Downton Abbey: A New Era's Costumes Reflect a Decade's Fashionable Evolution

Downton Abbey costume designer Anna Robbins explains how she brought the film’s numerous characters into the 1930s.

by Carrie Wittmer

Harry Hadden-Paton stars as Bertie Pelham, Laura Carmichael as Lady Edith, Tuppence Middleton as Luc...
Courtesy of Ben Blackall / Focus Features

By now, you’ve probably heard Lady Cora Crawley (Elizabeth McGovern) say, “the modern world comes to Downton” more times than you can count in the trailer for Downton Abbey: A New Era, the second film in what started as a wholesome upstairs-downstairs drama series in 2010 and has evolved into a worldwide (yet still wholesome) phenomenon.

In a franchise like Downton Abbey, fashion is essential to not only indicating the time period—the series began in 1912 and A New Era begins in 1928—but to accurately and succinctly giving its dozens of characters personality and a signature style. “I think we made over 300 garments in the workroom,” costume designer Anna Robbins tells W. “There were over 500 pieces of jewelry that we sourced.”

A New Era puts Downton characters in places we’ve never seen them before, literally and figuratively. Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) assimilates into her role as the Lady of Downton as Lady Violet (Dame Maggie Smith) winds down, revealing a more relaxed, vulnerable side. Half of the cast heads to the French Riviera, where they wear pastels and linens, a significant contrast to their usual English countryside dark tones and heavy fabrics. Lady Edith wears pants. The characters are also adjusting—some slower than others—to evolving fashion with changes in silhouettes and fabrics. “I can talk about Downton for days,” Robbins says. “I hope it's a feast for the eyes because the film was bigger from a costume point of view than the first film, and we didn't really recognize that until we were in the thick of it.”

Robbins, who received Emmy nominations for her work on the series in 2015 and 2016, spoke to W about transitioning Downton characters into the 1930s, dressing Lady Mary in pajamas for the first time (in a silk dressing gown from Robbins’s personal vintage collection), Lady Violet’s more relaxed wardrobe, and playing with color and contrast on the French Riviera.

As the title suggests, a major theme in this film is entering a new era. What was it like adjusting to different fashion from what we've seen on Downton in the past?

This script allowed us to really look at the emerging trends that we're going to see a lot more of in the '30s. So knowing the decade that they're about to arrive at, you start seeing those '30s shapes and fabrications and silhouettes a little bit earlier. Knowing that we were in 1928, it allowed me to look at that. Every single episode on the series and the first film was still a little progression through the '20s, so there were always changes and differences to the aesthetic and the styles within that decade. From a fashion perspective, the '30s was a really beautiful decade and a really interesting change, so you're able to spot that straight away when you see it.

What are some of those subtle differences? Is there a certain silhouette that gradually changed?

When you start at the beginning of the '20s, clothing becomes very straight up and down and the waistline is dropped, and you've got this really linear look, quite androgynous. That waistline moves up and down throughout the decade, and the hemlines rise and fall throughout the decade as well, so there's little markers where you can see that happening. As you get towards the end of the '20s and into the '30s, the waist is found again, so the waist comes up to its natural point and we start seeing belted looks and bias cuts, and things that are just a bit more figure-hugging and quite feminine in that way. We definitely explored that with Lady Mary, so finding form again, looking at those proportions, like little waisted waspies on fuller skirted dresses alongside the low backed linear look that suits Lady Mary so well.

Kevin Doyle as Mr. Molesley and Michelle Dockery as Lady Mary

Ben Blacka/Focus Features

There were also huge sartorial steps forward, like putting Edith into trousers for the first time. We embraced this pajama set look from the French Riviera, and it was a very conscious decision that Lady Edith would've been on board with and would've taken the earliest opportunity to embrace that really liberated, fashion forward look. I always feel like I need to have the two of them very much head-to-head when it comes to cutting-edge fashion. So with Lady Mary, we had her in pajamas, which is the first time we've seen that. We were able to look at leisure and sportswear in this film, so we've got tennis, we've got swimwear. We brought in more double-breasted suiting across our gentleman as well that was in linen daywear or in the black tie jacket, and that was a kind of lovely move forward.

Tuppence Middleton as Lucy Branson and Laura Carmichael as Lady Edith

Ben Blackall/Focus Features

Were there certain characters that you felt would be more compelled to wear some of these modern garments, such as pants, or certain male characters more likely to wear the double-breasted jacket?

Lady Mary is the future of Downton Abbey and there's a kind of classism to that, so I think it was a natural progression to look at '30s dresses and those shapes. Whereas for Lady Edith it felt like trousers was a great advancement for her. It's also just about keeping things within character and working with the actors as well, in terms of how we can showcase them and work with them. Halter necks have always been really wonderful on Lady Edith and have been a little bit of a signature that we've seen across special moments. One of her evening dresses that we made out of lamé for the soiree in the South of France, you've got that signature neckline that you can identify. Whereas with Lady Mary, these deep Vs and lower backed dresses work beautifully on Michelle Dockery's frame. It's about combining character and cast to find the perfect looks.

Hugh Bonneville and Elizabeth McGovern as Robert and Cora Grantham and Laura Carmichael as Lady Edith Hexham

Ben Blackall/Focus Features

How did you approach styling the characters from Downton going to the Riviera? Would they already have a lot of these items in their wardrobe?

They very well might have had some pieces in their wardrobe and they would've shopped and they would've had things made for that kind of trip. It gave me the opportunity to explore different palettes that would've felt a little bit out of place with the setting of Downton. So it's not necessarily that they would never have worn them, but we were presented with this incredible opportunity to design costumes set against completely different backdrops. The villa is just different in its color, its scale, the sense is light. We've got this saturated sunlight. We looked at this sort of Neapolitan palette Reading Julian's incredible script, you could see how it was going to weave together and that you'd have that lovely contrast.

Elizabeth McGovern as Cora Grantham and Laura Carmichael as Lady Edith Hexham

Ben Blackall/Focus Features

We had to be mindful of the fact that Lady Mary might be set against the red sofa of the library or the dark wood and these darker settings, then suddenly being contrasted with this marble hall staircase in the Riviera. As soon as you've got gentlemen in linen suits, you've got a pale counterpart to the women's color, which offsets it beautifully and differently to the dark tweeds of the Abbey. It needed to feel cohesive, and that tied in nicely to the fact that Michelle Dockery and I had talked about softening her slightly for this film, exploring a more vulnerable side to her, and we did that through palette and texture and fabrication. Even though she's still at Downton Abbey, there is a cohesiveness.

How did you figure out what Lady Violet would be wearing? It's an interesting period of her life that the film follows, as she's reaching the end and she knows it.

A lady of her generation would always have a Victorian Edwardian sensibility in terms of her hemlines and necklines and sleeve lengths. It hasn't changed that much, and we've only ever moved her forward incrementally in terms of fabric choice and detailing. The clothes she’d have made in 1925 would've been 1925 fabrics, so you're able to reflect the moving on of time through textiles choices, rather than through style and silhouette and proportion. There would've been a real sense of propriety and being properly dressed for the occasion, even if that is just sitting in a chair in the library. It's quite a big thing to step away from that and deconstruct that look, so it was a conscious decision to put her into blouses and skirts with beautiful shawls. They gave textural interest that made it feel a little bit more relaxed and a little bit more vulnerable. The fact that we see her in nightwear is quite an exposing thing,. That was important to get that right and make sure that it felt of the character, but suited the tone of the piece.

Penelope Wilton as Isobel Merton and Maggie Smith as Violet Grantham

Ben Blackall/Focus Features

There are so many characters in Downton Abbey. Is it ever challenging to work on a project with so many characters to create costumes for?

Yeah, hugely. I mean, you lose perspective on it a little bit. And then when you work on other shows where your principal cast list might be six, seven, eight characters, and you're sitting with over 20 leads with multiple story days and changes... We do repeat costumes because it should feel real and it should feel like a working wardrobe for a real person. If it's a significant scene you're less likely to repeat it or you'd repeat it in a different way. But quite often you need a very specific costume for a very specific moment in the script and it's relatively standalone, so you do end up requiring a huge number of costumes.

Was there any costume or any costumes in general that were a particular challenge?

I'd say overall the challenge on Downton is very much the fact that I like to use as much vintage and authentic 1920s garments as I can, and they're becoming rarer to find, so the challenge of finding them is greater. We're looking at pieces that are almost 100 years old, so they're increasingly fragile. Our workroom is incredibly talented at restoring and reinforcing and reworking vintage pieces, but it does make for a slightly nerve-wracking shoot because the clothing is so delicate that the rigors of filming really tests the durability of these pieces. That is a challenge, but one that pays dividends because you're adding to the authenticity of the piece by using textiles that have come from that period. Lucy's wedding look was a wonderful challenge, but it always feels like there's a slightly higher pressure on something bridal, maybe just because it's a wedding dress and there's a certain amount of focus on that.

Lucy’s wedding gown established the feeling of the movie with its modern silhouette. Since it's the first scene in the movie, you quickly get a sense of what it's going to be like.

Yes, exactly. Knowing it was going to be the first costume that we saw and registered, and the fact that it's the first time we're seeing Lucy in this new life. She was a great character to costume in this film because in the last film she was a lady's maid and she had four or five changes and that was it. Suddenly, we've got the ability to showcase her personality, show how she has reacted to being able to publicly be herself and will have money that she can actually spend on clothing. But it hasn't gone to her head. It's not frivolous, there's a kind of beautiful freedom to it, and she's young and cutting-edge. With her wedding dress, I definitely wanted to get the sense that she could have gathered up her skirt and had a proper dance. She's still one foot in one world and one foot in the other. I wanted it to hit so many notes and it needed to do so much as one costume, which makes it challenging.

Allen Leech as Tom Branson and Tuppence Middleton as Lucy Smith

Ben Blackall/Focus Features