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Downton Abbey Fashions: When Art Meets Life

February 15, 2013

We’ve been fascinated by the fashions in Downton Abbey since Season One. KCTS 9’s Hilda Cullen writes about the luscious vintage fashions that inspired Downton Abbey's designers:

Fashion bloggers have been calling it the “Downton Abbey Effect,” and it’s been springing up everywhere, from designer Tadashi Shoji’s Fall 2012 evening gown collection, to the New York Fashion Week runway show that Ralph Lauren hosted this fall at Highclere Castle, the real Downton Abbey.

But just as Downton Abbey is inspiring the real fashion world, there’s a mirror effect—the costumes in all three seasons of Downton Abbey have been inspired by, and in some cases are, the real thing—vintage clothing, accessories and jewelry from the Edwardian and 1920s eras.

Ah, those Edwardians

Downton Abbey Season One opens in April, 1912. The Victorian era was over; Edward VII and his Queen Alexandra had greatly influenced the world of style in La Belle Époque, the ‘beautiful era’ dating approximately from 1890 to 1914, described as the last true age of elegance. The birth of Art Nouveau led to flowing, organic lines and sinuous curves, and the formality and fussiness of the Victorian era has softened . . . there’s a new, gentler silhouette. Fabrics are natural—wools, silks, linens, cottons—and embellished with lace, braiding, and ribbons. The Crawley women are frequently seen wearing the delicate lavalieres and brooches that were then popular. Hats are frivolous and fetching, with wide brims or brims that frame the face, embellishments of feathers and flowers, and veils providing a touch of mystery. The clothes feel good, trimmed richly with delicate lace or exquisitely worked hand embroidery.

Downton Abbey fashion image Crawley sisters season one
(Downton Abbey Season One, Courtesy of (C) Carnival Film & Television Limited 2010 for MASTERPIECE. Seasons one and two are available on DVD and Blu-ray on ShopPBS.)

In this photo of the three Crawley sisters, Sybil’s dress is an original Edwardian summer dress, Mary’s striped dress was made for her, and Edith’s was rented (recycled from Merchant/Ivory’s Room with a View), according to costume designer Susannah Buxton.

For more examples of Edwardian style, the experts from PBS’s new show Market Warriors have pinned some beautiful examples of Edwardian fashion here.

Market Warriors Edwardian pinterest image

Wartime brings change

In Season Two’s wartime era, clothing becomes, of necessity, more practical. Upstairs, everyone still dresses in formal attire for dinner, but daytime clothing is simpler, tailored and made to move more easily. There’s a shift away from the more heavily corseted, stiff figures to a slimmer shape, with a looser fit and shorter, slightly flared skirts. Three-quarter length coats, worn single breasted with a small collar, were popular, worn with an A-line, mid-calf skirt and a fitted blouse. There are fewer jewels, less lace, and fewer hats (notwithstanding Sir Richard Carlisle’s fedora, although I do covet Lady Mary’s asymmetrical burgundy hat).

(Downton Abbey Season Two, Courtesy of (C) Carnival Film & Television Limited 2011 for MASTERPIECE. Seasons one and two are available on DVD and Blu-ray on ShopPBS.)

It was harder to find good cloth during the war. Hemlines have begun to rise, and are now shown about six inches from the ground. “The only good thing to come out of the First World War was women’s ankles,” said Buxton in a 2011 Telegraph interview.

Downton Abbey fashion image Lady Mary season two

(Downton Abbey Season Two, Courtesy of (C) Carnival Film & Television Limited 2011 for MASTERPIECE. Seasons one and two are available on DVD and Blu-ray on ShopPBS.)

In one example of old meets new, Lady Mary’s evening gown below was made from a turn-of-the-century Spanish dress, re-designed with pleated silk chiffon and embroidered lace laid over a satin underdress.

Downton Abbey fashion image Lady Mary season one
(Downton Abbey Season Two, Courtesy of (C) Carnival Film & Television Limited 2011 for MASTERPIECE. Seasons one and two are available on DVD and Blu-ray on ShopPBS.)

Note the Bohemian garnet necklace – garnets were thought to have curative powers and these antique jewels may still be found today in antique malls and vintage shops.

Downton Abbey fashion image season two

(Downton Abbey Season Two, Courtesy of (C) Carnival Film & Television Limited 2011 for MASTERPIECE. Seasons one and two are available on DVD and Blu-ray on ShopPBS.)

Elizabeth McGovern (who plays Countess Cora) and Michelle Dockery (who plays Lady Mary) discuss the evolving fashions in this PBS video.

Where’s the style, Mrs. Hughes . . . Where’s the show?” – Mr. Carson the Butler

Season Three begins in 1920. Art deco is in, and the styles are stunning. The war is over and luxuries are once again available – the Crawley women (with the exception of the Dowager Countess, who still clings to her high collars, mourning jewelry and Victorian embellishments) dress in the height of fashion. Hemlines are up even more, waistlines drop, and evening gowns sparkle and shimmer with beading and embroidery.

Real life examples of 1920s fashion may still be found in vintage clothing stores, although fabrics (considering their age) are delicate and the clothes may not be wearable. The crème de la crème of 1920s styling may still be seen, however, at places like the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute or the Victoria and Albert Museum, where I found this fabulous beaded and embellished art deco dress.

Fashion image from the Victoria and Albert Museum collection
(Image courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum.The V&A is one of the world's leading museums of art and design. Its vast collections include one of the largest and most comprehensive collections of dress in the world. For more information visit:

The dress is Chanel, circa about 1922. It is hand-sewn silk georgette, hand-embroidered with glass beads and gold thread. On her honeymoon in Europe, a woman of Mary’s social standing would have certainly visited designers like the Houses of Chanel and Worth.

She might have purchased something like the Worth gown below.

Fashion Image from the Victoria and Albert Museum collection.
(Image courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum.)

This long evening dress of printed aquamarine chiffon is attributed to Jean-Charles Worth, circa around 1928. Jean-Charles was the great-grandson of Charles Frederick Worth, a British designer who relocated to Paris and became celebrated as the father of haute couture. The House of Worth was much in favor with wealthy Americans, who would travel to Paris to be outfitted there, at great expense. This pattern is inspired by Oriental designs and outlined in iridescent sequins in a sunburst pattern.

When the Ballets Russes performed "Scheherazade" (they danced in Paris in 1910, and London in 1911), they started a new craze for Orientalism. Couturier Paul Poiret, who trained at the House of Worth, was greatly influenced by Ballet Russe designer Leon Bakst’s daring colors and revealing costumes. Poiret brought out a collection with “jupe-culottes” and trousers for women. Sybil’s blue chiffon bloomers in Season Two are an example of this style, as are the kimono-style robes worn by Lady Mary and Lady Edith in Season Three’s tragic episode four, below.

Downton Abbey fashion season three
 Downton Abbey Season Three, Courtesy of (C) Carnival Film & Television Limited 2012 for MASTERPIECE.)

The exoticism of the Ballet Russes influence continues throughout the 1920s. The use of glowing satin fabrics, patterned burnt velvet, tassels, fringes, beading and sequins created some of the most glamorous evening wear ever seen. And the accessories! The shoes and handbags of the 1920s are possibly the prettiest of any period in modern history. The shoes in the image below are representative of the charm of the twenties.

Shoes from the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum
(Dancing shoes, circa 1928. Image courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum.)

We’ll close with a look at the Crawley family tiara, one final example of a real object serving the purposes of art.

Diamond tiara image courtesy of Bentley and Skinner, UK.  Diamond tiara brooches, image courtesy of Bentley and Skinner.

(Georgian diamond tiara, images courtesy of Bentley and Skinner.)

Downton Abbey fashion season three
Downton Abbey Season Three, Courtesy of (C) Carnival Film & Television Limited 2012 for MASTERPIECE.)

Both Lady Mary and Lady Edith wear this beautiful garland of leaves and floral clusters as brides (although Edith ends up flinging it over the banisters, hardly the way to treat a family heirloom). The tiara is pavé set with old-cut diamonds, and it can be converted to two brooches, for versatility. It’s a real Georgian piece of jewelry, circa 1830. The 45-carat diamond wedding tiara, with its flower and vine motif, was borrowed from British jewelers Bentley and Skinner, “jewelers to both Her Majesty the Queen and His Royal Highness, Prince of Wales” according to their website (which also features a soundtrack of Marilyn Monroe singing “Diamonds are a girl’s best friend”). It’s valued at £125,000 (around $200,000).

Season Three costume designer Caroline McCall used tiny rice pearls and Swarovski crystals on Mary’s gown, infusing the lace with a delicate silver thread to create a subtle iridescence for the most expensive Downton Abbey costume ever made. “My goal was to make her look really ethereal and romantic,” said McCall in an Elle UK interview. The wedding costume took eight weeks to create.

Today, designers continue to be fascinated and inspired by the flair, craftsmanship, and grace of the Edwardian and Art Deco eras. We can’t wait to see all the new fashions that echo the “Downton Abbey Effect” this spring. Dancing shoes, anyone?
     —Hilda Cullen