Calling all Downton Abbey fans! (And, if you aren’t, why not?) This wonderful British series by Julian Fellowes has been all the rage especially in the costume community for a couple of years now. From March 11th to April 13th a selection of gowns from this series will be on display at Toronto’s Spadina House Museum. I thought we might take a sneak peak at garments in our collection before going to see these costumes.
Not sure this qualifies as a spoiler alert but the opening of this series is marked by the sinking of the Titanic (April 1912), neatly setting the era for us. And, for fashion fans what a wonderful place to begin! This period has been referred to as the “Transitional Era or Decade” and for many good reasons. To begin with, it is the turn of the 20th century and as King Edward passes away in 1910 so too do the social conventions and attitudes of his conservative mother Queen Victoria. The decade of the ‘teens” (1910 to 1919) will see a number of transitions. The most radical event of the decade, the First World War (1914-1918) will see horrific changes in warfare with modern weaponry, fighting and death on a previous unimaginable scale.
The social positions and lives of women will change with the suffragette movement (Votes for Women, as Mrs. Banks in Mary Poppins proclaims – before quickly stuffing her banner in the closet with the arrival home of Mr. Banks) and the “weaker” sex confirming they are so not the weaker sex as they take over the vacancies left by men on the farms, in the factories and in business during the war.
On the fashion front, great Designer Paul Poiret, loudly proclaims to have freed women with eliminating the corset in his designs. But, women should not get too excited as he shackles their ankles with his signature hobble skirts.
Downton Abbey beautifully traces the social changes occurring during this fascinating time through the story lines as well as the fashions. And the characters are larger than life. The Earl of Grantham, owner of Downton Abbey, has three daughters and no sons. As the story begins these young women are living through radical change in their roles as the second decade of the 20th century progresses. The eldest Mary, who loses her fiancé on the Titanic must now find another suitable man to marry as the Abbey can only pass to a male heir. She is bound by the social requirements of the previous century and seems somewhat cold and rigid in this role. Her beautiful gowns announce her and her role as the future Countess.
The Earl’s mother, the dowager Lady Grantham wears gowns that are appropriate to her Victorian upbringing and confirm that her character (and she is a character- as only the great actress Maggie Smith can be!)) finds the clearly defined lines that separate social classes to be reassuring. She knows not only her place but everyone else’s too! She is appalled to see her son come to dinner one night dressed casually – a tuxedo instead of the formal tailcoats she is used to seeing.
Youngest daughter Sybil is a true rebel and appears in season one in a (gasp) pantaloons gown! She has made friends with the chauffeur and is off to political meetings unchaperoned. She enlists the help of the below stairs staff to teach her to cook so that she can qualify to become a nurse and will eventually convince her family to turn the Abbey into a convalescent home for soldiers of the war. She puts away her gowns and adopts the shorter hem lined nurse’s uniform to perform the tasks that her grandmother would never have considered.
Since Poiret’s hobble skirts and delicate dresses would not stand up to the rigors of the war women had to adjust them. Sadly, our Collection does not possess a Poiret gown (Yet!) but we do have some pieces that are truly Transitional. While the colours are similar to the soft whites and pastels that were popular in the Edwardian decade these pretty pieces show the rising waistline that Poiret suggested.
Anna, maid to the Downton Abbey girls is an indispensable servant to them (helping them dress each day, caring for their clothes, even helping them re-locate a body). Getting into and out of these dresses requires help. Although corsets have been phased out they are not gone completely and boning/stays are found inside some of these gowns. Zippers have not yet made their way into fashions of this period so hook and eyes as well as buttons (and often both) are used to fasten these dresses. If we still dressed this way today – we would all need our very own ladies maid – sounds good, doesn’t it?
Many of the dresses are also constructed and decorated in such a way that you cannot really make out the closing. This attention to detail is also a thing of the past. Thanks to designer Elsa Schiaparelli in the 1930s the zipper became a quick substitute for all those hooks, eyes and buttons. But in this period great effort was made to conceal them. As you can see here (see photo) black lace appliques are used to decorate the sleeves and the piece on the centre back of the bodice actually fastens over the closure. The inside of this has an ingenious hook and eye fastening. Where the average placement of hooks and eyes places all of the hooks on one side of an opening and all the eyes on the opposite, this one alternates hooks and eyes from side to side. Why bother going to so much effort? The opposing force that pulls one hook one way and another hood in the other direction means that the closure stays tightly fastened. And, if you think about this placement of hooks and eyes you can compare this to the teeth of a zipper!
This series follows the residents of Downton Abbey through the First World War and the beginnings of the Roaring Twenties. Cousin Rose, in season four is presented to the King as a young debutant reflecting an earlier era but she is a flapper at heart. Despite her rebellious spirit, Rose does what is conventionally acceptable and dresses in a lovely gown of white appropriate for her presentation at court.
Seneca’s Fashion Centre yellow satin gown with purple floral embellishment is just the sort of thing that Edith, middle sister of the Downton girls, might have worn as a presentation or debutant gown.
For cooler evenings our wonderful pink and blue cape or orange faconne shawl would have added a “wee” bit of warmth and a big splash of panache! Our automobile coat or “duster” would have been perfect for Sybil as she learned to drive with Tom.
As season four progresses we see the female silhouette becoming flatter and more boyish. Rose, Edith, Lady Mary, and even their American grandmother(played by Shirley MacLaine) wear the flapper style! (But, that we’ll save for a future blog!)
One of the things I really love about Caroline McCall, costume designer for the series is that the Crawley ladies repeat their fashions. Despite the success of the program they haven’t taken advantage of the concept that real women didn’t purchase and purge their wardrobes. They bought something and wore it more than once and you see this with the re-appearance of certain dresses in different scenes, even different episodes. As much as I would love a fashion feast for the eyes with each new episode the repetition makes the Crawley family seem real. Despite living in an Abbey.
If you are a Downton fan too, I’m sure you can hardly wait to visit Spadina House this spring to see some of these costumes. And, do take some time to look at the restoration of the house. It has been lovingly restored with colours, fabrics, and furnishings appropriate to this time.
More details about tours, including times and ticket prices, can be found on this website.