Wednesday, 23 December 2015

Fashion secrets of Downton

Graceful chic never dates, as our archive images from the 1920s reveal. It’s a look that has influenced many, including the Downton Abbey chief costume designer.

Written by Katrina Schollenberger
From embellished gowns to billowy blouses, it’s no secret that the ladies of Downton Abbey have always been impeccably dressed. The 1920s were a decade where fashion began to flourish with modernity. Women abandoned restrictive clothing and opted for more practical, comfortable yet stylish garments. Ladies of the time were entering the workforce and clothing changed with the evolving roles of women in society.

Chief costume designer at Downton Abbey, Anna Mary Scott Robbins, emulates this wear perfectly with our favourite Downton ladies in Series Six. ‘My first inspiration comes from original fashion plates of the time, original magazines like The Lady and fashion designers from the 1920s,’ the costume chief says as she discusses her process. ‘I spend a lot of time at the V&A and the National Portrait Gallery in London, and with a lot of vintage specialists and traders so that I can look at original garments.

There are about 300 costumes in Series Six alone, spanning upstairs and downstairs. Around 80 per cent of the daywear is made from scratch, with fabrics sourced as far as Paris to find the perfect silk or patterned textile that can accurately replicate 1920s Art Deco motifs. Anna has sifted through countless vintage fairs: 20 per cent of casual daywear, she says, might be original vintage pieces.

downton-590-7Power-dresser: the clean lines and tailored look underpin Lady Mary’s role on the estate

Evening wear is a different story, as about 70 per cent of the beautiful gowns have come from an original garment that has been restored and customised. Prices can range from between £150 to £2,000. The Downton costume team (made up of 12 people) have a workroom where they make the most out of the vintage pieces, reinforcing and restoring them back to beauty. Creating 1920s gowns from scratch would take ‘hundreds and hundreds’ of man hours.

No production set is short of unforeseeable disasters. The majority of the time, the audience would need a ‘beady eye’ to spot the shortened restrung necklaces, which had been broken between takes.

The great behind-the-scenes fashion catastrophe of Downton Series Six, it is revealed, comes in the form of Lord Grantham’s infamous burst ulcer in episode five. Characters usually have spares of their outfits, or ‘repeats’ when stunts are involved in storylines, but when the patriarch of the family vomited blood across the dining table, it mistakenly covered Cora Crawley’s beautiful, original lamé dress that had definitely not been replicated for the scene. ‘It was a bit of a disaster because the fabric was so fragile,’ Anna explains. ‘So then we had to get into this process of cleaning the blood off [Cora’s dress] and doing it again, because as soon as we established it, we had to go with it… Whereas we made repeats for Isobel and she stayed entirely clean.’

downton-590-6'Very persistently the picture hat is claiming recognition', The Lady, June 1925

As far as accessories go, most are original and are picked up on the vintage circuit, sourced from fairs and traders. This is complemented with hire houses, as well as jewellery commissions that Anna hands to a personal jeweller. Vintage shoes are typically narrow and tiny, as women of the 1920s era were so petite. Original size 5/6 shoes for the tall Downton girls are treasures; if a shoe doesn’t fit, alternatives are imperative. Therefore the team has a shoemaker in east London who replicates designs.

‘We did that with an Edith brogue. It was based on an original design that we found a fashion plate for. We had it replicated so all the stamped leather and the fringing were as close to a direct copy as we could manage, and it turned out really beautifully. We did that with the evening wear as well as the daywear shoes, but we can tailor the colour of the satin to complement their evening wardrobe. Something with a neutral tone that reflects their character, which allows us to use different dresses but still goes together.’

The team even replicates stockings and undergarments for the girls to wear during day-to-day filming, only wearing delicate originals if they are to be seen in the shot. The undergarments reflected a different, more androgynous silhouette typical of the period, and Downton strives to be as authentic as possible. That’s a real passion for fashion.



Actress: Elizabeth McGovern
Downton age: born 1868 (57)
Real-life age: born 1961 (54)
Costume designer says: ‘Cora is still quite fashionforward but elegant. She’s classic, but moving with the times. There’s a distinct drape to Cora’s clothing. I liked looking for quite embellished pieces that have got worldly feels – it might be where you’re looking to the orient, or to Egypt for textile inspiration. Elizabeth McGovern also wears a high neck really beautifully. I tend to work with the mandarin collar, or quite a structured neck or long sleeve. She’s probably got slightly more diaphanous fabric as well.’



Actress: Michelle Dockery
Downton age: born 1891 (34)
Real-life age: born 1981 (33)
Costume designer says: ‘She’s taking over the estate and working in a very male dominated world, so I wanted to reflect that with an androgyny and a form of power-dressing using the strength of her look to work in the world. We did a lot of tailoring, and things to kind of reflect men’s suits with more feminine cuts. She’s got much cleaner lines; patterns tend to be less organic and pretty and more ordered and geometric. There’s a kind of strength to them. They aren’t as fussy and frivolous as Lady Rose was, and Edith tends to be.’



Actress: Penelope Wilton
Downton age: born between 1853 and 1862 (63 to 72)
Real-life age: born 1946 (69)
Costume designer says: ‘Isobel’s clothes are more structured. She’s quite a liberal woman so she has moved forward that way but she’s also got a very classic style. We tend to have a signature shape for her. Penelope [Wilton] is so elegant; she’s such a beautiful woman that we flatter her with this shape. We use that as a signature but put different embellishments on. Her hats are probably more widely brimmed than Cora’s. Isobel has a more classic take on her hats and her coats.’



Actress: Laura Carmichael
Downton age: born 1892 (33)
Real-life age: born 1986 (29)
Costume designer says: ‘She’s working in quite a male-dominated world, but it’s an artier and bohemian working environment, and it’s in London. We get to embrace the more cutting-edge London fashions and give her strength and make her more fashion-forward, but different to Mary. We did a lot of pinafores, beautiful blouses and skirts.’

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