Downton Abbey is basically a hi-res soap opera. Created by Gosford Park screenwriter Julian Fellowes for British commercial network ITV, the television series is set in a Yorkshire country house between 1912 and 1920, and features an open-ended series of intricate personal and professional dramas involving the aristocratic Crawley family, their servants and associates. The third season began screening in the UK in September.
My friends and I call the show ‘Downtime Abbey’, because watching it is deeply relaxing, and its chief pleasure is the gorgeous costumes. They represent a noble, elegant display of wealth that has since given way to more vulgar socio-economic disparities. Corporate bankers precipitate a global financial crisis in pursuit of their own short-term gain; Western consumer goods are churned out in Chinese factories whose working conditions would dismay Charles Dickens. Russian oligarchs own English football teams whose players’ trashy wives and girlfriends attract their own notoriety. There’s a popular genre of semi-scripted reality television we could call ‘class clowning’, which spans the proletarian grotesques of Jersey Shore, The Only Way Is Essex and The Shire, as well as the idle antics of wealthy socialites including Paris Hilton, Lauren Conrad and Kim Kardashian.
Then there is Downton Abbey. Such a nostalgic reconstruction of old money reportedly costs a million pounds of actual money per hour of filming, making Downton Abbey one of the most expensive television shows ever made.
About a third of the series’ costumes are made from scratch. Many of the rest are hired from costume houses in London, Madrid and Paris, and then re-trimmed or re- dyed. Others are copied from period examples or pieced together from vintage garments in disrepair.
Downton’s only original Edwardian costume is a modest pink striped frock worn by scullery maid Daisy in season two. Sourced from a private collector, it had never been worn. ‘It was just so right somehow that I bought it for the show,’ costume designer Susannah Buxton told Time magazine.
As a promotional exercise, Savile Row tailor Huntsman offered to provide evening suits for the Earl of Grantham and his heir, bourgeois lawyer Matthew Crawley. The firm, founded in 1849, consulted its archives for period-correct patterns rarely used today and charged £2700 ($4195) apiece – discounted from £4000 ($6215).
Imagine the staggering cost of having similar suits made for all six male principals, plus recurring cast members. Instead, they wear rented suits altered to fit; it’s just common sense to spend money where it shows up best onscreen. NBC’s 2011 drama The Playboy Club offers a cautionary tale of over-extravagant costuming – it commissioned eight bespoke satin Bunny outfits, with built-in corsetry, at US$3000 apiece. The 1960s-set series was canned after three episodes.
Why spend so much time and effort on costumes? A certain suspension of disbelief: the more elaborate the mise-en-scène, the more easily we can forget the presence of a modern screenwriter, director, cast and crew, and imagine this is what a particular era was actually like.
Ironically, the trend towards meticulous period production design also provokes some viewers to watch with detached pedantry, delighting in pointing out small anachronisms in everything from typefaces to dialogue. Many prestige dramas have endured this nitpicking. Typographers have complained that Mad Men uses fonts that weren’t seen in advertising in the 1960s, or hadn’t even been invented yet. Boardwalk Empire fans rail against the anachronistic slide guitar in its opening credits. And Abi Morgan, screenwriter of BBC’s 1956-set thriller The Hour, was forced to apologise for the modern jargon littering her scripts, goaded by cries of ‘it’s aesthetically offensive’ and ‘you owe it to your audience’.
So it was for Downton Abbey. ‘You’d never wear leather gaiters to go duck hunting in 1920 – that was much more an 1890s thing!’ whinged some idiots after the Christmas Special screened. And, after a foxhunting scene featuring Lady Mary, an online equestrian forum complained, ‘She’s holding her whip upside down!’
Eagle-eyed fans on the website Recycled Movie Costumes have pointed out that Lady Edith’s garden-party dress previously appeared in a TV production of A Room with a View, Lady Mary’s evening dress was worn by Radha Mitchell in the 2004 film Finding Neverland, and other Downton Abbey costumes have been shared between multiple characters. Even the now-iconic purple suit worn by Violet, the Dowager Countess, was previously seen in the 1998 TV miniseries Berkeley Square.
Costume dramas inevitably reflect the tastes and concerns of the time they were made. For example, when Claudette Colbert played Cleopatra in 1934, her metallic, bias-cut costumes reflected art deco glamour; in 1963, Elizabeth Taylor was a mod Cleopatra in geometric eyeliner and bright block colours.
These days, we’ve developed a taste for ostentatiously quaint naturalism. Contemporary period dramas delight in revealing unpleasant social attitudes, then relegating them to the past like old fashions. Race, class and gender inequalities operate as sources of dramatic tension in Downton Abbey, but they’re either handled in ways that pander to our own moral standards, or presented as so absurdly antiquated that we can’t take them seriously.
The effect is like a hot bath or shower – immersive, intensely comforting, but always only a temporary pleasure. Some mornings, when life seems particularly daunting, I wish I could hide in the shower all day, just as I wish I could dress all fancy and live in a lovely castle. But my fingers are pruning up, the water grows cold and dreary, and I tire of Downton Abbey’s mannered style and its historically inaccurate metaphors surrounding clothing.
For instance, in 1912 women basically treated corsets like bras: as a necessary, everyday item of underwear. Every female Downton Abbey character is corseted, from Cora the Countess of Grantham to lowly Daisy, and from buxom, middle-aged Mrs Patmore the cook, to the young, sylph-like Lady Mary.
Fashionable corsets at this time instilled a youthful silhouette inspired by classical Greek art, with a slightly elevated natural waist and sleek, streamlined hips. It’s an especially nice detail that Violet still favours the older, straight-fronted corsets that threw the chest forward and the hips back. Even if a casual viewer isn’t down with costume history, they’ll still understand the Dowager Countess to be ‘old-fashioned’.
But it never fails to irritate me when an actress in a period drama is interviewed and complains about how uncomfortable her corset was, while solemnly noting that this helped her understand how it felt to be a repressed woman of the past. No, it didn’t, because viewing corsets as cruel devices of patriarchal control is a modern fantasy.
The plotline in which Sybil, the youngest and most politicised of the Earl’s three daughters, complains about her corset and commissions an evening gown with bloomer- style trousers is annoyingly clumsy, a sop to contemporary beliefs about the past.
Just as only some women today wear push-up bras or five-inch stiletto heels – and then only some of the time – tight-lacing has always been a minority fetish. And just as the ‘bra-burning feminist’ is only a media cliché, suffragists did not spearhead the dress–reform movement. Lydia Becker, editor of the Women’s Suffrage Journal from 1870–90, actually encouraged women to ‘stick to their stays’.
The banal truth is that people in every era are socialised, and their bodies trained, to feel comfortable in the prevailing clothes. Had Sybil lived today, she might resent Spanx or G-strings, and show up to dinner in dungarees.
Meanwhile, Downton Abbey uses starched menswear to mimetically suggest English masculine reticence as well as class privilege. The Earl, Matthew, the butler Carson and the footmen, Thomas and William, all wear detachable shirt collars and shirtfront bibs, known as dickeys, which fastened to the shirt via several studs.
When bolshie Irish chauffeur Branson asks the valet, Bates, what happens to the Earl’s worn-out collars, the reply that they’re donated to charitable causes abroad is meant to contrast the Earl’s well-meaning noblesse oblige with Branson’s more radical – and modern – politics.
Yet, notably, only middle- and working-class men are shown with their starched clothes in disarray. Branson, when he’s narrowly prevented from humiliating a visiting dignitary. Thomas, when he attempts to blackmail a duke, and later, when he fails in a black-market business venture. Bates, in prison charged with murdering his wife. And Matthew, brawling with Lady Mary’s parvenu fiancé, the equally dishevelled newspaper baron Sir Richard Carlisle. That Downton Abbey’s costumes instantly signal their wearers’ status, and are usually immaculate, reflects a sentimental belief that class rule could be a force for good when everyone knew their place. The Crawley family’s near-saintly use of their money and influence to help their servants and tenants contrasts markedly with the unflattering portrayal of characters foolish enough to attempt social mobility. This seems like the heavy hand of series creator Fellowes, a high Tory life peer married to a former royal lady-in-waiting, who has spent decades idealising the upper crust in his novels and film scripts.
What we really seek from costume dramas are emotional truths: impervious to anachronism, resonating down the ages to reassure us of the universality of human experience. So Downton Abbey’s costumes aren’t just historical window dressing, they’re also carefully staged allusions to character.
The series’ costume designer, Buxton, uses colour as a motif. Befitting her name, Violet is often shown in shades of purple; Lady Mary’s passionate narrative arcs look dramatic in red, burgundy and black. Neglected middle daughter Edith often wears shades of peach, salmon and apricot; Sybil is cool in pale blues and greys.
Echoed colours and silhouettes also build links between characters. An early episode shows the three sisters in similarly cut suits, each in their signature colour. And as Cora and her daughters welcome a visitor to Downton, the shades of mauve in their outfits tie them together as a family. Yet the difference between Sybil’s bright, youthful frock and Cora’s subdued puce tea gown instantly conveys generational distinctions.
The servants’ clothes more subtly reveal their personalities. The infuriatingly stoic Bates wears a neat, plain brown suit, black overcoat and bowler hat. The arrogant Thomas favours flashy suits on his days off, and his partner in household crime, sour-faced lady’s maid O’Brien, is a slippery customer in black satin, never without an elaborate and absurd puff of curls on her forehead.
A cycle of occasional-specific clothing powerfully represents the rhythm of country life. Each Crawley family member wears three outfits a day – morning, afternoon and evening – with special costumes for riding, shooting, mourning and garden parties. The footmen’s livery has an informal jacket for tasks below stairs, and formal white tie and tails for serving at table. Even housemaids Anna, Gwen, Ethel and Jane wear printed day dresses and plain aprons – they’re shown receiving the dress fabric as Christmas presents from their employers – and black dresses with frilled aprons and headdresses for evening and formal occasions.
Downton Abbey strides through time, stuffing in historical events as diverse and dramatic as the sinking of the Titanic, World War I, the Russian Revolution and the Spanish influenza epidemic. The comparative subtlety of the costumes’ evolution reflects the sedate insularity of life at Downton.
But it also mirrors the way we experience fashion – as a series of small everyday choices. Magazines, museums and glossy coffee-table books would have us believe that fashion dramatically rejects and reacts against past styles. Skirts were long; let’s make ’em short! Hats were big; now small ones are in! The war emancipated women, so they all threw away their corsets! But in real life, that’s not how it works.
Think about how you choose your own clothes. Perhaps you just liked the colour, or decided a particular cut suited you best. Maybe you wanted to try out a new trend, or thought it was ridiculous or trashy and decided to ignore it. Maybe you’re copying something you’ve seen on a celebrity you admire, or in the culture you consume. Maybe there’s a mood you want to achieve – to feel ‘cool’, or ‘sporty’.
Downton Abbey is fascinating because it covers what costume historians consider a transitional period: a fillip between the blousy Gibson Girls of the fin-de-siècle and the svelte flappers of the 1920s. During wartime its costumes become more subdued, their decorations less ostentatious, and the same gowns are worn again and again. As the series progresses, skirts do indeed get shorter, dresses looser and hats smaller. Lady Mary swaps her long tweed coat with its nipped waist and full skirt for a boxy tweed jacket and a straight skirt to mid-calf. But these changes happen gradually, and in different ways for different characters.
Only in retrospect can we say clothes represent an era; costume drama is wonderful because it captures and focuses our appreciation for the past. And despite its narrative themes of change, Downton Abbey is ultimately conservative. It transmutes the inequitable, doomed system of landed peerage into a pageant with everyone in his or her place – and all beautifully attired.
Mel Campbell is a freelance journalist and cultural critic. Her debut book Out of Shape, a non-fiction investigation of clothing size and fit, will be published in 2013 by Affirm Press.
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