Downton Abbey Fashions – Part One

The Fashions of Downton Abbey have been truly an important part of the television series telling the story and setting the mood for the drama as much as Highclere Castle located in Hampshire, England and the interior sets located at Ealing Studios in London.  When the first season opens in 1912 the women of Downton Abbey are wearing the buttoned-up lace shirts and long skirts of the post Edwardian-era and as the last season closes in 1925 the fashions have changed to the more revealing beaded dresses of the “Roaring Twenties”.

In Part One of the two part series on the Fashions of Downton Abbey I will discuss the many changes in fashion throughout the six seasons of the television series.  In Part Two I will discuss the wedding dresses worn by the Crawley sisters for their weddings as shown in seasons three and six, also wedding clothes worn by several of the servants of Downtown Abbey.  

Season one of Downton Abbey opens with news of the sinking of the RMS Titanic, the viewers are introduced to the aristocratic Crawley family; Lord and Lady Grantham and their three daughters.  In the post Edwardian-era, a lady would customarily change their clothes several times during the course of a single day.  Their wardrobe started with a set of undergarments consisting of a chemise, drawers, corset, petticoat and cotton stockings.  Corsets were an important part of the undergarments because it was used to create the preferred shape of an ideal Edwardian women’s body; which was a silhouette showing slim hips, a tiny waist and an uplifted bosom.  (Shown below in the photo is Mary, the eldest daughter, being laced into her corset by her maid, Anna, as her sister Edith looks on)      

Undergarments 1

The first outfit of the day that a lady would wear would be the “morning dress” consisting of a tailored blouse and a long skirt.  All items of clothing would be made of sturdy and practical material, such as cotton or linen.  This outfit would be worn for breakfast by the Crawley daughters, unmarried ladies of the house were expected to come downstairs for breakfast while the married ladies would be allowed to eat their breakfast in bed.  Cora, Lady Grantham, would be upstairs in her bedroom wearing her nightgown with a robe as her personal maid would serve her the tray of food prepared and sent up by the kitchen cook. (The photo on the left shows Mary wearing a lovely shirt and shirt ensemble and the photo on the right shows the three Crawley sisters wearing their “morning dresses”.  The third photo shows Cora in bed still wearing her nightgown and robe waiting to be served breakfast in bed)

female - morning outfit 1  female - morning outfit 2

night gown 1

Later, the ladies of the house would change into their “afternoon dresses” which were made of softer fabric, generally in the summer months pastel colors would be worn.  (The photo below shows the three Crawley sisters dressed in lovely “afternoon dresses” outside at Downton Abbey)

female - day clothing 1910s

For afternoon tea, usually served between 4-5 pm, the ladies would change into “tea dresses” which would be trimmed with lace and maybe some embroidery.  Tea would be served in the drawing room of the house, sometimes guests would be there or perhaps the women would be out paying an afternoon call while visiting the home of a relative or friend located nearby.  If tea was being served in the house without any guests, the ladies would often remove their corsets to enjoy an unrestricted meal. (The photo below shows Cora at tea taken outside at Downton Abbey; this was sometimes done when there was good weather in the spring or summer)

female - tea dress 1

After a brief rest, and sometimes a nap, the ladies would then take their time dressing for dinner which was usually served at 8 pm.  A lady would change into a fresh set of lingerie which would now include a pair of silk stockings.  A maid would help them into an “evening dress” which would be made of a luxurious fabric, such as silk or satin, often embellished with beading, embroidery or other trimmings.  A more elaborate hairstyle would also be created by the maid, sometimes a jeweled hair comb or tiara would be worn depending on the occasion and of course a set of the lady’s finest jewelry.  (The photo on the left shows Lady Grantham dressed in an elegant evening gown dress with Lord Grantham dressed in his formal evening clothes consisting of a black cut-away coat with a white waistcoat and matching trousers.  The photo on the right shows the three Crawley sisters dressed for dinner in their evening gowns)

1910s evening clothes  female - evening wear 1910s

One unexpected outfit worn by Sybil, the youngest daughter, was the very stylish harem pants worn with a matching headpiece.  This choice of outfit was directly influenced by Paul Poiret, a designer that created eastern inspired evening clothes made in colorful silk and satin for his socially elite customers.  (Shown in the photo below is Sybil’s scandalous outfit which is quite a contrast to the more traditional evening dresses worn by her mother and sister)

female - harem pants worn by Sybil

At the start of season two World War I has started and the house has been converted into a hospital for the wounded soldiers returning home from the battlefields of Europe.  Sybil has taken on the role of a nurse while her mother and her two sisters are also helping with the wounded soldiers at Downton.  During the war, there were fewer restrictions on society in regards to clothing as many upper class women took on more voluntary work and mixed more often with the working class prompting the slow decline in the social barriers that divided the two classes.

The fashions of wartime England were reflected with military-style braiding, belts with buckles and skirts that were slightly shorter rising to mid-calf by 1915.  One of the most welcomed changes for women was the gradual elimination of the cumbersome stiff crinoline which result in more ease of movement as skirts became slimmer and more fluid.  (The photo on the left shows Lord Grantham with his three daughters, please note that Sybil is dressed in her nurse’s clothing.  The photo on the right shows Lord Grantham and Matthew wearing full dress uniforms for a formal dinner)

World War I fashions 2  World War I - male formal military 1

Season two ends with two wedding, the first is the scandalous wedding of Sybil and Tom Branson, the Downton chauffer (which was not shown as part of the series).  The second was the wedding of two Downton servants, Mr. Bates and Anna.  Season three begins with two more weddings, the much anticipated wedding of Mary to Matthew.  Sadly, the second wedding ended with Edith being jilted at the altar by Patrick Strallan.   (To find out more detailed information regarding the wedding dresses of these Downton brides and the Grantham tiara, which was born by both Crawley sisters on their wedding day, please click on the link to Downton Abbey Fashions – Part Two)

The third season of Downton Abbey is set during 1920 to 1921 with the fashions reflecting the very distinct changes that were happening during that time period.  The older members of the Crawley family, Violet the Dowager Countess of Grantham and Isobel Crawley the mother of Matthew, are very slow to change the conservative fashion style of the post Edwardian-era.  Meanwhile Cora will start to dress in more modern fashions as the season progresses.  (The first photo below shows Violet and Isobel with Rosamund, Violet’s daughter, at a local cricket match.  The second photo shows Cora at the same cricket match) 

season 3 Violet and Isobel and Rosamund  season 3 cora

The Crawley sisters, being of a younger generation, start to wear a very different style of clothing then their older relatives.   Gone are the confining undergarments previously worn with the corset is finally eliminated while being replaced with less restrictive brassiere, panties and slips.  Looser fitting dresses with dropped waistline and hemlines ranging from ankle to mid-calf length have become the current fashion.  (The photo on the left are shows the Crawley ladies dressing for Mary’s wedding and the photo on the right shows the Crawley sisters just before Edith’s disastrous wedding.  The other photo shows the Crawley ladies dressed for the christening of baby Sybbie, the daughter of the late Sybil and Tom Branson)

season 3 Mary's wedding  season 3 Edith's wedding

female -1920s dresses - season 3  Sybbie's christening

Other items of clothing for a modern women included tailored suits with a matching jacket and skirt worn with a pretty blouse.  These tailored suits were often required as women entered the work place after the Great War; the suits were also worn while the women were in the city or traveling.  Sometimes the more fashionable women wore their suits accented with fur collars or cuffs or a matching muff in the colder fall and winter months.  (The photos below show Mary, seen with Matthew, wearing two different styles of tailored suits, the first in tweed and the second in a burgundy wool one)

season 3 Mary tailored tweed suit  season 3 Mary tailored coat 1

As Downton Abbey moves forward into season four, we see Mary in mourning following the death of her husband in a car accident shortly after the birth of their son George.  It has been six months since Matthew’s death and she is still in a state of deep depression and wearing all black.  Midway through the first episode she suddenly arrives at dinner dressed in a lilac dress to the shock of everyone as she decides to move forward in her life for the sake of her son.  The rules for the wearing of proper mourning clothing had a definite set of rules in post-war England although the rules were not as strict those in the Victorian or Edwardian eras.  Widows in the 1920s would have had a period of eighteen months of mourning for a husband and during that time they would wear all black  followed by a few more months of half-mourning when they could wear shades of grey or purple.  (The first photo shows Mary dressed in a chic black dress with brocade detail on the collar and the second photo shows her in the lilac dress with a pleated bodice and embroidered collar)

mourning clothes - Lady Mary 1  mourning clothes - Lady Mary 2

Season four of Downton Abbey is set between 1922 and 1923 with England immersed in beginning of the “Jazz Age” marked by its modern music and provocative dances, such as the Charleston.  Rose, the high-spirited daughter of a Crawley family relative that we met at the end of season three has comes to live at Downton.  Rose frequently make excuses to go to London because she loves the excitement of the nightclubs and country life at Downton is just too boring.  The clothes worn during season four are becoming more daring, especially those worn by Rose when in out on the town in London.  Evening dresses of the 1920s were beaded sheaths worn with long necklaces and sometimes a beaded headband worn across the forehead.  (Shown below in the photos is the innocent Rose when she first arrived at Downton and the dramatic transformation at a London nightclub!)

season 4 Rose - before  season 4 Rose - after

Edith is also spending time in London working with Michael Gregson, the owner of a publishing company, and the couple begin a clandestine romance.  Since women of the 1920s had begun taking on employment  and a work wardrobe was needed in the workplace, tunic tops or hip-length sweaters with a skirt or dresses with dropped waistlines and cloche hats or tied scarves. In the evening women wore rather risqué “flapper” dresses, long necklaces and beaded headbands.  (Shown below in the photos are some of the daytime and evening fashions worn by the women of Downton)

season 4 - Edith work clothes brocade dress  
season 4 - Edith work clothes 1
evening clothing - 1920s  season 3 Edith  season 3 Mary evening dress 1

season 4 - evening wear - cast

During season four Rose makes her formal introduction into London society as a debutante and the highlight of the season is the Court presentation.  For centuries the etiquette and clothing worn to this event followed a very specific set of rules and regulations.  In regards to the court presentation dresses in the 1920s during the reign of King George VI, the dress would be traditionally white, although a pastel color would be acceptable.   A white veil measuring no longer than 45 inches was required and three white ostrich feathers would be attached to the veil; the center feather would be slightly longer than the other two smaller feathers worn to the left and right.  Gloves, fans and bouquets would be optional.  (Shown below is a photo of Rose dressed in her court presentation gown and the other photo shows the other members of the Crawley family dressed for the occasion) 

Rose - court presentation 1 season 4 - Court presentation - cast

In season five of Downton Abbey, which takes place in 1924, there are very few changes in regards to fashion styles.  Edith and Rose tend to wear more daring outfits than Mary who wears more conservative clothes, although Mary is the first one to cut her hair short into a fashionable chin-length bob.  (The photo below shows Mary as she débuts her new hairstyle to the family at Downton)

season 4 - Mary - new bob hairstyle 1

season 5 - London clothing - cast

season 6 - Mary and Edith

For the evening, a woman wore sheath-style dresses, often sleeveless with daring necklines, made of silk and satin.  The evening dresses were beautifully beaded or embellished with sequins.  Costume jewelry had replaced more expensive gemstones and women would often wear long strings of pearls or tasseled beaded necklaces.

season 4- Edith - evening wear 1 front  season 4 - Edith - evening wear 1 back 

season 5 - evening wear

season 6 - Edith

One highlight of the fifth season is the wedding of Rose and Atticus Aldridge, she actually wears two wedding outfits, one for the wedding at the registry office and a second gown for the grand wedding reception.  In season six there are a trio of special weddings taking place during the final season of Downton Abbey.  First there is the wedding of Mrs. Hughes to Mr. Carson; she wears a special coat previously worn by Lady Grantham.  Then, near the end of season six there is the weddings of the Crawley sisters, Mary to Henry Talbot and then Edith and Bertie Pelham, the Marchioness of Hexham.  (To find out more detailed information regarding the wedding dresses of these Downton brides, please click on the link to Downton Abbey Fashions – Part Two)

For more information on the Downton Abbey television series, including list of characters, season synopsis and film locations, please click on the link)

6 thoughts on “Downton Abbey Fashions – Part One

  1. Thank you for your thoughtful overview of Downton Abby fashion. What’s particularly great is the historical context within which you present the selected fashions.

    Wonderful!!!

    • Thank you Wanda, later this week is the Downton Abbey Fashions – Part Two post which highlights the wedding outfits worn by the Crawley sisters and a few of the Downton Abbey servants.

  2. Thank you for this two part blog! I love Doenton Abbey, and as so sad it is coming to an end!

    Downton Fashions are coming to out Taft Museum of Art in July, and I can’t wait!

    I am glad I found your blogs!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.