Throughout Downton Abbey’s six season run, the show’s lavish costumes became as much as a reason to tune in as the high-stakes storylines.
As the series moved from Edwardian grandeur to the all-out glamour of the 1920s, the outfits worn by the Crawley sisters – Lady Mary, Edith and Sybil – weren’t just dazzling to look at. Thanks to meticulous research, the clothes also acted as a barometer for social change during a tumultuous period, from Edith’s bohemian workwear to Mary’s structured, almost androgynous suits.
Costume designer Anna Robbins joined the show in series five as the Jazz Age tentatively makes its presence felt at the Abbey, making her responsible for some of Downton’s most decadent outfits.
With two Emmy nominations under her belt, Robbins returned to style the cast for the eagerly-awaited Downton Abbey movie.
The script, which centres upon a royal visit to the Crawleys’ family seat, presented a new series of sartorial challenges for Robbins. Ahead of the film’s arrival in cinemas, the designer told Insider how she dressed Downton’s characters for the big screen.
Downton is ‘head and shoulders above’ other shows when it comes to historical accuracy
Historical accuracy was paramount for Robbins, who says she designed the costumes “so that they would withstand real scrutiny” on screen and in real life.
“Authenticity is really important across the board in lots of different departments,” she explains. “I costume design in lots of different genres, lots of different periods and Downton is head and shoulders above in terms of how far I’ll go to make things accurate.”
Joining the show in its final two series, Robbins was also aware that her designs “might have a life after filming” in exhibitions, too. “It has meant that they can be appreciated afterwards, and I have always designed with that in mind – that they should stand up to very, very close scrutiny,” she says. “It’s not good enough for them to just be passable on screen.”
Naturally, “research is absolutely key,” with the designer creating mood boards and sketchbooks using archive photos from fashion magazines and the Victoria and Albert museum and vintage fabric samples to “really build that character and explore what their costumes need to say about them.”
After compiling these guides during her time on the TV show, “coming on to the film was lovely,” she says, “because I already had this amazing background where I felt very comfortable shopping and fitting these characters that I’ve come to know so well.
“I can spot an Edith dress from half a mile away when I walk into a shop.”
Costuming real people brings new challenges
Writer Julian Fellowes has always played with real-life events in his scripts: the series memorably opens after the Titanic sinks, leaving the Earl of Grantham in search of a male heir, and later seasons touch on everything from the Spanish flu epidemic to the struggle for Irish independence.
The series, however, never featured characters who existed in real life – until Fellowes stepped things up for the film, that is.
The plot hinges upon a royal visit, imagining King George V and his wife Queen Mary interacting with the fictional denizens of Downton.
“You’re suddenly costuming real people, which is a completely different challenge,” Robbins says. To dress the Queen, played by Geraldine James, she combined authentic copies of the royal’s standout gowns with original designs, created using vintage fabrics as building blocks.
“A couple of [her dresses] are really faithful reproductions of photographic stills of her that I just loved,” she explained. “Whereas for another couple of them, it’s a combination of things. I found this amazing bit of silver lace that I turned into the skirt of the Queen’s ball gown. When you have that as your starting point, you then find other fabrics to put together with that and you build something new.
“You’re constantly referencing the types of sleeves, the embellishments and how layered her costumes were.”
Stars ‘completely change body shape’ with costume underwear
The most fashionable silhouette of the 20s was that of the super-gamine flapper girl. To fully recreate that look, the ‘upstairs’ actresses “all wore special underwear,” Robbins explains.
“There’s this really sort of boyish, straight up and down silhouette for our women,” she says. “So they’d have flattening underwear – that gives you the shape you need for the dresses.”
Beats a corset, we suppose – as stars playing less fashion-forward characters would probably attest. The likes of the Dowager Countess and Queen Mary are still hanging on to the more rigid styles of the Edwardian era, which required layer upon layer of underpinnings.
“Our first challenge with Geraldine [James] was to completely change her body shape,” Robbins says. “As the foundation to her dress, she had padding and corsetry, all sorts of layers and petticoats to give her that form.”
Vintage pieces are sourced from all around the world
The outfits we see on screen are a mixture of original designs – like the pleated gown in Prussian blue worn by Lady Mary in the film’s posters – and vintage pieces, including the intricately beaded empire-line wedding dress seen on Lily James’ Lady Rose in series five.
To source the latter, Robbins and her team “cast a really wide net” in order to find the perfect sample – and just like the rich debutantes in the series, their travels take them to the world’s fashion capitals.
“We will physically go and visit lots of different vintage shops and traders – the monthly vintage markets in London are amazing,” she reveals. “And we travelled over to Paris. I also have this amazing network – I had a vintage trader from America fly over to show me what he had. I thought, ‘It’s a long way to fly, what if I don’t buy anything?’ And actually, we bought five or six pieces that have ended up absolutely key on the film.
“It’s always worth going that extra mile because you might find one gem – if you uncover that gem, it’s worth the travel.”
Beading looks beautiful on screen – but can cause headaches on set
The painstakingly sewn embellishments that adorn the Crawley ladies’ evening gowns are the stuff that fashion dreams are made of – but working with century-old threading and heavy beading can prove a nightmare for cast and crew.
“Am I always worried it’s going to fall apart? Absolutely!” Robbins laughs. “The garments can be almost 100 years old and if the thread starts to perish, there’s nothing you can do about the fact that the beads will then start dropping off.” To up the stakes even further, the designer adds, “you can’t tell until you start filming – so you have to hope that it will be on a single day of filming, rather than a shoot that’s over three or four days.”
As a result, Robbins and her team are involved in a “constant maintenance” of the antique pieces: if a vintage sample looks especially fragile, they will “use some fabric from within it and recreate something new,” giving it a new lease of life as part of an original design.
Even the more “robust” pieces still require special care. One film costume for Laura Carmichael’s Lady Edith consists of two layers: an authentic 20s beaded dress worn over a new slip dress, carefully dyed to the correct shade of pink. “There’s still an element of restoration to strengthen it,” Robbins says. “A modern silk slip means it’s got something more solid upon which to rest.”
Downton Abbey: The Movie is in cinemas on September 13