Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Dressing Downton

What could top a tour of Highclere Castle?  Not much, but to continue on my Downton Abbey high, I attended a talk last week at the Victoria & Albert Museum by Susannah Buxton, the costume designer for seasons 1 and 2 of the popular TV series.

Ms. Buxton was joined by a V&A curator from the Fashion department, who discussed some of the parallels between the Crawley sisters of Downton Abbey and their real-life contemporary, wealthy socialite Heather Firbank, whose considerable wardrobe was donated to the museum after her death.
V&A fashion curator (left) and Susannah Buxton (right), discuss the fictional
Crawley sisters (photo, left) and Heather Firbank (photo, right)
I've never really thought much about where all the costumes come from in the costume dramas that are so popular on British TV (and often exported to the US), but it's much more complicated than I imagined.  First of all, Ms. Buxton had a fairly modest budget of about £20,000 per episode ($32,200), which sounds like a lot of money until you consider that it includes not only the main characters -- whose clothing must reflect their wealth and status -- but all the servants and extras.  Some costumes were rented from local costume houses, others came from costume shops in Paris, and some were custom-made.

Also, because the series covers a period of several years, the costumes must reflect the changes in fashion that were going on at the time.  Lady Cora, as an American with a generous dress allowance, would probably wear more daring fashions than some of her British contemporaries, while the Dowager Countess would likely be more comfortable wearing the more conservative clothing of her generation.  As the years progress, hemlines creep up and waistlines drop down in the dresses worn by the three sisters, so they can't just keep wearing the same costumes over and over.

We also learned that each character had their own color palette.  So Edith is often seen in oranges and greens, while Sybil frequently wears shades of blue and purple, and Mary dresses in reds, greys, and black.   All of Lord Grantham's clothes were custom-made for him, since that would have been the case in real life, as were Lady Violet's (the Dowager Countess).

In some cases, a costume was built around a single period component that Ms. Buxton particularly liked, such as a hat or jacket, in order to create a coordinating ensemble.  In the case of the red dress below worn by Lady Cora, she found the red embroidered silk fabric for the bodice and designed the rest of the dress around it.  She must really like this dress, because I think she's worn it two or three times.
(Yes, I took this photo of the TV)
Cousin Isobel's beaded jacket came from a costume house in Paris, and has also made more than one appearance during the course of the show.  I probably wouldn't have noticed that if I hadn't gone to the lecture...
Didn't you just wear that at Christmas?
Ironically, of the more expensive costumes is the simple pink cotton dress worn by the kitchen maid, Daisy.  Since she wears the same thing every day, they decided it would be worth the investment to purchase the vintage Edwardian dress, which had never been worn.  It is the only completely original costume worn by a member of the cast.

As I watched the next episode (no spoilers, I promise!) with Josh, I drove the poor man crazy by constantly pausing the show and pointing out details about both the rooms in the house ("All the paintings in the dining room belong to the house, and are portraits of the previous Earls and their families.") and the costumes ("They had a hard time convincing the tailor to make Lord Grantham's suit with the sloping shoulders that were common during that period.").  I suspect he'll come up with an excuse to skip watching it with me this week...


  1. Very interesting, thank you for sharing! I was disappointed in Mary's wedding dress, but I guess it was the style of the time :)

  2. Love this insight. Must have been a fascinating talk! Missing all of you while I'm here in the States!


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