Warning: Spoilers for ‘Downton Abbey: A New Era’ below.
For its sophomore outing on the big-screen, “Downton Abbey” outdoes itself, the upstairs and downstairs families going on not one, but two glamorous adventures set in 1928.
An bevy of Crawleys — including Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael) and her mother Cora (Elizabeth McGovern) — head to the south of France to settle real estate matters and uncover a romantic mystery behind Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith) inheriting a villa from a late French nobleman. (Granny!) Meanwhile, Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) holds the fort at home, as a movie production takes over the estate, also setting the stage for the most self-aware “Downton Abbey” installment ever. (The franchise famously films in Hampshire’s storied Highclere Castle, thereby also helping the Carnavon family fix the leaky roof, as detailed in the PBS documentary. So meta!)
Naturally, two costume designers were needed to help bring “Downton Abbey” roaring toward the ’30s, in story and in style.
Anna Robbins, who joined the series from the penultimate season onward, continued the costume journeys of the Crawley family, extended members and the beloved (well, mostly) downstairs staff. Maja Meschede (“Catherine the Great”) took on the chic French Riviera denizens, the invading Hollywood glitterati and a heartwarming silver screen-meets-Downton moment that we’ll get to in a few.
“There was a harmony between the new and old characters,” says Meschede.
Edith turns the Riviera jaunt into a working vacation, returning part-time to her swishy magazine gig. (“You’re a writer?” someone asks. “A journalist, I’m afraid,” responds Edith — also way too real.) “We did a lot of research into the French Riviera at the time: the writers and artists, like Coco Chanel and her contemporaries,” says Robbins, who discovered the late-’20s Riviera set luxuriated in silk pajama sets.
Casting a “wide net” in her vintage sourcing, Robbins found a pristine printed kimono (above) from a vendor in California, then custom-building a camisole and v-front wide-leg trousers to complete Edith’s boho-chic journo look. “She’s a professional career woman,” she says. “She’s cutting edge in a different way to Mary, in terms of the fashion choices, and it felt right that she would take that sartorial step forward into trousers.” (Although, the late Lady Sybil, played by Jessica Brown Findlay, did pioneer that space in the Edwardian Era, a.k.a. season one.)
Robbins also happily experimented with turning a lamé scarf with a watercolor nature motif into sensational halter-neck gown (above) for Edith’s last night in the south of France.
“I always wanted to do something with cutaway shapes, a halter neck and handkerchief hems,” she says. She devised a composite of patterns and textures, including Cora’s mauve burnt-out velvet gown (complete with a flowing cape) and more Crawleys in fringed beading and pearls — “the epitome of ’20s craft and textiles.”
Back at Downton, Lady Mary sits on the cutting-edge of film and fashion, per usual, as she helps dashing silent movie director Jack Barber (Hugh Dancy) quickly pivot into talkies.
“She’s always ahead of the trends,” says Robbins, who looked ahead to the upcoming decade to incorporate “those little ’30s accents that are already starting to emerge.” She points to a ’20s devoré dress (above), which is “a little nod to the LBD,” as well as Chanel in that era.
Robbins sourced immaculate original vintage for Mary, including a polka dot devoré blouse worn to the cinema with Barber and a dream of a champagne chiffon gown featuring dazzling silver-beaded deco patterns (below). “That was an original Jean Patou, which is just incredible to see in real life,” says Robbins.
Robbins also incorporated cinematic Easter Eggs into Mary’s forward-looking style: When Mary finally convinces Robert to agree to the movie shoot at Downton, she wears a navy high-low dinner dress (below), with “radiating” gold-threaded discs “that felt Hollywood, like spotlights.”
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Robbins looked to a circa-1928 fashion illustration to create the gown out of an almost-ombré blue to silver fabric. “This beautiful proportion of a quite full, ballet-like skirt and then this little satin waspie that nipped her in at the waist — that was the start of exploring a different silhouette to the straight up-and-down,” she says.
Mary’s signature, envelope-pushing style also provides a clear contrast to the brash Hollywood new-royalty muscling into Downton and high society.
Barber’s crew and actors — including the Clark Gable-esque Guy Dexter (Dominic West) — arrive to film the 1875-set “The Gambler.” (Also, incredibly meta and targeted especially to me: when Lady Mary exclaims, “You’re British?!” to Guy, which is how I react every time I see West.) Silent film bombshell Myrna Dalgleish (Laura Haddock, below) makes a grand entrance as strong as her regional accent, which becomes Lady Mary’s opportunity to make a voice-over debut with her aristocratic diction. (This also feels like a wink-wink inside joke, since Dockery actually hails from East London.)
Like watching through the eyes of the awestruck staff, the camera pans up from Myrna’s white heels to her platinum finger waves as she stomps into Downton. “She looks to me almost like an ice queen,” says Meschede.
Meschede landed on an “icy blue” palette for the starlet’s gleaming cape-coat, lined in white fur — repurposed, of course — signaling wealth. “The color was really important. Like, what’s not a Downton color? What sticks out and is beautiful?” She also intentionally mismatched Myrna’s dazzling accessories and “haute couture,” as the movie star tells the giddy lady’s maids.
“If you look at the jewelry and costumes of the ‘Downton’ characters, especially the upstairs aristocratic ladies, it’s so match, match, match,” says Meschede. “I wanted [Myrna] to be a bit louder and mismatching, like ‘Here I am!'”
Also meta (and tricky): Meschede needed to costume design for a period-film-within-a-period-film. (You know, like how the Civil War-era set costumes in “Gone With the Wind” by Walter Plunkett actually look quite late-’30s?) She researched ’20s filmmaking at a costume house library and discovered images from the 1923 London revival of Oscar Wilde’s 1895 play, “The Importance of Being Earnest.” See, throughout the turn of the century, iterations of the play were set in the present day of the performance, but the 1923 production debuted costumes set Wilde’s original Victorian times to support the story — similar in timing to “The Gambler” at Downton.
Meschede asked herself, “Gosh, what is it that makes these 1895 costumes look so ’20s?,” while also studying silver screen sirens Greta Garbo, Vivien Leigh and Marlene Dietrich in late 19th century costume. The answer she landed on: silky fabrics, prints and embellishments from the ’20s on Victorian silhouettes.
“We had 1875 shapes that we decorated with 1920s flowers and beading, because it’s all done really differently,” says Meschede, who also used the iPhone camera trick to determine the colors and shapes that popped on the black-and-white screen, while also not looking “too high-contrast” as the perspective flipped back to color.
The most satisfying and self-referential moment for the downstairs staff (and longtime “Downton” fans), though, may be when Mrs. Patmore (Lesly Nicol), starstruck Daisy (Sophie McShera) and their colleagues fill in as extras on “The Gambler” — and finally enjoy an opulent costume opportunity. (Which also made me giggle a bit, since Nicol and McShera once actually told me they felt relieved to wear the less constrictive costumes.)
Meschede connected each staffer’s “The Gambler” costume with their Downton uniforms — blues for Mrs. Hughes, champagne for Mrs. Patmore. During her fitting with Meschede, Nicol even made her own special request for Mrs.
Patmore’s spectacular Victorian dinner ensemble: “The first thing she said was, ‘I would love to wear tiara.'” (The costume designer did indeed fulfill that request, even before the actual gown was ready.)
Meschede confirms that there are “really subtle differences” in the lapels and tails between Carson (Jim Carter)’s and Barrow (Robert James-Collier)’s butler uniforms and their fancy Victorian dinner tuxes. But Baxter (Raquel Cassidy’s) crinoline, with a profusion of pink rose embellishments, felt especially joyful for the fairy tale moment with now-flush screenwriter Mr. Molesly (Kevin Doyle).
“I just wanted it to be as romantic as it could possibly can be,” says Meschede. “But over the top, right? Just fun.”
‘Downton Abbey: A New Era’ opens in theaters in the U.S. on Friday, May 20.