Below are 6 things that were historically accurate about the costumes of Downton Abbey and 4 that were the product of our modern times.
Downton Abbey is famous around the world for its historically accurate period costumes. Thanks to lead costume designers Susannah Buxton, Rosalind Ebutt, Caroline McCall, and Anna Robbins, characters both upstairs and downstairs dressed impeccably in the styles of the 1910s and the 1920s.
However, there were times when the costume designers used their artistic license to create looks that never would have seen the light of day in 1920 but appealed more to contemporary audiences. Below are 6 things that were historically accurate about the costumes of Downton Abbey and 4 that were the product of our modern times.
Accurate: Austerity during the war
There was a stark difference between the costumes of the first and second seasons of Downton Abbey. Matthew and Lord Grantham, who wore white tie for dinner scenes without fail in Season 1, now appeared in mess dress, or even in an extremely informal dinner jacket. Among the Crawley sisters, Sybil mentions that most of her gowns were from the season before the war, suggesting that she had not ordered anything new since then.
Meanwhile, Mary, Edith, and Cora appeared in costumes that were plainer and more pared down with fewer costume changes and a limited selection of evening gowns. These changes reflected the real-life impact the war had on fashion.
Accurate: They showed generational differences
Women’s fashions changed tremendously during the war. Hemlines rose above the ankle, and waist-defining gowns were slowly phased out in favor of looser fits that allowed for greater mobility. While the Crawley girls embraced the latest fashions, the older generation was slower to change. Violet, the Dowager Countess, continued to wear Edwardian gowns with a corset even in 1927, albeit with more modern textiles and art deco patterns.
Cora was somewhere in between her daughters and her mother-in-law; she discarded the corset for a dropped waist but retained some autonomy in the draping and embroidery of her clothes. As Anna Robbins said, “She follows trends, but she’s never been a slave to them.”
Accurate: They showed a social pecking order
Dressing and undressing was a daily ritual at the Abbey. The Crawley family changed clothes multiple times a day to adhere to a strict dress code that required different garments in the mornings, afternoons, and evenings. The Crawley servants, on the other hand, almost always wore their livery and rarely had a change of costume, creating a pecking order of sorts in real life.
Leslie Nicol, who plays Mrs. Patmore, had the same cap for six years and considered it a favorite, refusing a replacement even when offered. In contrast, Joanne Froggatt, who plays lady’s maid Anna, often looked over enviously at Lady Mary’s expansive wardrobe full of beautiful Edwardian and Art Deco dresses.
Inaccurate: The corsets were the wrong shape
u/chocolatepot makes an astute observation about the corsets in Downton Abbey and specifically the one Lady Mary is getting laced into at the beginning of Season 1. They note that the typical corset of the Edwardian era would have been much longer than Mary’s, ending at mid-hip and providing a smooth line under the narrow skirts that were fashionable during that time.
More importantly, Edwardian corsets barely offered any support, ending at mid-bust or below, as the fashionable bustline was much lower than it is today. Mary’s corset (and the silhouette it gives her) is historically inaccurate in that it appears designed to lift her bust into place.
Inaccurate: The hemlines were low for 1927
Hemlines gradually rose during World War I and in the years following the Treaty of Versailles. According to The World Of Downton Abbey, hemlines were six inches off the ground by 1916 and another two inches higher by the end of the war. By 1927 they were a shocking 18.6 inches off the ground, flashing the knees.
While hemlines were actually at their highest in 1927, the costume designers didn’t think skirts of such a short length were appropriate for a visit from the royals and so added a few more inches to the evening gowns for the ballroom scenes in Downton Abbey: The Movie.
Accurate: The downstairs livery
The footmen were the real showpieces of a great house like Downton Abbey, and their uniforms provided by the family at great expense. Anna Robbins spoke about the attention to detail that went into crafting the livery, noting that the Grantham crest on the buttons were tiny models created in a very involved process for something that would hardly show up on camera.
Because the livery was considered a mark of status, the footmen would go to great lengths to protect it, such as hanging up their tails and changing into a different coat in the servants’ area to preserve their white shirts, as Thomas and William did in Season 1.