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 those many changes in the fashions throughout the six seasons of Downton Abbey including day and evening dresses of the aristocratic Crawley family. In Part Two, I will discuss the wedding dresses worn by the Crawley sisters for their first and second weddings as shown in seasons three and six. I will also discuss the wedding outfits of several of the servants of Downtown Abbey.
As 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 and petticoat. 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)
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, and would also include a pair of cotton stockings. This outfit would be worn down to 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 breakfast in bed. Cora, Lady Grantham, would still 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)
Later, the ladies of the house would change again 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)
For afternoon tea, usually served between 4-5 pm, the ladies would change once again into “tea dresses” which would be made of elegant fabric with lace, embroiderery and other trimmings. Tea would be served in the drawing room of their house while receiving any visiting guests or perhaps they would be out paying an afternoon call and visiting the home of a relative or friend located nearby. If tea was being served in their house, the ladies would often remove their corsets to enjoy an unrestricted meal and later for lounging or perhaps reading a book in the library. (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)
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 include a pair of silk stockings. Then, a maid would help them dress 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 haircomb 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 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 dresses)
One unexpected outfit worn by Sybil, the youngest daughter, for an evening at Downton 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 for his socially elite customers made in colorful silks and satins. (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)
At the start of season two of Downton Abbey, 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 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 was reflected in the choice of 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)
Season two of Downton Abbey ends with two wedding, the first is the scandalous wedding of Sybiland 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 and the fashions reflect 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 their 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 the cricket match. The second photo shows Cora at the same cricket match)
The Crawley sisters, being of a younger generation, start to wear a very different style from their older relatives. For these ladies of Downton, gone are the confining undergarments previously worn and 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)
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 Matthew with Mary wearing two different styles of tailored suits, the first in tweed and the second in a burgundy wool one)
As Downton Abbey moves forward into season four, we see Mary in mourning following the death of her husband, Matthew, 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 as the Victorian or Edwardian eras. Widows in the 1920s would have had a period of eighteen months of mourning for a husband during that time they would wear all black then 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)
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 will 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!)
Edith is also spending time in London, working with Michael Gregson the owner of a publishing company and the couple begins a clandestine romance. As women of the 1920s began taking on employment and more conservative dresses were required in the workplace then the sometimes risqué “flapper” dresses worn to the nightclubs. In addition to the clothes, women were wearing cloche hats or tied scarves during the day or beaded headbands in the evening. For a working wardrobe, women would were tunic tops or hip-length sweaters with a skirt or dresses with dropped waistlines or tiered layers. (Shown below in the photos are some of the daytime and evening fashions worn by the women of Downton)
During season four, Rose makes her formal introduction into London society as a debutante and the highlight of the season is the Court presentation; in this case it is supposed to be the real-life Court of King George VI. For centuries, the etiquette and clothing worn to the court presentation followed a very specific set of rules and regulations. In regards to the court presentation dresses in the 1920s, the dress would be traditionally white, although pastel color would be acceptable, and worn with a white veil no longer than 45 inches. 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)
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 be the ones 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)
For the evening, a woman wore sheath-style dresses, often sleeveless with daring necklines, made of silks and satins. 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. (Shown below are photos of some of the jewelry and headpieces worn by the women of Downton)
Season five takes place in 1924 and season six in 1925. The fashions have not really changed and are generally the same as season three and four. (Shown below are photos of some of the clothing worn during season five and six by the women of Downton)
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. SPOILER ALERT: 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 Cora, Lady Grantham. Then, near the end of season six there is the wedding 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)