When the Titanic sank in April 1912, fifteen hundred people lost their lives, including John Jacob Astor IV, Isidor Straus (co-owner of Macy’s), and James Crawley and his son Patrick, the heirs to the (fictional) Earl of Grantham and his estate, Downton Abbey. Thus begins the tale of the Crawley family, their servants, and their centuries-old home. It’s period storytelling at its best, with delightfully accurate fashions.
If you haven’t had a chance to watch this show, I encourage you to block out some time over a weekend. Because the episodes are like potato chips: you can’t consume just one. You’ll also want to rewind and replay the Dowager Duchess’s one-liners, because they’ll make you laugh out loud.
You can find past seasons of Downton Abbey online for free at Hulu.com (Seasons 1 and 2)
Now, without giving away any plot points, here are my favorite Downton Abbey fashion history moments:
Lady Sybil, the earl’s youngest daughter, is a rebel. She befriends the Irish chauffeur and helps one of the housemaids get a secretary job. She’s also an advocate for women’s rights, and attends a political rally in which fighting breaks out and she gets hurt. Furious, her father forbids her from attending future functions. He tells her to behave like the lady she is.
Instead, she continues to show her rebellious side by coming to dinner – always white tie affairs at Downton Abbey – in a pair of Poiret’s harem pants. Her family is suitably shocked.
Lady Sybil in Poiret Harem Pants, 1914
Paul Poiret (pwa-ray) was like the P.T. Barum of early 20th century fashion. A natural showman from an early age, Poiret got his start selling sketches to various couture houses around Paris. After short stints at both Jacques Doucet and the House of Worth – both of whom fired him because he was too “fashion forward” (think Christian Lacroix or John Galliano in 1890’s Paris ) – he opened his own design house in 1903, at the age of 24.
His clothes, store windows, and parties were always over-the-top. He made a name for himself with the kimono coat, which he quickly followed with the harem pant and the hobble skirt. With the success of his clothes, he quickly moved into furniture, décor, and fragrance (75 years before Ralph Lauren), and in 1911 became the first designer to create a signature fragrance linked to his couture house.
|Kimono Coat, 1908||Harem Pants, 1911||Hobble Skirt, 1915|
When World World War I broke out, Poiret left his business to his staff to go serve in the war. When he returned in 1919, the House of Poiret was bankrupt. Chanel’s simple, streamlined clothes were all the rage by then, and Poiret’s over-the-top designs seemed like frumpy old costumes by comparison. The House of Poiret closed in 1929, and Poiret died in poverty in 1944. Elsa Schiaparelli paid for his funeral.
World War I has had a huge impact on the lives and formality at Downton Abbey, including the evening meal. When Robert, the Earl of Grantham appears for dinner in an informal dinner jacket with a black tie (known in America as a tuxedo), his mother Violet, the Dowager Countess – played to perfection by Dame Maggie Smith – asks him if he’s on his way to a barbecue. Later in the episode, she orders a cocktail from him, then apologizes for mistaking him for a waiter.
Robert, Earl of Grantham in a casual dinner jacket, c. 1917
It’s hard to believe that a tuxedo was ever considered informal since it’s known as formal wear today, but in the nineteen teens, it was. Actually, its origins date back to 1865 when Edward, Prince of Wales, ordered an informal dinner jacket from his Savile Row tailor, Henry Poole & Co., for use at his country estate. The style was widely copied throughout Europe and the Americas. When it was introduced in New York at the exclusive Tuxedo Club in the 1880’s by the likes of William Waldorf Astor, Ogden Mills, and Pierre Lorillard, it became known as the tuxedo. In Britain, it’s still known as a dinner jacket.
When eldest daughter Lady Mary Crawley marries her distant cousin (and Downton Abbey heir) Matthew Crawley, her American maternal grandmother, Martha Levinson (played by Shirley MacLaine) comes to England for the wedding. Martha embraces the modern styles of the 1920’s as surely as Violet (Mary’s paternal grandmother) clings to the old styles of the 1890’s. So while both grandmothers are approximately the same age (mid-70’s), Martha seems younger because she’s not wearing 30 year old styles.
Violet, the Dowager Countess, with
Carson the butler and Martha Levinson, 1920
Every generation has this problem: not changing with the times. While it’s comforting to hold on to hair and clothing styles for years, it’s always aging. Several of my friends’ moms wore their 1960’s bouffant hair and Cleopatra eye makeup well into the 80’s, while several of my former classmates haven’t changed their hair since high school. Want to look timeless instead of stuck in time? Update your hair and wardrobe.
Middle daughter Lady’s Edith wedding dress arrives and she, her grandmother Violet, and her mother Cora are discussing it.
Violet: “I’m rather sad you decided against Patou – I would have paid…”
Cora: “Lucile was safer. We don’t want her looking like a chorus girl.”
Lady Edith in her Lucile wedding gown, 1920
So who were Lucile and Patou?
British designer Lucile, Lady Duff-Gordon, was the first internationally known British designer. She started her dressmaking business from her home in 1890, and opened Maison Lucile in the West End in London in 1894. She became famous for her lingerie, tea gowns, and evening gowns, and her hallmark was pastel colors in luxurious fabrics embellished with handmade flowers.
Her clothes were so popular, she opened branches in New York (1910), Paris (1911), and Chicago (1915) . She was headed to New York on the Titanic with her Spring 1912 collection when it hit an iceberg and sank. She, her husband, and her maid were among the survivors.
During the Nineteen teens, Lucile designed for socialites, stage, and screen stars, and counted Irene Castle, Billie Burke, and Mary Pickford among her customers. Following a restructuring of Lucile, Ltd., in 1918, Lucile left her namesake company in 1922. She worked as a fashion writer and critic until her death in 1935. Lucile, Ltd., went into sharp decline after her departure, and the company closed its last shop in Paris in the mid-1930’s.
Lucile Gown, 1916
Lucile’s great-great-granddaughter, Camilla Blois, brought the Lucile legacy back to life in 2012 as high-end online lingerie shop called LucileandCo.com. Once the Downton Abbey episode aired that mentioned Lucile, LucileandCo.com experienced a 50% increase in sales the next day.
Jean Patou (pa-too) was a French fashion designer who opened his first shop in 1912, then closed it in 1914 to join the war. When he reopened it in 1919, he focused primarily on sportswear, and is credited with inventing both knitted swimwear and the tennis skirt. He also invented designer ties for men.
His most lasting contribution to fashion, however, is his perfume house. His signature scent, “Joy” (1936) is still one of the most popular – and most expensive – perfumes in the world.
Patou column gown, 1920’s
Now while there is lots of great fashion in Downton Abbey, these particular moments stood out because it shows that the writer, Julian Fellowes (who won the Academy Award for Best Writing, Original Screenplay for Gosford Park in 2001), has done his homework. Most straight male writers of history don’t. They don’t name-drop designers, they don’t show a young woman’s rebellion through clothes. But this is precisely how women of that time and class would speak. It adds authenticity to the storyline.
Which is completely enthralling already. If you like great clothes, great stories, and witty one-liners, watch Downton Abbey. It’s a delightful guilty pleasure.
Downton Abbey pictures courtesy of PBS.org
Diana Pemberton-Sikes is an author and image consultant and creator of Signature Style Blueprint, a step-by-step, fill-in-the-blank video series that teaches women the secret of the world’s best dressed women: how to a create a signature style so you can dress well consistently.