There have been many period dramas over the years that have captured the world’s imagination, but none as fixedly or as suddenly as Downton Abbey, which ran for six seasons and concluded in December of 2015.
It followed the aristocratic Crawley family from the time of the Titanic’s tragic sinking, through the first World War, and into the dawning of a new era of modernity in the roaring ’20s. Fans eagerly tuned in to find out the intricate paths the British socialites would take, amidst romance, scandal, and heartache.
One of the most applauded aspects of the series, aside from the societal intrigue, were the many Edwardian costumes on display. Not only were they stunning tributes to the early 20th century, they often conveyed a great deal about the life and times of the characters that wore them. The changing costumes mimicked the passage of eras and the appearance of new ideologies. Below are 10 hidden details about them that you may not have noticed, revealing more layers to an already rich series.
10THE COSTUMES CONVEYED SOCIAL RANK
Edwardian times were known for strict adherence to social rank, with both clothing (and one’s behavior in it) intended to reflect the status of one’s birth. From the type of feathers on the Dowager Countess’s hat to the unremarkable dress that Daisy the scullery maid wears, the clothing worn immediately indicated to everyone how a person was to be treated.
The sort of fabric and bead-work available to a woman’s dress in the Crawley family indicated her wealth and knowledge of fashion. In later seasons, we see women like Lady Mary attend an intimate fashion show to make sure she’s dressed in the most current fashion. Men’s fashion didn’t change as much, but they had accessories to show their rank and distinction, such as signet rings and engraved pocket watches.
9WWI CHANGED ENGLAND’S FASHION FOREVER
In season two of Downton Abbey, the castle gets converted into a hospital (which actually happened to the estate in real life) to accommodate wounded soldiers in WWI. The entire aristocratic household is turned upside down, with Lady Edith driving a tractor and the Earl of Grantham having to fasten his own cufflinks. To reflect the changing times in both social structure and appearance, clothing became much less fussy and more utilitarian, especially for women.
Women couldn’t stride forward to help with various tasks in small narrow skirts, so the cut of their clothing got looser and more boyish. Their figures were no longer enhanced to create an ideal feminine shape with corsets. Lady Sybil welcomed the chance to wear a nurse’s uniform and show her ankles rather than a confining evening gown.
8MEN’S CLOTHING DIDN’T ACCOMMODATE BUFF BODS
Many of the young male members of the cast were used to their gym routines, but this was a headache for historical adviser Alistair Burch. When trying to approve costumes, especially for important characters like Thomas the butler, he had to reinforce the concept that men of the era simply didn’t spend all their time at the gym, and therefore didn’t have broad shoulders and chests.
He said that most men, unless they were more robust in stature like Hugh Bonneville, simply weren’t built very large. They had slender and lithe figures that were perfect for the confines of Edwardian waistcoats, tailcoats, and frock coats. Having a buff bod meant more costume revising as the series went along.
7MANY COSTUMES WERE RECYCLED
The sort of elaborate Edwardian clothing seen in Downton Abbey is expensive and time-consuming to make, so it’s no wonder that costume designer Susannah Buxton and her team recycles costumes from other period pieces. They go to Tim Angel, who has a successful costume firm that rents garments to Downton Abbey and many other series. It helps make an already expensive program capable of maintaining its aesthetic.
For instance, Lady Sybil and Isobel Crawley wear dresses from The Duchess of Duke Street; Lady Mary wore a red evening dress to supper that had previously been worn by Catherine Zeta-Jones in Death Defying Acts; and Lady Edith filled out a dress previously seen on Emma Thompson in the ’90s classic costume drama, A Room With a View.
6THEY’RE SOMETIMES THE WRONG PERIOD
With so many actors and actresses to dress, from footmen to aristocrats, the livery of each is bound to occasionally have a few anachronisms. Alistair Burch, the historical adviser for Downton Abbey, works alongside the directors and costume designer Susannah Buxton to make sure that everything from the costumes to the cars to the way the cast sits and moves is historically accurate.
The Christmas special fell under fire for having components that weren’t fit for the time period during the hunting scenes. The episode is set in 1920, but the guns are from the 1890s and the garb of cast members participating in the fox hunt consists of leather gaiters, when they’d really have been wearing leather boots and light-colored spats.
5THE COSTUMES WEREN’T ALWAYS WASHED
In the early 20th century, getting clothes as clean as we can now involved a process that was a good deal more elaborate. Since many of the costumes on the series are actually from the early 20th century, they’re too delicate to wash. For some members of the household, such as the kitchen staff, it wasn’t as necessary for them to have their clothing washed because it reflected the manner of their chores.
But even for the aristocratic characters upstairs, producers decreed there would be a “no wash” policy in place for the period clothing to maintain the dedication to authenticity on the show. Patches were sewn into the armpits so the cast wouldn’t sweat profusely onto the garment itself, then the patches were removed and washed.
4THE FABRIC IMPACTED PERFORMANCES
Every character on Downton Abbey adhered to the principles of Edwardian dress, which came with its own cumbersome articles of clothing. While ladies were leaving the extremely snatched look of the corseted waist behind in favor of more organic silhouettes, men still had to maintain a certain amount of decorum in their dress.
Hugh Bonneville wasn’t overly fond of his extremely starched collars, but he said they did help him keep his chin and nose upright, giving him the pompous air of an aristocrat without even having to act. Dan Stevens complained of the same “pain in the neck” playing Matthew but acknowledged it helped him get into character.
3THE WOMEN’S COSTUMES REFLECT THEIR CHARACTERS
In season five, when Anna Robbins took over as lead costume designer, she decided to make a real emphasis on the women’s ensembles reflecting their characters. Lady Mary is known for being stylish and forward-thinking, so she would choose color-blocked garments made famous by Chanel. Her colors are bold and strong, as the next generation of the Crawley family.
Edith, as an independent woman balancing a career and a family, would wear fabric choices and prints that reflected her eccentricity in the era, as well as her fearlessness. Cora, who has experience in the Orient and the Far East, would wear clothing that reflected her exotic travels and gives her an aura of mystery.
2THE EGYPTIAN ELEMENTS WERE IMPORTANT
In November of 1922, the Egyptian Pharaoh Tutankhamun’s tomb was discovered by Howard Carter and his team of explorers, one of whom was George Herbert, whose family has owned the castle where Downton Abbey is filmed since 1679. The excavation gripped the world, with the citizens of every continent buzzing about all of the exotic treasures that were buried with the pharaoh.
This translated into the styles of furniture, clothing, and decor that captured the world’s imagination, including the characters on Downton Abbey. The art-deco motifs that started to appear in season five and season six reflect the Egyptology craze that was rampant at the time. Lots of bold geometric patterns, combined with a color palette of bright turquoise, gold, and orange to evoke the mysteries of Ancient Egypt.
1NOT ALL THE COSTUMES EXISTED IN REAL LIFE
While a large majority of the costumes were either real garments from the period or costumes recycled from other period programs, some of them were created on the spot for the characters. This usually occurred when the costume design team wanted to create an outfit for the female characters, whose fashion reflected the most changes from one fashion season to the next within a single year.