“What is a week-end?” asks the Dowager Countess of Grantham played by Maggie Smith in the hit TV series Downton Abbey, in her grand, imperious way. In the upper echelons of Downton’s leisured classes, it is a fair question - there is, after all, no work and therefore no difference between a Friday and a Saturday. And in the glamorous, rarified life portrayed, the sole occupation of Lady Mary and the other Crawley ladies is to be fabulously turned out for every occasion – be it breakfast, hunt, shoot, dinner, ball, or,in the latest series, a visit to a jazz club. The gentlemen too must be appropriately dapper at all times.
This bygone era of the British aristocracy as depicted (and romanticised) on the small screen has fascinated audiences across the globe – particularly in the US – and for many viewers, the costumes are the main draw. So much so that an exhibition at the Winterthur Museum in Delaware, north of Washington DC, is to display a collection of costumes from the popular series, including a burgundy dress worn by Lady Mary and the wedding dress worn by Lady Edith when jilted at the altar. The Winterthur is a 175-room country house set in a thousand-acre estate, and was for many decades the home of the wealthy Du Pont family.
The exhibition’s co-curator Jeff Groff describes the overall theme of the show as “contrasting English country-house life and American, something Downton Abbey does very well with its characters. The fit is very good.”
In much the same way that hit US TV shows Mad Men and Gossip Girl permeated fashion, so Downton style has seeped into our culture. Look around and the signs are everywhere in the mainstream – trench coats and riding boots, beaded dresses, faux-fur collars, retro wavy bobs and jewelled hair accessories are just a few of the more ubiquitous examples. Where Downton goes, fashion soon follows. As the drama has progressed through several ages of style, the fashion world has reflected the changes every step of the way. From Downton’s first episodes, set just after the Edwardian era, through the 1920s and then 1930s in subsequent seasons, the direct influence of the small screen on international fashion can be traced.
It started back in 2012 when the actresses who play the Crawley sisters appeared on the cover of edgy UK fashion magazine Love, and designer Marc Jacobs confessed he was a fan of the show. In his Autumn/Winter 2012 collection for Louis Vuitton, Jacobs referenced the Edwardian era, with extraordinary, outsized hats, elbow-length gloves and tight-fitting long coats. In full Edwardiana mode, the models arrived for the runway show on a custom-built steam train.
In the same season, Burberry evoked a countryside, tweedy mood, and Ralph Lauren opened their show to the soundtrack of the Downton theme music, as models in narrow, tailored jackets, checked trousers and elegant pastel dresses evoked an aristocratic English shooting party à la Downton. Not only that, the brand has since been sponsoring the show in the United States. It makes sense – the American designer’s old-money, WASP aesthetic chimes perfectly with the Downtown sensibility. UK bridalwear designer Jenny Packham, meanwhile, credited Downtown with an upturn in sales of her wedding dresses, many of which draw on early 20th-Century influences.
Downtown has since moved on from Edwardian corsets and full-length skirts, and the season that kicked off in 1920 and ushered in the flapper age also coincided with Baz Luhrmann’s Great Gatsby adaptation, that led a revival of the roaring-‘20s aesthetic in 2013. And as the show’s action moves into the late 1920s and early 1930s, costume styles have shifted. Downton costume designer Caroline McCall has cited iconic French designers of the era, Vionnet and Lanvin, as influences.
The Downton fashion influence shows no sign of abating. The recent Autumn/Winter 2014 collections in New York included long coats by both Joseph Altuzarra and Reed Krakoff, recalling Downton’s silhouettes, while American designer Naeem Kahn featured late 1920s-inspired dresses. In London, UK brand Burberry displayed a collection of fluid, 1930s-influenced coats and dresses, recalling the aristocratic, boho style of the Bloomsbury set.
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Cathy Kasterine, fashion director at large at UK Harper’s Bazaar magazine, points out that Milan Fashion Week was full of these influences also, citing the Carvalli Prada and Bottega Veneta shows. “And Karl Lagerfeld for Fendi had a Deco-style, geometric feel,” she says, “with a soft shoulder and long line on the coats – very 1930s. He also sent out models with single orchids, which at that time was a sign that a woman’s betrothed had been sent to war.
“Italians and Americans find British style fascinating,” says Kasterine. “It’s elusive and hard to define, you can’t buy it, you either inherit it or you’re friends with it in some way. I don’t think it’s purely a class thing, either, it’s in street style, art and music too. I think it’s to do with the bad weather - we have to work harder to make life interesting.”
Kasterine sees the American interest in Downton-style fashion as part of a wider fascination with the era of British history that the show depicts. “There’s an immense romance to that period of time between the wars,” she says. “Downton is very glamourised. In fact there was an appalling snobbery as well. But this was a golden age for the aristocracy who were then rich and powerful – and Britain still had an empire. It must have been an amazing time to live for some people . The women could be glamorous and the men could be dastardly and macho. Perfect manners were very important. There was no idea that Hitler was just around the corner. And in the end the dresses were very, very beautiful.”
The biggest draw of Downton style for fans of the show, however, is probably how character is reflected in costume. The suffragette-sympathising, class-busting Lady Sybil sports daring harem pants. American character Martha Levinson (played by Shirley MacLaine) is forward-looking and progressive, with flapperesque, shorter hemlines, cloche hats, and plenty of feathers and black-jet jewellery. The formidable, ultra-traditional Dowager Duchess, meanwhile, remains resolutely Edwardian in her silhouette – and is generally appalled by anything to do with the modern age, week-ends included.
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