Style Secrets We Learned From Downton Abbey

Anna Robbins is the force behind Downton Abbey’s stunning, period-appropriate costumes. Here’s what we learned from chatting with her (and her adoring cast) in the U.K.

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Laura Carmichael stars as Lady Edith, Elizabeth McGovern as Cora Crawley and Michelle Dockery as Lady Mary in Downton Abbey
Photo: Liam Daniel/©2019 Focus Features, LLC

Downton Abbey‘s fashion secrets

Much-loved around the globe for the glimpse it offers into the life of an aristocratic British family and its live-in staff, Downton Abbey is also notable for its sumptuous period fashions. “Anna Robbins, our amazingly talented costume designer, has cranked it up another notch for the film and everybody looks incredible,” says Michelle Dockery, who stars as Downton Abbey‘s Lady Mary. Now, with Downton Abbey: A New Era headed to theatres across Canada this May, we’ve chatted with a few members of the cast, as well as Anna Robbins herself, to learn the tricks of the trade.

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Laura Carmichael stars as Lady Edith, Maggie Smith as Violet Crawley, Hugh Bonneville as Robert Crawley, Allen Leech as Tom Branson and Elizabeth McGovern as Cora Crawley in Downton Abbey
Photo: Jaap Buitendijk/©2019 Focus Features, LLC

Dress for the person you want to be

In our daily lives, we all play different roles—from boss to nurturer—that require unique sets of skills. For actors like Phyllis Logan, who portrays Downton Abbey‘s Mrs. Hughes, getting into costume signals a change in character. “You get in the corset and all the other accoutrements, and when I slip my keys through my belt, that’s it: Mrs. Hughes is back in town,” Logan says. Jim Carter, who plays Mr. Carson, concurs. “The bow tie, the starched front—it tells you how to stand. You become Mrs. Hughes and Carson as soon as you put the costume on.”

Don’t miss our behind-the-scenes look at Highclere Castle, the real life Downton Abbey.

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Michelle Dockery stars as Lady Mary and Matthew Goode as Henry Talbot in Downton Abbey
Photo: Jaap Buitendijk/©2019 Focus Features, LLC

Choose colours that tell your story

In Downton Abbey, the colours of an outfit often tell a story about each character’s place in life before any dialogue is spoken. When crafting the costumes for the first Downton Abbey film’s final scene, which features a lavish ball in celebration of King George V and Queen Mary, costume designer Anna Robbins started with Lady Mary (above) and her grandmother, Violet—the key characters in the film’s emotional climax. “We’ve been moving toward that point throughout the film,” says Robbins. “Violet’s had a colour journey where we’ve brought her paler and paler from a bolder starting point to this blue-green-grey. I wanted Lady Mary to be a real focal point because she’s the future of the Abbey.” That contrast between the “look-at-me” monochromatic ensemble for Mary and the faded beauty on Violet actually serves to drive home the film’s narrative.

Find out more life lessons we learned from Downton Abbey.

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Costume designer Anna Robbins and actor Imelda Staunton on the set of Downton Abbey
Photo: Jaap Buitendijk/©2019 Focus Features, LLC

Add a personal touch

Even though Downton Abbey takes pride in how “authentic and period correct it is,” says Robbins, the costumes in the films still feel incredibly stylish by contemporary standards. Robbins managed to create this effect while working within strict guidelines. “I sourced a lot of originals and when we made bespoke, we ensured that the fabrics were from that time or behaved and looked in a similar way,” she says. She also added her own unique touch, which makes the costumes a memorable component of the movies. “I’m a designer in a modern day, picking pieces from that time that are attractive to me. I also design things that I’d quite like to wear as well, at the end of the day.”

Don’t miss our interview with Mrs. Patmore herself, Lesley Nicol.

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Michelle Dockery as Lady Mary in Downton Abbey
Photo: Jaap Buitendijk/©2019 Focus Features, LLC

Always dress for the occasion

“I nearly came down in a dinner jacket tonight,” says Lord Grantham in a scene from the Downton Abbey series. “Oh really?” spits his sharp-tongued mother, Violet. “Well why not a dressing gown? Or better still, pajamas?”

Of course, Violet’s a bit of a stickler for dressing etiquette, but she’s right in pointing out that different clothing suits different occasions. For the average person, that means dressing up for a nice dinner and dressing down for a cuddle on the couch. For Robbins, it’s much more precise.

“I work very closely with the production designer, Donal [Woods], and look ahead at the setting of the scene and the upholstery, the colours of the cushions and where he’s going to place the lamps,” she says. Each costume must complement the room that it’s in and the other costumes around it. “I always feel that my job is to compose the scenes and create paintings within a setting.”

Check out Carson Kressly’s guide to dressing with confidence—at any age.

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Michelle Dockery stars as Lady Mary, Elizabeth McGovern as Cora Crawley and Laura Carmichael as Lady Edith in Downton Abbey
Photo: Jason Bell/©2019 Focus Features, LLC

There’s no such thing as too many diamonds

…Especially not if ladies Mary, Cora and Edith have anything to say about it.

The first Downton Abbey film is set in 1927, “so Anna brings in a hint of the ’30s,” notes Michelle Dockery. “The dresses for the women were getting longer… There’s a lot of jewellery. At one point I was wearing four necklaces for one costume!”

Though it may seem excessive, layering of necklaces and earrings—especially delicate pieces—continues to be a trend more than 90 years later.

Check out our 50 favourite Downton Abbey quotes of all time.

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Michelle Dockery stars as Lady Mary and Elizabeth McGovern as Cora Crawley in Downton Abbey
Photo: Jaap Buitendijk/©2019 Focus Features, LLC

Versatility is key

Eagle-eyed viewers may have noticed that in the final ball scene of the first Downton Abbey film, all of the married women wear tiaras. (Fun fact: Single ladies weren’t supposed to wear them!) But did you know that many period tiaras were designed to break apart into separate brooches or necklaces?

“If a family was investing money in a piece of jewellery, they wanted to make sure that they got different uses from it and could wear it at various times of the day and night,” says Omar Vaja, senior sales director at Bentley & Skinner, who provided three tiaras to complement Robbins’ costumes. “When they’re not being worn as tiaras, [many convertible designs] can be worn as necklaces or brooches. During the period, there were far more necklace/brooch occasions than tiara occasions.”

Even Victorian and Edwardian nobility had a practical streak!

Psst—here’s how much the British crown jewels are actually worth.

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Elizabeth McGovern stars as Cora Crawley, Harry Hadden-Paton as Bertie Hexham, Laura Carmichael as Lady Edith, Hugh Bonneville as Robert Crawley and Michael Fox as Andy in Downton Abbey
Photo: Jaap Buitendijk/©2019 Focus Features, LLC

Don’t let a tiny wardrobe malfunction ruin your day

Accidents happen. Maybe you spilled your coffee, sat on a leaky pen or tripped and scuffed your trousers. Whatever the case, dust yourself off, cover up the offending spot (if you can) and get on with it.

Throughout the filming of the first Downton Abbey movie, there were numerous malfunctions—“but you wouldn’t notice,” says Robbins. “That’s the thing when you’re working with very delicate pieces. Beading may start to come away or a necklace might break just before you go for a take. There was an evening dress on Laura [Carmichael’s] first day of filming that she put her heel through before she’d even left the trailer, but you don’t see it on film.”

Next, check out these entertaining tips from Downton Abbey.

Downton Abbey: A New Era hits theatres across Canada on May 20, 2022.

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