Clothes Make the Man (and Woman)

Fashion marches forward on Downton Abbey

Sometimes our love of books spills over into an avid appreciation for other interests that are loosely connected. I’ve developed a bit of an obsession lately with a television show that is not based on books, but shares many common qualities with the books I love, and complements my bibliophilia in lovely ways. I’d like to share a little of my newfound interest with you. And it has to do with clothes. Why clothes? you might ask. Well, perhaps Mark Twain said it most succinctly:
“Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society.”

Downton Abbey 2012 Christmas special promotional preview

It’s 1912, and life in the Edwardian country house of Downton Abbey is idyllic and bustling for the Crawley family, aided by their cadre of servants. The Earl of Grantham, his American heiress wife, and their three daughters, along with his mother, have lived largely uncomplicated lives on their family's estate. But the sinking of the Titanic hits home in an unexpected and dramatic way that sets drama in motion for all of them. To read a mildly spoilery synopsis of the first episode, click here.

This is the beginning of the wonderful, BBC historical drama, Downton Abbey, which I’ve enjoyed tremendously. I’ve always loved good British television dramas, such as The Forsyte Saga (1967), an adaptation of a great book by John Galsworthy, or The Onedin Line (1971 to 1980). I doubt many of you have heard about them. Later came adaptations of Jane Austen’s novels (such as Wench favorite, Pride and Prejudice, with Colin Firth). These shows appeal to me because I am a hopeless romantic at heart — a romantic viewpoint paints my world in brighter colors and fills my heart with joy for a time. I love a good mixture of drama, romance, and history, and a pinch of British aristocracy thrown in makes it even better! So when I heard about Downton Abbey, I expected to like it for all these reasons.

But WOW! I was completely besotted with the show’s wardrobe. I couldn’t stop rerunning episodes in order to view the ladies’ clothes time and again. So I started rummaging around the Web, looking for the creator of these magnificent clothes.

Drum roll please, she is costume designer Susannah Buxton, described by Julian Fellowes, the writer and creator of Downton Abbey, as a “sculptor-in-cloth.” Her work is so alluring, I was captivated by the beauty and richness of the dresses. I decided to find out more about her and the costumes she creates.

Click through to see some of the fun facts I tracked down about fashion on Downton Abbey.

Season one

In the first season, we meet the Crawley family: Robert, 6th earl of Grantham, his American wife, Lady Cora, and their 3 daughters: Mary, Edith, and Sybil. Pretty much all the women do is change clothes throughout the day — for breakfast, for lunch, and then for dinner. We also meet Violet, the Dowager Countess (played by the astounding Maggie Smith). This is the Edwardian period. Here is what I found about fashion in the Edwardian era from a lovely website called The Ladies Treasury, a magazine of Victorian and Edwardian costume and needlework:
“keeping up the level of dress required to be called “respectable” was no mean feat even for the upper class woman. The number of changes of costumes in a day, the need for a good ladies’ maid to maintain them, hairstyles that were beyond the expertise of the ordinary woman, a new and very expensive hat for every costume…”
1900-1919: The Last Age of Elegance

From left: Edith, Cora, Mary, and Sybil Crawley

Did you know that the proper ladies of that era could get by with only 4–5 changes per day? Imagine that! From The Ladies Treasury again:
“Full curves and low bosom were extremely fashionable and denoted the popularity of the mature, matronly woman at this time.”

Well, I think they talk about me! (I had an old dream of me wearing an elegant long satin gown with long gloves and a tiara.) Another interesting example:
“attired in her tea-gown, a soft flowing robe of filmy chiffon or fine silk, trimmed with lace…the hostess must have been a tempting prospect of many men. Such loose gowns afforded women great comfort… and tremendous sense of femininity.”
Edwardian tea gowns, fashion era

I’d love to dress this way. It might suit me, but I shudder to think of all the time I’d have to dedicate, every day, just for clothes. And how about cleaning? Wealthy families of the era had ladies’ maids, whose duties consisted of looking after their ladies’ and lords’ clothes, and they were aided in by a team of laundresses. No, I don’t have even one housemaid.

Behind each well dressed woman stands an army of maids

The first season ends in 1914, with the start of the First World War.

Season two

The second season starts in 1916 and extends through 1919. Women’s independence increased, and clothes changed accordingly. Women had to work in manly jobs — in factories, farms, on the railways. Trousers/pants were much more comfortable for those kinds of jobs, though they were quite a shocking sight then. Skirts became shorter, which was more practical for war work. Women’s clothing lost its tailored lines, becoming less restrictive. In addition, the fabrics changed due to both the need for work clothing and the difficulty of obtaining luxury fabrics during war time. The costume designers did a wonderful job reflecting these changes on the show.

From left: Lady Mary & Matthew Crawley (3rd cousin); Lord Robert & daughters during WW1; and Lady Edith

Sybil, the youngest of the sisters, is the modern girl. She scandalized everyone by expressing her wish to get a job and appearing in trousers. This was shocking; no woman of her class had ever been seen in trousers.

Lady Sybil, played by Jessica Brown Findlay (newfangled harem pants ("trousers") on the left)

Season three

The third season opens in the dawn of the 1920s, and clothing styles change again. Clothes become more comfortable, skirt hemlines climb higher (to the knee), and clothes are less fussy than before. Season 3 takes us into the “roaring 20s”. Jazz music blossoms, and Art Deco peaks. The women’s rights movement has a strong effect on women’s fashion. Hair was commonly worn in a short bob, straight or curly, with bangs. The dresses were loose-fitting and usually hid the shape of the hips. (Ah, good or bad?) T-strap shoes, pendants, ostrich feathers, beads, you have it all in season 3.

Lady Cora, played by Elizabeth McGovern

Matthew Crawley, played by Dan Stevens

Variety is the spice of life

Maggie Smith as Violet Crawley
Shirley MacLaine as Martha Levinson, Lady Cora’s mother
The show’s variety of contemporary fashion styles is showcased in the three Crawley sisters: Mary, who has a sophisticated style; Edith, the awkward one; and Sybil, who is a daring modern girl that favors the bohemian style.

On the other hand, the elderly, formidable Violet Crawley, Dowager Countess of Grantham, does not change at all; she stays frozen in the Edwardian period. In an interview with Time magazine, Susannah Buxton said she thought of Britain’s Queen Mary while designing costumes for Maggie Smith, who plays the Dowager Countess. The Queen, Buxton says, “was extremely dominant and had a strong shape that translated well for Violet”.

A new, very mature lady arrives in the third season (played by another awesome actress, Shirley MacLaine). She is more up to date and shows her ankles. Her clothes are extravagant, flashy, and modern.

Don’t forget the downstairs

It’s not only upstairs — there is a lot of drama downstairs, in the servants’ quarters, too. We watch their lives, manipulations, and intrigue, which affect life both upstairs and downstairs. We notice their clothes, too. Of course, these are not so grand. They are simple and somber as appropriate for their jobs and daily activities. Still, the clothing reflects the difference in status among the staff members, for example, between a simple young serving girl and the housekeeper or between a coachman and the Lord’s valet. On the official website, series author Fellowes:
“describes how Edwardian period footmen were a true measure of status, hired for their good looks and height, with the taller footmen earning a higher salary.”

The staff (left to right): Mr. Carson, the butler; Mrs. Hughes, the housekeeper; Miss O’Brien,
Lady Cora’s personal maid; and Thomas Barrow, the underbutler

The creative strategy behind the fashions

The show’s fashion has received much attention. Susannah Buxton and her assistant costume designer, Caroline McCall, won an Emmy Award for Outstanding Costumes for a Miniseries 2011 (for season 1) and were nominated for best costume design by BAFTA (British Academy of Film) in 2012. Ralph Lauren themed his fall collection (2011) around the show, Anna Wintour has given the show her seal of approval, Michelle Dockery, who plays Lady Mary, has appeared in many fashion magazines.

Lady Edith, played by Laura Carmichael
Susanna Buxton prepares no fewer than three evening dresses for each of the ladies, as well as nightgowns, tea gowns, and other basic wardrobe necessities. She explains, “These three dresses demonstrate the different ways in which we brought the costumes together for the show. Mary’s dress was made for her. Edith’s was hired — it was previously used in the Merchant-Ivory production of Room with a View — and Sybil’s is an original Edwardian summer dress.”

On another costume: “I wanted to achieve the aesthetic of the time, but to make it attractive to modern audiences. It’s a translation rather than trying to be historically accurate.”

Lady Mary, played by Michelle
Describing one of Lady Mary’s gowns. “The red dress is made from a turn-of-the-century Spanish evening dress. We sourced beautiful silk chiffon and had it pleated for the front. We built layers for the final effect, with embroidered lace laid over the deep-red satin under dress.” Of Sybil’s harem pants outfit she explains, “I found a long strip of original fabric set on gold net, which was so fragile it had started to split, and used that for the top and sleeves. The blue peacock bodice came from Alfie’s Antiques market. The beaded belt was found at a vintage fair and the blue silk chiffon used for the trousers came from Shepherd’s Bush Market.”

Lord Grantham, played by Hugh Bonneville
About war costumes, she says “regiments were invented for the series. Lord Grantham is with the North Riding Volunteers, and Matthew is with the Duke of Manchester’s Own. For each we had drawings done of their crests by the College of Arms, and a specialist then made the molds of the artwork for their regimental badges. Lord Grantham’s mess kit is copied from one that was worn by an officer in the Indian Guides in 1912.”

Designer Highlight: The Wedding Dress

As Downton Abbey costume designer Caroline McCall tells, “Lady Mary’s wedding dress was the most expensive costume we’ve made. It cost around £4,000 to make. It’s a silver lace tabard fabric that goes into a train at the back, and underneath is a silk dress with silk sleeves. The detail at the back wasn’t really seen on camera, but the lace goes into a V at the back with tiny buttons, and it’s completely edged with tiny rice pearls and Swarovski crystal.”

One of McCall’s favorite moments thus far in this series was dressing the two grandmothers for Lady Mary’s wedding. “Both grandmothers ignore the tradition not to upstage the bride and wear cream. Maggie Smith’s costume is so sophisticated and Edwardian, and then Shirley MacLaine is all Hollywood diva in a turban with a bird of paradise.” 

Countess Violet and Mrs. Levinson, no love lost here...

Dressing like Downton Abbey

Downton Abbey has many themes and story lines: the undercurrents flowing inside the Crawley family, the competition between the sisters, the stiff structure of classes, the upper-class struggle to adapt to the changing times, the Great War and its outcome, the horrible Spanish Flu, the game of love and hate, the challenge of finding a suitable husband, plots of betrayal and death, homosexuality (forbidden at that time), and more. BUT, it is not just successful as good entertainment. The truth is that women everywhere are desperate for clothing inspired by the show, and there are a few sites on the web showing how to dress like the women of Downton Abbey, including:

There is so much more fashion to love ... I didn’t talk about the hair styles, the jewelry, the hats, or the music. I didn’t mention other wonderful actors and interesting characters. I could go on about this show forever... but I think you get the point. If you enjoy fashion and have not discovered this show already, what are you waiting for!?!?

Miss Swire is Matthew’s fiancĂ©e; Anna Smith is the head housemaid

I didn't want to spoil the many series story lines and secrets, but if you want to get a sense of the show before watching it, you can view Jimmy Fallon’s humorous interpretation of Downton Abbey here.

So, dear readers, are you fans of Downton Abbey? What do you think of the costumes? Would you wear them, if you had the time? Do you think they would be fun or bothersome? I hope you will share your thoughts below.

Sources: official show website , The World of Downton Abbey, The Daily Beast, Grazia Daily, Interview magazine, Time magazine


  1. Your post inspired me to finally watch this series, Merit! I knew I would love it, but sometimes it's difficult to tear myself away from my cozy little reading corner by the nice, warm fire to watch tv. I've finished season 1 so far, and I paid more attention to the clothes because of your post, and found them very interesting. And my, my, managing a house full of servants can apparently be quite time consuming, can't it? That would help persuade me to forgo the fancy clothes, but in general I would not like all the the many layers and irritating under garments. I fear that life as a clothes hanger would be boring for me, but I'm sure I could find a lot of good books to read and vacations to take with all that money they spend on clothing!

  2. It’s look so beautiful! I am enjoy and love it very much.and I love very much sexy and wonderful dress.
    Hope you had the greatest time living it up!!
    sexy dresses

  3. The clothes look amazing. I love this show. Thanks Merit for this great post.


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