'Downton Abbey's Best Kept Secrets Are Hidden In Its Costume Department

by Aoife Hanna
Originally Published: 
Credit: Aoife Hanna

Whether it's a beaded ballgown, a perfectly tailored suit, or a not-so-glam bonnet, the costumes in period dramas are what really tie the story to the time period in which it's set. From start to finish, the outfits were among the most-discussed topics of Downton Abbey, so you can imagine my excitement when I had the opportunity to sit down with some cast members, as well as the show's costume designer, Anna Robbins, to learn all the secrets of the Downton Abbey costume department. Here's what I found out.

Just a few days ago (Dec. 10), it was announced that Robbins and her team had been nominated for a Costume Designers Guild Award in the highly coveted category of Excellence In Period Film Award for their work on the Downton Abbey film. For those who saw the film, it came as no surprise. The intricate details and impressive realism of each and every character's costume — whether they be upstairs or downstairs — were seriously impressive.

Chatting with Robbins, Jim Carter (Mr Carson), Phyllis Logan (Mrs Carson), Sophie McShera (Daisy), and Michael C. Fox (Andrew) about the costumes for one of the the most hotly anticipated films of 2019, I learnt a whole lot more than I was expecting. From corsets to colouring, there's so much to think about when it comes to dressing a period drama, and I loved hearing about the pros and cons of certain looks and what it was like being tasked with wearing them.

Credit: Aoife Hanna

1. Many of the fabrics used were antiques

Being involved in such a vast and varied costume drama, Robbins felt an obligation to make sure all of the outfits worn by the cast in the film were not only beautiful to look at, but as authentic as possible. And what's more realistic than fabric from the actual time period that the film was set in?

"It's a sort of slight obsession of mine, finding the right fabric for the right costume," Robbins tells me. "I love vintage originals so I'd use a lot of 1920s pieces ... The best way to anchor it into that time frame is to find fabric that is from that time."

Some fabrics were recreated digitally

Credit: Aoife Hanna

Although Robbins is a dab hand at sourcing fabrics, sometimes she has to employ some all together more modern methods.

"There was a dress of Lady Mary's in the film that she wears when she goes for afternoon tea. I'd found a dress which had a beautiful print on it. Hedgerows, churches, and to me it was the estate," she says. "But there wasn't enough of it so we took it a part and had it digitally replicated."

3. The men's suits were tailor made

As the Downton film had a larger budget than the series, this meant the costume department could be bigger and more bespoke than ever before. "I actually think our costumes were way better [in the film than the series]," Fox, who plays Andrew, tells me. "Mine was a tailor-made suit from Soho."

The upstairs costumes were kind of stressful to wear

Credit: Aoife Hanna

While you may think being in the downstairs garb would be a bit of a drag, it seems that, in actual fact, wearing the very beautiful and ornate costumes of the upstairs characters was actually a huge pain.

When asked if she ever got jealous of the upstairs lot, McShera says, "I genuinely didn't just because they're much more uncomfortable and they have to be really careful. They can't just slob about, eat what they want. Whereas we were really lucky because we worked in the kitchen so if I spilled my tea down my pinny it's not the end of the world. And I do tend to do that."

5. The clothes had a narrative arc too

As the characters and stories developed, so did their sartorial situation. Robbins explains that, just like the characters themselves, the costumes had a story arc. Often, as relationships were frayed, the use of different shades reflected the power dynamic, for example. "If there's a power play between Lady Edith and Lady Mary, you're looking to get that dichotomy between their outfits. Where there's a clash in terms of style, you'll use colour for strength there," she explains.

By season five, only one person had to wear a corset

Back in season 5, the women were lucky enough to get rid of those dreaded corsets. Well, everyone but Mrs Carson. Yep, Logan was the last one standing in that respect. Not even the glamorous Crawley ladies or the Dowager.

"I did get a bit annoyed to realise that nobody else but me was in a ruddy corset," Logan tells me. However, she did find one silver lining: "It's almost worth doing it for the relief of taking it off."

The Downton Abbey film will be available in the U.S. on Digital Nov 26 and Blu-ray/DVD on Dec. 17, 2019. UK fans will have to wait until Jan. 27, 2020, for the Blu-ray/DVD release.

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