Downton Abbey is probably my favourite TV series, of all time. I enjoy rewatching certain scenes of the series occasionally, especially those of season 2.
It’s a slow-paced historical drama television series that depicts the life of the aristocratic Crawley family and their servants throughout the early 20th century. The series manages to depict how societal attitudes towards class and hierarchy change between the years of 1912 and 1926, inevitably spurred by events like WWI, the Spanish influenza epidemic and the Irish War of Independence.
Season 2 begins right after the outbreak of the First World War in August 1914, and viewers see intricately how the Crawley family’s manor house transforms into a war-time convalescent home for soldiers to house the recovering wounded.
I could write so much more about this series and how Julien Fellowes manages to create a compelling storyline with characters displaying enormous psychological depth, making it oddly easy to relate to them, whether they are aristocrats or servants.
Since the original trailer for the first season does not quite capture the essence of the TV show, this short clip might suffice. It’s my favourite scene of the series I believe, and well, Mary Crawley has always been my favourite character. Some people don’t like her because she isn’t the most agreeable person on earth, but I believe she’s mainly just misunderstood.
What I’ve always loved about this series, besides its story, is the manner in which fashion was incorporated, representing the political and societal changes of the early 20th century. Period dramas naturally feature clothes that resemble their respective era’s fashion, but Downton Abbey has put a very special emphasis on this aspect. There are meticulous depictions of how certain dresses, jewelry and hair styles are worn – often relying on elaborate techniques deployed by the servants, especially when it comes to fitting dresses and styling hair.
These depictions change over time, alongside the popular fashion of the time. Starting with the Edwardian era, the dresses worn by the Crawley sisters during the first season are probably the most authentic depiction of late Edwardian fashion that I’ve seen on TV. Around 1912, silhouettes became flatter and much less “S-curved” than just a few years earlier. These were the last year of the corsets for women.
Clothes would be changed several times during the day. There were morning, afternoon and evening dresses, with the latter being the most elaborate ones.
By comparison, clothes in season 2 were far simpler, with looser cuts. World War I was going on, so there was just not much time for fussiness.
More and more, viewers can see how major societal changes are reflected in popular fashion styles of the early 1920s in season 3: Following the war, the women’s suffrage movement becomes more influential, women are joining the workforce in more significant positions. Alongside this, their clothes are now simpler, looser and more comfortable.
We are slowly transitioned into modernity, or to be more precise – our currently known, latest concept of modernity through the angle of fashion. The 1920s continue in seasons 4, 5 and 6, in the vein of typical flapper-fashion: Shorter skirts, flat busts and more skin.
Mary Crawley decides to get a bob cut typical for this era as well. Just a few years earlier, it would have been shocking for a woman to have such short hair. (sidenote for those who are interested: Even though my hair is long right now, I used to have such a haircut a few years ago!)
So, what is the point of this blog post? I suppose I found it fascinating how clothes represent an important element to depict attitudes on (the transformation of) class, etiquette and customs in the series. Overall and in far more nuances than I’ve managed to depict here, we see how the history of the early 20th century and the concept of modernity unfolds by looking at the clothes of Downton Abbey.