Titanic to Twenties: "Downton Abbey" Costume Review
Updated: Dec 9, 2020
Downton Abbey: an iconic TV series that has won the hearts of many and become the gold standard for British period dramas. It has also sparked new interest in 1920s fashion and culture over the years; many have even held Downton parties, where everyone comes dressed in fabulous vintage garb.
I am no fashion historian, but I would like to share with you some parallels between real-life clothing in 1920s Europe and what the costume designers for the show have done. Downton Abbey is a great way to discuss and learn about the 1920s when you combine it with some background knowledge! The costuming is absolutely beautiful in the show, as I'm sure many of you will agree. They even used some authentic vintage pieces from the era.
The show begins in 1912, not long before The Great War. I find it fascinating to watch the costumes progress from late Edwardian styles to the modern glamour of the Jazz Age. So let's get right into a breakdown of this fashion progression and how it is portrayed in Downton Abbey.
At the beginning of the decade, a time when classic Edwardian silhouettes had been firmly established, there grew a new influence in the world of western fashion. A movement called Orientalism began, and the people of Europe found great interest in the aesthetics of eastern culture, which they viewed as "exotic".
This movement brought new textiles and patterns into western art and fashion, as well as new trends in silhouettes. Women's skirts, which were already fairly straight at the time, grew narrower at the ankles. Tunic-like garments were layered on, silk belts were donned, and draped fabrics were all the rage. It was a distinct look that owed its creation to increased interaction between countries and continents.
The first season has the best examples of these styles. The girls wear draped gowns with prominent waistlines and elaborate beading. A significant moment for the costuming is the scene when Sybil surprises her family with a shiny new outfit (Series 1, Ep. 4). It is a blue ensemble with an eastern-inspired fabric pattern and flowing trousers that are cuffed at the bottom. This was actually a trend at the time, called "harem pants". So bravo to the writers for matching such a bold style with one of the boldest characters.
As the show progresses and we enter WWI, much of the fashion stays relatively the same, still following the late Edwardian styles as mentioned above. But we are introduced to nurse and military uniforms, as nearly all of season two takes place during the war. Sybil serves as a nurse, and her costume seems very accurate when compared with photographs of war nurses from those years. The men's soldier uniforms are also historically accurate when compared with old photographs from wartime. They have domed metal helmets as well as the classic brimmed cap.
Once the war ends, the show does a great job of representing a shift in world perspective, which manifests itself not only in character growth and narrative but also in clothing. World War I created a cultural shift throughout the globe, and, though it wasn't the only factor contributing to bold fashion trends, it definitely played a part in the changing attitudes of the day. Many people did not want things to go back to the way they were, as represented in episodes of Downton following the end of the war. Amid the sudden lack of conflict, there was a strong shift in cultural ideals in a world that would never be the same.
Menswear after the war did not change as drastically as women's did. However, there were still some new trends. Wide-legged trousers known as Oxford bags, made popular by students at the prestigious college, gained recognition outside of the campus in the world of fashion. Plus-fours, a baggier version of traditional knickers which were gathered about the knee and worn with long socks, also emerged. And simpler shoes like brogues and low cut flats came into fashion. Fabrics like tweeds and flannels were popular in men's clothing, as portrayed by costumes in Downton.
For women's fashion in the twenties, styles became focused on simplicity and an entirely new beauty ideal, influenced by the cultural reset brought on by the war. A small, flat, boxy frame was sought after. Women started to favor less traditionally feminine silhouettes, and straight lines became the fashion, not only in the shape of clothes, but also in patterns, architecture, and advertising. There was a new sense of simplicity in the clothes they wore, as convention became a thing of the past and ladies no longer felt the need to don multiple layers and complicated garments.
One of the most distinct changes in fashion from this era was the lowering of women's waistlines. Dresses and blouses began to lose the traditional hour-glass shape and were instead gathered and trimmed around the hips. On top of that, sleeveless gowns were worn for the first time since the antiquity of Greece, and hemlines fell just below the knee for the first time in history.
Though younger generations embraced these styles, it should be noted that older women at the time still often wore long dresses and long sleeves. I love how they acknowledge this in Downton, as Violet's clothing often looks more Edwardian than the rest for the majority of the show. She is keeping with the styles of her youth, and it suits her.
Some of the favored accessories in the twenties were pearls and long beaded jewelry, as well as headbands and hats. Cloche hats specifically were a common staple for a woman's wardrobe. They were small, round, often bell-shaped, and emphasized a smallish head size which was fashionable at the time. Downton has some beautiful examples of these, and we see them worn by aristocrats, servants, the middle class, and everyone in between.
As the decade progressed, women's hairstyles became progressively shorter. The length complemented the cloche hats and emphasized the simple, boyish look that many sought after at the time. We see this progression in the show, as the leading ladies' hairstyles change with passing time. Mary and Edith are good examples of how the hairstyles change significantly throughout Downton Abbey. Their hairstyles at the start are typically simple knots and buns at the back of the neck or curls framing the face.
During the middle seasons, we see iconic waved styles and shorter hair lengths, and, by the end of the show, Mary has a short, straight bob, a style which had been popular for much of the decade but was not seen as much in the show until her character decided to change things up a bit.
Toward the end of the decade, hemlines grew lower and hairstyles became longer once again. The dresses worn at Downton were often on the longer side anyway, so the changes aren't as noticeable. However, they did a great job throughout the show of keeping dress lengths realistic, and the long gowns near the end are absolutely stunning. I also noticed that though Lady Mary's hair is very short in season six, Edith and others have apparently grown theirs out to some extent. It is nice that the makers of the show gave us plenty of variety in the various looks worn by different characters, because, in reality, there wasn't one simple style worn by everyone.
The twenties were an exciting decade full of change and expression. People wore all sorts of clothes that had not been tried before, and fashion was influenced by many various factors and world conditions. Downton Abbey's costuming does a great job of giving us a gradual progression of clothing that gives us a good idea of what this era in Europe looked like for fashion. I love all of the variety and the personality put into each character's wardrobe, as well as the historical accuracy and attention to detail.
It's wonderful to be able to watch shows like this and appreciate the care that designers and directors put into creating a cohesive and beautiful production. When I watch Downton Abbey, I really feel like I'm in 1920s England, ready to have tea with the Dowager Countess!
To watch the full series, head over here. Thanks for reading! Let us know what you think about Downton Abbey's costumes in the comment section.
Reddy, Karina. “1910-1919.” Fashion History Timeline, 31 May 2018, fashionhistory.fitnyc.edu/1910-1919/.
Reddy, Karina. “1920-1929.” Fashion History Timeline, 11 May 2018, fashionhistory.fitnyc.edu/1920-1929/.
Victoria and Albert Museum. History of Fashion 1900 - 1970, Victoria and Albert Museum, Cromwell Road, South Kensington, London SW7 2RL. Telephone +44 (0)20 7942 2000. Email Vanda@Vam.ac.uk, 25 Sept. 2015, www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/h/history-of-fashion-1900-1970/.