Downton Abbey Style: Costume Secrets, Pieces We'll Never See, and What Items the Cast Wants to Steal
We’re about to be smacked with the hard reality that it’s the end of an era, guys. Downton Abbey, the PBS show that turned everyone in your family into period-piece junkies, is starting its sixth and final season on Jan. 3. The show was captivating for the characters and story arcs but also for the nearly encyclopedic way we got to watch fashions morph from decade to decade. We met everyone in 1912 (remember the family member who perished on the Titanic?), and the women were in high-necked, constrictive floor-length styles before moving to drop-waist, flapper-inspired pieces. Hemlines changed, jewelry got switched up, and, heck, they eventually showed some leg (and low heels!). It’s so often movies that get all the sartorial praise, but Downton pretty much confirmed weekly shows should be mined for style inspiration too.
With the end looming near, we scored time with the show’s costume designer, Anna Mary Scott Robbins, to find out what we can expect, which style moments top her personal best-dressed list, and how the entire experience was. It should come as no surprise that she loved her job, especially since it covered her favorite decade to work on.
“My favorite time [for costumes] would be the first half of the 20th century because it’s so accessible. You’re so close to it that you can identify with the people wearing the clothes, you can imagine that it would be you or your grandparents,” she said. “I love how tantalizingly close it is, and yet how different from our clothing today.”
Glamour: What can we expect, fashion-wise, from season 6?
Anna Mary Scott Robbins: I’ve really gone to town and found some incredible original pieces that I’m very excited about. Knowing that it’s the final season, I wanted to go out on a high and epitomize that mid-decade point that we’ve reached. The ’20s glamour and decadence, knowing that that way of life is waning.
Glamour: Over all six seasons, what have been your all-time favorite looks?
AMSR: Looking to season five when Lady Mary went to a fashion show, I had designed a dress that was entirely new. It was this beautiful blue silk with white neck detailing and a red hat, and in that moment I thought, Yes, I’ve found her signature; I’ve found where I want to take her, to develop those lines and that silhouette, that cut and sense of style.” That was a strong look and it was quite formative for me.
In this season, I’m excited about Lady Edith’s wardrobe because she’s changing and coming out of where she was last year, where I had to keep her wardrobe quite restrained. I couldn’t work with exciting color palettes or textiles because that’s not where she was emotionally. This year I’m able to embrace a new sense of confidence and independence. It’s quite London-centric, so it’s an exciting fashion point of view for her.
Glamour: What have been some of the most challenging parts of costuming the show?
AMSR: The basic challenge is that we have to costume a core cast of 25, and we cover so many story days that we have to be incredibly prolific to achieve the sheer number of costumes that are needed.
Sometimes an original [vintage] garment that you thought was in good condition is actually very brittle and fragile. It’s not until you start using it that it’ll begin falling apart at the seams, and then you have this massive challenge on your hand. You’re repairing it as you go, trying to keep it looking perfect on screen when you know that it’s probably a couple of days away from perishing completely. As soon as something’s on camera, you’re committed to it.
Glamour: Was there any style moment that you wanted to get to and were disappointed not to?
AMSR: I have research files and sketches for each of the characters and have been working my way through all of these images—there were lots of ideas I haven’t been able to get to because we ran out of time and story. I could have carried on designing many, many more costumes for everybody. There were some beautiful original pieces I found that we didn’t have a space to use either, like a couple of gorgeous embroidered evening coats. Those are such a specific thing because they require an evening scene where you see the characters coming in from outside, and those are rare because we tend to see them at the dining table or in the drawing room. When you find pieces like that you buy them because they’re so rare, and if the scene comes up, you want to be ready. It was a shame those couldn’t see the camera.
Glamour: What type of resources did you use over the series run to find pieces? Was it mostly creating your own stuff or finding vintage items?
AMSR: For the men, it’s much more makes [of new items] because original suiting is the wrong size and hasn’t lasted. It’s rare to find, so we do bespoke. When it comes to the ladies downstairs, they have no need for evening wear and the day wear is rare to find, so we make up about 80 percent, which includes customizing any originals. For the women there’s probably about 10 percent hired [from costume rental houses] and then it’s a real combination of making things from scratch and adopting originals. Often the vintage dresses won’t be long enough because our girls are quite tall. We’ll make slips that look like a part of the original dress and adapt them.
Glamour: At any point did you find yourself on eBay, hunting for something super specific?
AMSR: Well, it’s a dangerous thing to have something you’re specifically after and think you’re going to find. You could troll vintage markets for months and months and months and it might not be exactly like it was in your imagination. That’s another reason you make something: It gives you control over the exact coloring of the silk, the cut, the detailing. I tend to have an open mind when vintage shopping and am constantly looking for things that could be for any of our characters. When I find them, I’ll buy them and stockpile them. I know the characters so well that I can buy things knowing they’ll be good for certain scene moments. Having a rough idea where the characters’ stories are taking them, I try to be prepared.
Glamour: You’ve been living with Downton style for so long—has it affected your own personal style?
AMSR: Laura [Carmichael], Michelle [Dockery], and I would say that there are some pieces you could pair with a pair of jeans and great shoes that would work perfectly today. It might be a little embroidered jacket, some of the blouses we’ve done, or even the coats. I think Michelle had her eye on one of the paneled dark green coats that we made her. When you take things in isolation they’re beautiful and can be styled in a very different way. Even some of the evening gowns, as quintessentially ’20s as they are, they could easily work on a red carpet today because that style is so timeless. It would translate to a premiere easily.
Glamour: Did you get to take any favorite pieces home with you when the series wrapped?
AMSR: Unfortunately not. There’s such a legacy to the show that the pieces might have a life after this. They might go to an exhibition and they’re quite often brought back out to tour, so they want to account for everything.
Kate Middleton made a visit to Downton‘s London set in March and got a private tour of the costume department from Robbins
With the last episode of Downton neatly wrapped up and ready to be watched, Robbins is currently taking a well-deserved break.
“When you finish a job you need to take time to rest because it’s quite tiring.You see friends and family because you’ve missed out on quite a lot of socializing during the filming months,” she explained. “I recalibrate my life that way. Right now, I feel lovely and rested having had a break after filming Downton.” Come January, her next job will see her moving neatly forward from where the Crawleys left off; she’ll be outfitting 1940s Londoners for The Halcyon.
Downton Abbey, The Final Season premieres Sunday, January 3 on MASTERPIECE on PBS.
The posh, aristocratic world of Downton frequently had us thinking of royals, no? Check out what today’s princesses, duchesses, and countesses have been wearing for holiday celebrations this year.
Photos: Getty Images, courtesy of (C) Nick Briggs/Carnival Film & Television Limited 2015 for MASTERPIECE