While Downton Abbey’s brilliant, breathtaking characterisations and stunning backdrops have provided the vehicle for the drama’s success, there has always been an engaging eye turned towards early 20th century fashions, particularly with Lady Mary Crawley taking the initiative with new designs, just as the upper-class women of the period did.
“It’s very true to say wealthy women of the period really embraced new looks and styles, whereas now in a sense it has gone full circle,” says Michelle Dockery, who plays Crawley’s character.
“It is now us normal people in the street who are unequivocally the fashionistas of society while, in many ways, those at the top of the food chain have been slower to evolve and are still dressing as they did several decades ago.
“Mary always felt as though she was displaying as many of the new collections as she could! There were so many Chanel-type styles and the costumer department really pulled out all the stops for the last series. Laura and I – you know, ‘the girls’ – really had some numbers!
The Downton costume process has always been an interesting one. Each costume is designed specifically for the character, with actors expected to collaborate at length with designers Anna Scott Robbins and Caroline McCall. “Sometimes we will put something on and it doesn’t quite feel like your character,” says Dockery.
“Sometimes someone else tries it and it works, but it’s all part of it. I love the costumes; I really missed them!”
A lot of what was seen in the show were original pieces which had either been repaired or elaborated on, with explicit attention to bespoke effects and detail, and that came with its own challenges.
“I had to be very careful of not damaging the jewellery, and that often was an issue as I had a habit of playing with the necklaces,” the actress continues. “There was this one incident when I was sat at the dining table doing a scene. I was fiddling with the necklace and it broke, and the beads went everywhere. We then couldn’t carry on because of the continuity so had to wait about 15 minutes while they pieced it back together.
“Being at The Exhibition and seeing the costumes over the five years of Downton made me realise just how much fashion had changed over the period. We were in corsets in the first episode and by the end were enjoying 1920s exuberance; just like at the start I had long hair and by the end was sporting a bob.
“It makes you realise it was a time of pretty dramatic change, across society, fashion and culture.”