Downton Abbey Fashion Overview

Photo credit: here

Well? Did you watch the last episode ever of Downton Abbey? (No spoilers here.) It was immensely satisfying, I must say! What will we do on winter Sunday evenings now? No longer will we be transported to the age of butlers and hunting parties, balls and charming English villages, manners and dinner parties, and the unending parade of splendid fashion.

Last year, Colette and I attended a lecture at the Lowell Textile Museum (which is, sadly, temporarily closed now) entitled "A Downton Abbey Fashion Primer". The guest speaker was Madelyn Shaw, Curator of Textiles at the Smithsonian Institution. She spoke to a packed house, for about an hour, on the topic of the social role of fashion, and how fashion is influenced by world events and technology.

She began by telling us that fashion has social defines who we are and who we want to be.

I took notes as fast as I could, and I thought I'd share what we learned of the fashions of Downton Abbey with you!

Season 1 -1912

- At this time in England, people wore almost exclusively custom made clothing. There was very, very little ready-to-wear available for purchase. 
- One's posture, clean gloves, and polished shoes conveyed one's social stature.
- A girl's mother and her dressmaker would've made all the fashion decisions for her until she was of age. This would've made Lady Sybil's "pants" even more scandalous.
- All people wear gloves and hats, regardless of social status.
- The female servants of Downton are just a bit behind the times in their styles.
- The men of Downton are dressed, regardless of which season/time period, as though it is the 1920's, as the styles of that time are more pleasing to our modern eye.

The servants -

- Their clothing matched the status of the person they served. Hence, those who work in the kitchen or as housemaids may wear standard uniforms, while the higher servants (Anna, Bates, Carson, etc.) wear their own clothing, although it is plain, dark in color, and sensible.
- Footmen of the time were usually a "matched set", so to speak, and were often chosen for their good looks.
- The horizontally-striped vests of the indoor male servants differentiated them from the vertically-striped vests of the outdoor male servants (like gardeners, who we really don't see at Downton).

Photo credit: here

- Maids would wear printed cotton uniforms in the morning and change to black uniforms for lunch time on.

The Dowager Countess - 

- She frequently wears black and purple, which were considered seemly colors for an elderly woman.
- She is always dressed a bit behind the times. This would've been quite normal for women of high social standing of the time. It would've been unconscionable for them to wear short skirts, given the times in which they were raised. There exists a photograph of Queen Mary at Wimbeldon in 1936 dressed as though it is the 1890's. 

Photo credit: here
- Cousin Isobel is more up-to-date than the Dowager Countess, but not as fashion forward as Cora. She is often shown in visiting suits and separates. She is always dressed sensibly, in serviceable clothing, typical of her middle-class upbringing.

Season 2 - The End of the Edwardian Era

- It was not uncommon of upper-class women of this time period to change clothes as many as five times a day. Dressing consumed much of their time.
- By this time, the lower classes were more able to buy ready-to-wear.
- Undergarments were more delicate and unstructured than in the past. Silk stockings were thinner...not sheer, but thinner.

Season 3 - 1914-1918 - The Great War

- Skirts shortened and silhouettes changed again. Everything becamse looser and freer of necessity, as roles were changing. 
- The advent of the new (although still rare) class of working women gave way to women wearing more suits and more tailored day frocks.
- World War I officers gave the world two fashion items considered quite common these days: the wristwatch and the trench coat. The wristwatch was an easier watch to check in the midst of battle than a pocket watch. They had a guard plate over the face to keep them from shattering. And the trench coat came from the trench warfare of the time.

Season 4 - 1918-1919 - Post-War Chic

- This season brings us the most fashion forward character of the entire show. Can you guess who she is? If you guessed Lady Mary, you are wrong. There was someone even more fashionable than she. Give up? It's Lavinia. Her clothes, with their bright colors and bat wing sleeves, were on the cutting edge of fashion for the years 1918 and 1919. She is more fashionable than the Grantham girls. She had an earl's money and social position. Plus, she was from London, where there was an annual "season", so she had a social standing on the very upper crust of society that must be maintained.

Mourning clothes - 

- If you spouse, parent, or child died, it was expected that you were to wear black clothing, from a dull fabric, for a full year. A distant relative would require mourning clothes for weeks.
- Men could get away with a black crepe armband.
- Jet jewelry was worn.
- Not all black clothing was for mourning.

Season 5 - 1920-1924

- The silhouettes of fashion changed dramatically. They became more tubular and boxier. The waists dropped and fits became looser. Necklines were lower and hemlines were shorter. At this point, hemlines should be just at the ankle. Dowonton Abbey takes some liberty with this, and shows them shorter than historically accurate at this point.
- Prince Edward set a trend for men by wearing creases in his pants.
- Women start to wear sport dresses and sport knits.
- The garment becomes a canvas for ornamentation and embellishment! We see increased bead work, stenciled velvet, printed silks, Egyptian designs (like Lady Edith's snake arm bracelet) inspired by the discovery of King Tut's tomb, and the influence of the far east on fashion.

Photo credit: here

- Suddenly, there is lots and lots of metal on clothing (metalic threads, metalic beading), as the introduction of electric lights had an impact on evening clothes. Everyone wanted to sparkle in the lights!

Men's Eveningwear - 

- A man wearing white tie could sit in the main dining room while dining out.
- The tuxedo was invented by an American designer and first shown at his home in Tuxedo, New York.
- A man wearing black tie could only sit in the upstairs dining rooms while dining out.
- The foldable top hat was invented.

"Robe de Style" - 

Photo credit: here

- A classic, 1920's style that lasted throughout the decade.
- We see this in Rose's coming out dress with it's side hoops.
- It was primarily worn by younger women.

The lecture occurred before 6, so any talk there was just speculation. 

Interestingly, the lecturer said that for a long time, American women were considered the be the best dressed in the world, as American produced ready-to-wear was SO good. This great skill upset the British class structure. And she told the story of an upper class British woman who remarked in shock, "I talked to a shop girl!" The young woman was so well dressed that the British woman had mistaken her for someone of a higher class because her ready-to-wear was so well fitted.

I hope you have enjoyed this brief walk down the runway of Downton!


  1. Interesting facts about fashion Kate. I loved the last episode of Downton. I'll miss that show. Prayers for your granddaughter.

  2. I loved to admire the fashions in Downtown Abbey as the years progressed. Some of the dresses, coats, hair baubles, etc. were SO beautiful. I do think that black and purple were originally only mourning, not for older people just because they were old, but because more likely, their marriage mate had passed away. So elderly people were more likely to be wearing black or purple.

    1. Hi, Susan. Yes! Black and purple were mourning colors, so I completely agree. I was surprised that the curator didn't mention that.

  3. Hi Kate I love your posts this would have been an amazing lecture to attend. What will we do on Sunday nights? Re-watch Downton episodes until something better comes along ps: I'm living in south OC, Calif. Where did you relocate from?

    1. I know! We've asked ourselves the same question about Sunday nights! So sad.

      We relocated from Placentia! Small world!

  4. I lived in Placentia for several years, off Rose Dr and Yorba Linda Blvd. I loved walking the horse trails and going to the produce stands. It's a very small world. Now I live in south oc now, Laguna Hills. I'm trying a few recipes of yours this week. Cheers!

    1. Oh! Very small world! We lived off of Palm and Yorba Linda Blvd.

      Hope you love the recipes! Bon appetit!


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