By Alison Baenen
From Masterpiece Classic to fashion week, Downton Abbey’s creator and costume designer discuss the series that helped inspire the collections of fall 2012
It’s earned an entry in Guinness World Records, generated a Tumblr site dedicated solely to its lamps (http://downtonabbeylamps.tumblr.com/), garnered a slew of Emmys, and turned millions of Americans into knowledgeable experts on turn-of-the-century British property law. Downton Abbey is the most unexpected entertainment coup of 2012—when was the last time a Masterpiece Classic series made it to the top of your DVR queue?—and was a staple of designers’ mood boards and collection references for fall.
Stylewise, the Edwardian era of Downton Abbey’s first two seasons may not be the most obvious choice for fashion’s latest obsession. In terms of trends, it was the end of an obsolete epoch, the same period that inspired rule breakers like Madeleine Vionnet and Paul Poiret to chart the course for the way we dress now. Women exited the second decade of the 20th century by busting out of their corsets and sashaying out of their hobble skirts—straight into the anything-goes '20s, the setting for the show’s hotly anticipated third season.
Still, the fantastically glamorous Belle Epoque is easy to fall for. Handsome footmen, punctilious butlers, and discreet lady’s maids turned the requisite and frequent outfit changes (often as many as three a day) into ritualistic pampering sessions. Fabrics were dreamy, fur was de rigueur, and hats looked incomplete without a bouquet of flowers on the brim. In short, the life of an English aristocrat was deliciously over the top, and Lady Cora and her three daughters dress the part with aplomb. “There’s an element of performance. They were all performing a role that had been decreed for them. For an aristocrat to be convincing, he must look like an aristocrat,” series creator Julian Fellowes says of his characters in the glossy coffee-table tome The World of Downton Abbey (St. Martin’s Press, 2011). Credit goes to award-winning costume designer Susannah Buxton—“a kind of sculptress-in-cloth,” according to Fellowes—who oversees the production of each episode’s looks, many of which are meticulously reconstructed originals.
While the show’s slim satin gloves and subtly tulip-shaped evening dresses have garnered their share of swoons, it was turn-of-the-century equestrian chic that emerged as one of fall’s most compelling runway trends. Designers put their urbane twist on classic foxhunting essentials, from impeccably tailored cutaway coats and proper tweeds to what could just be the season’s sleeper accessory—the top hat. Downton watchers know that one of the show’s more salacious plot points (an amorous foreigner’s late-night pursuit of Lady Mary) emerged on horseback; while love was in the air as the hunt began, it was hard to tear your eyes from the riders in crisp white stock ties and black tailcoats.
But as a costumer designer, Buxton is more satisfied when an outfit doesn’t leave an impression. “Some of the costumes I’m most proud of are the ones you wouldn’t necessarily think about because the clothes naturally belong to the character. They don’t look like actors in costumes. They look like real people,” she told Time. That the show’s perfectly appointed backdrop is part of its appeal is undeniable, but it’s the fashion zinger moments—like when Lady Sybil arrives dressed for dinner in a pair of Poiret-inspired turquoise harem pants—that do what great clothes do best: reveal an essential truth about the nature of the wearer. (Those pants, it’s worth pointing out, now have their own Twitter account: http://twitter.com/sybilharempants.)
It should come as no surprise that Buxton checks Coco Chanel as a style influencer for Lady Mary. While more decorous than her youngest sister when it comes to clothes, Mary is, like Chanel, a true iconoclast. Fiercely independent and resolutely romantic, Mary is the show’s emotional core—free-spirited and restrained all at once. “I always feel the women of that era personify a kind of oxymoron,” Fellowes told Vogue. “They presented themselves as physically helpless and delicate, while they were in fact brought up to be very tough with themselves as much as anyone else. So they would cultivate that creamy skin and those doe eyes, but if the moment called for it, they could take a five-bar gate without flinching.” Something to keep in mind as the Downton-inspired fall collections roll into stores. Demure does not mean dull.
“They don't look like actors in costumes. They look like real people.”
Susannah Buxton, costume designer, Downton Abbey
Alison Baenen in a freelance writer living in Brooklyn. She covers the New York fashion shows for Style.com and writes for Harper’s Bazaar.