The Many Corsets of 'Downton Abbey'

 

Downtown Abbey has gathered a global following for its unique portrayal of a servant-master home in period England. But it’s the show’s intricate character portrayal and their equally elaborate clothing that has us enchanted by Highclere Castle.

Downton Abbey’s period dress has not gone unnoticed, with designers reworking several Edwardian looks this past season. From the Fall 2014 runway shows, long coats from Reed Krakoff and Joseph Altuzarra echoed the drama’s costume silhouettes and colour palette. Meanwhile, US designer Naeem Khan showed a Fall 2014 collection that boasted flapper-inspired dresses, something that soared in the 1920s. 

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The clothing of Downton comes from a time when glamor was at its peak: people took a lot of time to wear beautiful things. And these, in turn, took weeks to make. Life was a lot simpler and slower then, and the art of haute-couture was only just beginning.

 

 The Art of Dressing

Women of Downton Abbey time were of two breeds – ‘upstairs’ (the rich) or ‘downstairs’ (the paid help). When looking at how fashion was approached in early 20th century Europe, it is the aristocracy, which garners most attention.

Aside from playing out social roles expected of them (be it, sipping tea and learning French, or scrubbing floors and serving the tea itself), women got to play around with fashion and saw it as way to dress up. A woman let embroidered fabrics, trimmed with lace or fur, speak volumes to her male courters – her gown an indication of just how much she was worth.

‘For an aristocrat to be convincing, he or she must look like an aristocrat,’ explains Julian Fellowes, creator and author of PBS’ Downton Abbey. “They were all acting out a role that had been decreed for them.”

Clothing denoted a woman’s position in society and she made the most of it, opting to change outfits multiple times a day. As soon as she awoke, the aristocratic woman - with the help of a trusted housemaid – would put on her undergarments. Underwear provided women a sense of perfect self and set the foundations for the attire of day. At the time, ‘combination’ underwear was common - a garment first developed in 1877. It was initially made from linen, merino, calico, cambric or nainsook in flesh pink tones or cream colours, before becoming more luxurious in fine wool and silk years later. Then the corset was prepared and laid on.

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Corsets

Corsets were made of sateen, cotton, silk or linen and contained minimal boning. The support was achieved by quilting or cording and included a long, stiff busk which was inserted into the front slot of the corset. Busks could be made out of ivory, whalebone, kid covered steel or wood.

In 1908, French designer Paul Poiret introduced the “Directoire” style, inspired by post French Revolution fashions, which promoted high waists and long, slim figures. And corsetry had to adapt to these changes too.

In 1910, a prominent bust was still fashionable but the waist, stomach and hip had to boast the same measurements, giving the illusion of a large bust line. To achieve this desirable figure, corsets no longer came up to support the breasts but ended just below the bust line. The actual waist of the corset was placed onto the lower ribcage so that extreme waist reduction was impossible. To achieve lithe, bodily shape, corsets were cut longer and straighter in the body and hip.

Finally, due to the longer cut of the corset, less boning was needed. Several bone pieces were spaced evenly around the body and did not stretch the full length of the corset - allowing for ease of movement.

Corsets were made out of coutil, white being very popular but spotted broche, damasks (both in cotton coutil and silk) proving popular well into the 1920’s. The famous corset color, tea rose pink, was introduced in 1910 as well. Corset trimming was typically minimal during this time period, with most corset’s having lace trim around the top and flossing on bone casings.

The women of Downton wore high-waisted corsets. The ladies had to have the right shape for the fashion of the time as men wanted to see waists. Each corset needed an extra pair of hands to pull the laces tight – and could be very uncomfortable. It was worn at all hours of the day, except before dinner from 5 – 7pm.

  

The Dress

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Still assisted by the housemaid, women then chose something appropriate to wear as an outer garment, depending on the day’s immediate activity. Tweed suits were for a spot of competitive shooting, while a company-appropriate dress was reserved for tea or guest lunch. There was a particular dress for walking around the castle grounds and one for letter writing; an outfit for visiting townspeople and the sick, and even going to church.

In 1912, dresses sported high waists and narrow skirts, which were still hard to walk in. Because the silhouette had achieved a more natural line, day dresses, which were tight fitting and flattering, became popular.

By 1916, hemlines rose some six inches off the ground. As the war kicked off, swatches of fabric were reused as panels, lace cut down to make collars or cuffs and ribbons tied around hats, necks or waists. Personal maids accomplished in fine sewing would even mend their mistress’s dresses (instead of luxurious trips to Paris) and made the ladies’ undergarments. Robes rose another two inches higher by the end of the war, as waists went lower and the skirts more of a tulip shape – promoting movement. 

 

Hats, Gloves & Scarves

Going out required gloves - opting for lace in the warmer months or goats leather in the winter. Hats were obligatory too – fantastically perched in velvet, satin or silk, adorned with exuberate satin ribbons and flowers, which swirled and swooped around the head. Feathers were used excessively as decoration on hats and as boas. The fur-skin of whole animals such as foxes were used as wraps about the shoulders during winter. The final accessory - a purse - might be slung delicately from the wrist. Parasols also served well in summer, used as a decorative accessory dripped with lace. 

Haute – Couture

 

The evening was saved for the most extravagant gowns to be splashed about. Women would change for dinner into a full-length dress in muslin or silk, adding long-line gloves and a sparkling silver tiara crowning their heads.

 Haute-couture made the ‘Belle Epoque’ period one of the most luxurious and beautiful in all of history. Allured by the designs of Paris-based British dressmaker, Charles Worth, fashion-conscious women from Downton went abroad to buy their clothes. Each would make the pilgrimage to Paris twice a year, entering dress studios found on the famous rue Halevy and Place Vendome. Out front, a saleswoman would help ladies choose their wardrobe for the coming season, while seamstresses worked tirelessly in the cramped backrooms.  For Worth’s female fashion clients, an entire season’s wardrobe could cost as much as $20,000 (about $1.5m today). Although Worth was not the first designer to make a luxury made-to-order dress business, his aggressive self-promotion earned him the titles "father of haute couture" and "the first couturier”.

 

Memorable Downton Abbey Gowns

Maggie Smith’s character, Lady Grantham, wore an iconic Edwardian purple suit gown during the first season. The fabric was made by reproducing a floral, jacquard print onto silk, based on a jacket from the era. The design used original lace for the edging and cuff detail, while the blouse section had a lace bow and high neck detail. Her hat was made from vintage cotton baubles covered with a fine net dyed to match the suit.

Lady Mary wore a striking turn-of-the-century Spanish evening dress in blood red. Made from silk chiffon, it pleated in sections, forming cap sleeves and bands across the front. Layers were inbuilt for the final effect, with embroidered lace laid over the satin underdress. Evening gloves completed the Edwardian look, which were ‘dipped down’ or run through with dyes to take the brightness out of the fabric.

 

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