Downton Abbey's flapper finery

I have two usb keys in my purse. Both contain Season 4 of "Downton Abbey", provided via a son who knows how to delight his mother. (The series launched in North America on Dec. 1.)

The keys are for two friends who have avoided the UK chat rooms, and thrumming with anticipation, will spend till the next night or two up late, in a haze of stately-home bliss. 

Season Four's clothes shift to the '20s; for the wealthy, the period between the two wars offered sumptuous fabrics for bodies newly-freed of pre-war boned corsets. Costume-wise, Season Four features the best wardrobe yet, especially the evening wear, heavy on beading, embroideries and art nouveau jewelry.

Lady Edith escapes dowdiness to embrace the halter neckline, finger waves, and a lover:

With Lady Mary in mourning attire, and Lady Rose too young to really strut, Edith snags the most alluring gowns:

Ensembles like Lady Edith's traveling suit taxed the wardrobe team's skills and the show's budget.

Lady Cora makes me want to give up jeans forever, to wear languid tunics over skirts:

And the pearls! The Countess still wears hers in nearly every episode:

Lady Mary, an ivory obelisk stunning even in grief, wears this flapper sautoir:

Lady Rose, the youngest, could step into today's Brora catalog, though 90 years have passed. Knit sportswear was new in the '20s, and like now, the young were the early adopters.

Today's Counties girl looks much the same in her cashmere Fair Isle.

This season's "Downton" reaffirmed the enduring grace of a velvet jacket, silk blouse, fine wool skirt: that sensibility. ("What", I imagine the Dowager Duchess intoning, is a logo?")  After Season Four, running shoes have never looked so uninspiring. They wore heels, but they could walk in them!

The intervening 90 years have brought us welcome innovations (especially the ability to incorporate stretch into nearly any fiber), but we seem to have forgotten a good deal about tailoring.

Below, some of the cast in present-day attire. Michelle Dockery's Elie Saab shorts suit is of the moment, but can't touch the elegance of her Season Four drop-waisted dress:


Of course, not everyone on the estate could afford those luscious hand-sewn embroideries and dense velvets, nor can I today. 

But what wonders were shown on the women in Downton's principle rooms and boudoirs! I was enchanted, and mourned that clothes sold at the end of 2013 retain only remnants of that workmanship.



Susan said…
We saw the first episode of the new season when we were in London in September. It was a fun evening--especially since the program did not start until 9pm when we were ensconced in our hotel room after a nice dinner. I missed seeing the season debut on Sunday, but thanks to you will not miss the next episode. Even my husband, who was originally skeptical, has caught the Downton Abbey bug.

Like you, I love the clothing. Oh to be wealthy in that age and wear these confections.
Exquisite garments from the 20's have fueled many a day dream...I'd love to have an opportunity to wear something so gorgeous.
Anonymous said…
I'm lucky enough to possess an authentic 1920s dress. It's made of cotton gauze (once poppy red, now faded to cinnamon tan) and beaded all over with tiny white beads in a pattern of stylized Deco roses. Constructed from a series of rectangles, it's very comfortable, wearable and flattering. I wore the dress this summer to a Gatsby putting party, and felt different, graceful. There is no question, I think, that the fine clothes of that era were among some of the most beautiful ever made. I wonder if the actresses of Downton
Abbey miss their costumes when dressed in their real clothes...

Gretchen said…
Oh, how I do love '20s and 30s clothing. That beading, and the bias cuts to come! And Art Deco and Etruscan Revival jewelry. I am looking forward to devouring the whole season in one go when the entire thing is available on Netflix. Strange how I cannot wait from one week to the next for each episode, but I can wait a few months for the whole ball of wax!
Anonymous said…
Surprisingly, I've never watched Downton Abbey! Not really sure why. I'm sure I would love it for the clothes alone. I have pictures of my grandmother in the 1910s-1920s. Her family was not wealthy, but probably middle class; but they wore huge fur muffs and beautiful coats and cloche hats. I wish some of those would have been saved for posterity (i.e., me!). I do have a few pieces of the (costume) jewelry, luckily.

This post speaks a bit to the slightly controversial post Tish had today, where she criticized sloppy passengers on her flight from Chicago to Paris. Didn't people dress so much more elegantly, back in the day? And now it's so easy to be the best-dressed person at the Wal-Mart!

---Jill Ann
Philippa said…
Michelle Dockery lives near me (or at least I assume she does; I've passed her in the street many times) and she is far more beautiful in real life. I was going to say she'd look wonderful in a plastic bag ... but I'm not sure about that shorts suit!
Philippa said…
(Although I am a Downton dissenter. The plots are so ludicrous that even the clothes and Maggie Smith can't keep me watching).
Duchesse said…
Susan: This was the last decade or so before synthetics (nylon) and the better for it!

hostess: There are still '20's influenced styles made, such as column-type cocktail dresses, and 1020s wedding dresses are apparently the in thing now- so if you look, you might find something.

C.: What a treasure! I would have loved to have seen you in your dress.

Gretchen: Like you I kind of forget it's happening till I can get it all at once, like a big box of vanilla creams.

Phillipa: Michelle Dockery is a true classic beauty. re the series, we are not watching for believable plot, but Julian Fellowes knows what (many) women want, and its gentle drama plus generous eye candy beats the violence and vacuity of so much offered on North American TV.

Jill Ann: I hope you do, it's delicious entertainment! re your comment about Tish's post, I don't dress like my mother did for air travel (suit- which in those days was only a skirt suit- alligator bag and matching shoes) but neither do I wear sweats.

materfamilias said…
Salivating here . . .our cable package doesn't include Downton, so I'll be relying on iTunes. Meanwhile, thanks so much for the preview. Even the end of last season won't deter me from the eye candy and the hour of lovely respite. . . and for whatever might be said of the plots, there are some memorable and likeable characters and relationships being developed. . .
Anonymous said…
Lovely garments - so elegant! But we in the west will not get season 4 until early January ..... so please give fair warning of spoiler alerts if any plot details are in your discussion! Cheers, Kris
Duchesse said…
mater: I don't even have a TV!

Kris: I can only control my own posting and will not write a spoiler! (To that end, I deliberately avoided some photos I'd have liked to use.) However, hours might pass before I'm around to read a reader's comment, so I can't censor them in the moment.
Anonymous said…
I don't find the clothes flattering to curvy figures but the shoes were made for walking. It's interesting if you pick up a Sears catalogue from the turn of the century almost all the shoes come in five widths, women didn't have to cram their feet into ill fitting shoes like they do today. Today it's hard to even find wide widths only Munro American makes shoes in 5 widths that I know of.
I too have seen season 4 and I agree that the clothes were outstanding. I read that many of the dresses were found in estate sales and only last for a couple of wearings under the hot lights before starting to disintegrate. There are a couple of Downton Abbey fan books written by Julian Fellowes and his wife that have interesting details about the clothes.
Anonymous said…
To Anonymous at 2:23 PM: Even during my high school days in the mid 1960s, good quality women's shoes came in multiple widths, both heel and vamp. Now, as you point out, most shoes are B width, with the occasional A or Extra Wide. My heels are too narrow to wear today's pumps without slipping out, so I really miss those AAAA heel widths!

Anonymous said…
Good article . You might find this interesting :-
Duchesse said…
Anon@ 2:23: A '20s drop-waisted dress was flattering to curves; I have photos of my mother, short, buxom and curvy in column-cut, drop-waisted flapper dresses; she looked gorgeous. But some of the suits in Season Four, with their boxy, elongated jackets, would look dreadful. And yes, I too remember an extensive range of shoe widths.

Wendy Gardener: Shoots are hard on any clothes- and in these period settings, compounded by age and delicate fabrics. Wouldn't it be fun to play dress-up in their wardrobe department?

C.: The inventory requirements to stock shoes in all those widths (which I remember too! No wonder they cut back. The average foot is now wider. Here's a Time article about that:

Wendy: Loved this article and hope everyone checks back to find your contribution; thank you! Fascinating to see Maggie Smith in same gown as Uma Thurman.

Kristien62 said…
It looks like the Abbey hasn't begun in our area yet. PBS has been airing the third season in anticipation of the new one. I am guessing it will begin in January.

There are clothing eras that I love and the Roaring 20's is one of them. Wouldn't it be fun if they reprised that era in fashion Would you be game to wear a 20's outfit?
Eleanorjane said…
I would wear pretty much everything the ladies from Downtown wear (well, maybe not the Dowager's stuff, but I'd admire it). As an hourglass figure the 1920's dropped waists really don't suit me but still, they're gorgeous!

I've got a lovely blue blue and silver lace dress from my grandmother which I've worn a few times (I'm too big for it now). I think it's from the 1930s - the cut around the bodice is so flattering! I really need to get it looked at by a professional as it's discolouring sitting in a bag in storage.

The posts with the most