get engaged [to Lord Greer].

"We've got this armor but also we see a vulnerability to Cressida that we haven't seen before," Sayer continued. "We see the desperation for her to break out of the Cowper house. We like to think of her as a butterfly in a mausoleum and she's desperate to escape."

Hair and makeup designer Erika Ökvist echoed how Cressida's powerlessness became the impetus to design a look that felt powerful. "Makeup and hair and costume, and especially our hair, big shoulders and all that kind of stuff – it's almost like an armor to protect because actually she's really vulnerable and she will get hurt really badly," she said. "We would try and use shapes that would work together so that the hair and the costume became like a visual symphony. We would feed from each other."

"Bigger is better, and more is more."

If the outsized ruffles, suffocating collars, multiple bows and endless flourishes seem overdone, then Cressida's hair takes that one step further. Towering sculptures of hair, paintakingly geometric curls and designs that look more at home in an art installation crown Miss Cowper.

"In terms [of] inspiration, where do I start?" Ökvist said. "I can see sea urchins there, and I know that some of the fans have seen toilet roll shapes. Wherever you can get a shape that is avant-garde, but also elegant – it's a little bit like with Cressida as it is with the Queen [Charlotte]: bigger is better, and more is more." 

"Bridgerton" Cressida wigs (Netflix)

The Lady Whistledown gambit

Not resigned to wither away as a brood mare in a loveless marriage, Cressida grasps at Queen Charlotte's (Golda Roshuevel) offering of a hefty monetary reward to whomever can unmask anonymous gossip columnist Lady Whistledown. Cressida boldly claims that she is, in fact, the writer in question. Not only does she want the reward to help free her from needing a moneyed husband, but she hopes that the respect afforded to Whistledown will give her the freedom to act as she pleases in society.

With the help of her clever mother, she debuts her first (fake) Lady Whistledown publication at the Mondriches' ball, which naturally requires an equally dramatic ensemble: the red gown. The dress itself, while eye-catching, is actually far less fussy than her usual style. And therein lies its power.

"If you look at that dress, there's no adornment. It's just shape. It's the most simple, believe it or not, of all," said Glaser. "And if you notice, this is a place again where we could have done a large sleeve, but we thought, how can we get that same feeling of the armor again moving in a different direction?"

Sayer added, "The bodice and the sleeves instead are really pointed. So there's that harder edge. On the sweetheart neckline, it's very angled. The shoulders are really angled."

On the back of the gown, a huge bow comes up as high as Cressida's shoulders. "Even though it's a bow on the back, that bow is to frame her face," said Glaser. "There's no distraction behind her. It's just her face. So you can really see her, what she says and her reaction to things. Because we've seen the big sleeves, that would be expected. So this is a little unexpected. And then we know what she tells everybody. She's empowered herself in a different way."

"Bridgerton" Cressida hairpieces (Netflix)

Similarly, Cressida's hairstyle is slightly less elaborate than usual, but achieves some height and breadth as it fans out from her head, echoing the giant bow peeking from behind her back.

"Costume led here, and we just try to make sure that we went as extravagant as the costume,"  Ökvist said. "And sometimes, if the shoulders are really big then maybe we'll go high. So shapes are really important, how they work together with the costume.

 "[Cressida] would have planned this for a long time," she added. "She would have had all of it down to a tee. She would have planned it to think, 'OK, what would the Queen want to see? What will make her impressed?' That's how she would have planned it because this is a way for her to make society see her."

A tragic fragility

The ruse doesn't pay off. Cressida masquerading as the notorious gossip columnist has caused Lord Greer to withdraw his suit, which should have pleased her. However, her father takes this as a sign that she is now no longer useful as marriage material. He plans to send her to live with his sister, the even stricter Aunt Joanna (Anah Ridden) in the countryside as a punishment for sullying the family name. 

BridgertonJessica Madsen as Cressida Cowper in "Bridgerton" (Liam Daniel/Netflix)Cressida has nothing to lose at this point. Her Hail Mary strategem is to track down the real Lady Whistledown, and she succeeds where others have failed. Cressida discovers it's none other than Penelope Featherington and promptly attempts to blackmail her for double the amount of reward money that the Queen is offering. It's not a kind move, but young, unmarried women whose reputations are ruined don't have many options in Regency England.

"If you're watching the rest of the episodes, you realize very quickly that [Cressida's] actually the most desperate out of all of them," said Ökvist.

Sadly, Cressida is outmaneuvered when Penelope decides to reveal herself as Lady Whistledown at her sisters' ball, in front of everyone else who matters in the 'Ton. Queen Charlotte respects this humble, almost hesitant presentation – far more genuine than Cressida's theatrics – and gives a stamp of approval to Penelope's true identity, allowing her to continue writing her column. Cressida has no more plays left.

This unexpected fragility also reveals itself in her appearance – in the intricate, almost gossamer-thin aspects of her hairstyles. "There's some of her looks that are quite transparent," Ökvist noted. "It is big, it's spiky, but it is really vulnerable, and looks like you can just break it apart."

Ultimately, Cressida is not one of the blessed Bridgertons and finds that breaking the rules does not pay off, earning her countless enemies along the way. She can look back at her one glorious devil in a red dress moment – when she actually felt as if she was calling the shots – but now there's the devil to pay. When Aunt Joanna arrives to gather her niece, Cressida has completely given up.

"After tonight, it shall matter no more," she says.

By Nardos Haile

Nardos Haile is a staff writer at Salon covering culture. She’s previously covered all things entertainment, music, fashion and celebrity culture at The Associated Press. She resides in Brooklyn, NY.

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By Hanh Nguyen

Hanh Nguyen is the Senior Editor of Culture, which covers TV, movies, books, music, podcasts, art, and more. Her work has also appeared in IndieWire, TVGuide.com and The Hollywood Reporter. She co-hosts the "Good Pop Culture Club" podcast, which examines the good pop that gets us through our days, from an Asian American perspective.

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Bridgerton Costume Design Erika Okvist Hair John Glaser Makeup Netflix Reporting