Charting Downton Abbey Style: The Older Generations

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To commemorate the end of Downton Abbey, we’re looking at how fashions changed over the course of the series, at least on the major female characters (sorry, boys!). Don’t miss the rest of our Downton Abbey coverage, including podcasts of the final season.

Here, we’re looking at all the women older than Lady Mary — sure, they aren’t exactly of the same generation, but they give an interesting comparison for what mature women would wear over this time span. The costume designers definitely had their hands full with this lot!

 

Character: Cora Crawley, Countess of Grantham

Cora Crawley , Downton Abbey

Clothing Style: Classic, tasteful, and modern — but not too modern!
Dominant Colors: White or ivory (often with black or brown accents), mauve, silvery grey, with occasional dips into cranberry, blue, and brown.
Details: Cora is young enough to not be stuffy, but she’s a Countess and she’s gotta dress like one, which can be best seen in the AMAZE-BALLS hats that are her trademark. Many of her outfits also feature rich trims with lots of bling-y elegance for evening, but she aims for elegant casual on a day at home. In the early seasons she loves tailored suits, but being the emotional core of the family, there’s always a softness and drape to her clothing. She’s always glamorous and while she’s not too far behind behind her daughters’ styles, she’ll always lean more towards classic than fashion-forward.

Cora Crawley , Downton Abbey

Cora can play the grand lady with aplomb, mixing tailoring with soft drape. And HATS. Always hats.

Cora Crawley , Downton Abbey

Around the house, she prefers to be a bit more casual yet still is the epitome of elegance.

Cora Crawley , Downton Abbey

She will occasionally wear strong colors, usually in the dark red/wine family.

Cora Crawley , Downton Abbey

She loves layering and detail, like this intricate embroidery on rich velvet.

Cora Crawley , Downton Abbey

Mauve is her go-to color when she needs to be extra tasteful.

Cora Crawley , Downton Abbey

Her evening looks are very regal, but she’s not afraid to show skin.

 

Character: Violet Crawley, Dowager Countess of Grantham

Dowager Countess, Downton Abbey
Clothing Style: “I’m 10 years behind the times, and I don’t give a fig about it!”
Dominant Colors: Black, dark purple, grey, slowly lightening up later in the series
Details: The Dowager Countess is here to drop snarky wit on your ass, and she’ll do it old-school style. That means she’s wearing 1900s clothes when the show opens in the 1910s and very, very slowly updates every so slightly to 1910s clothes by the time the series ends in 1925. Also, Maggie Smith said she didn’t wear a corset on Downton Abbey, despite 1900s-1910s clothing rather requiring one. No excuses, no regrets.

Dowager Countess, Downton Abbey

Edwardian bling, series one. Get used to this look, folks.

Dowager Countess, Downton Abbey

We’ll forgive her old-fashioned style because it means great hats.

Dowager Countess, Downton Abbey

She may be in her 80s, but y’know, a corset isn’t just for posture. Just a thought.

Dowager Countess, Downton Abbey

Mid series, vintage turn-of-the-last-century black eveningwear.

Dowager Countess, Downton Abbey

The closest to “updated” you’ll see is this geometric, faintly Deco trim on her coat in season 6.

Dowager Countess, Downton Abbey

Lighter colors in the final season, but nothing to indicate that the Dowager is actually living in 1925.

 

Character: Isobel Crawley

Isobel Crawley, Downton Abbey
Clothing Style: Practical in the extreme
Dominant Colors: Whatever doesn’t show blood (from the hospital)
Details: Once a middle-class doctor’s wife, always a middle-class doctor’s wife, despite her relationship with Lord Merton in the final seasons. Isobel is trim, tailored, almost frumpy, but only because fashion is the farthest thing away from her mind. She’s trying to get a job done here — whether it’s running a hospital or trying to win an argument with the Dowager Countess, Isobel is all business and it shows.

Isobel Crawley, Downton Abbey

Basic blouses and skirts emphasize her background as woman who worked (as a nurse) and can take care of herself.

Isobel Crawley, Downton Abbey

A simple, tailored suit is Mrs. Crawley’s style.

Isobel Crawley, Downton Abbey

Isobel’s evening wear is always understated, as this mid-series example shows.

Isobel Crawley, Downton Abbey

Updated for 1922, but always tailored and no-nonsense.

Isobel Crawley, Downton Abbey

Much like the Dowager Countess, Isobel’s wardrobe lightens up in the later seasons.

Isobel Crawley, Downton Abbey

Pale blue in the final season as Isobel finds love again.

 

Character: Lady Rosamund Painswick

Lady Rosamund Painswick, Downton Abbey
Clothing Style: Striking, modern, city girl
Dominant Colors: Black, green, exotic prints, great hats
Details: Meddlesome Aunt Rosamund is widowed and faaaaabulous. She may give terrible advice to first Mary and then Edith, but she always has killer style, so we forgive her. She’s definitely the city mouse compared to her country mice cousins, either visiting from London or featured whenever one of the Crawleys comes to town. Rosamund has at least one lover who we see during the series, and although she learns that the fellow is also sleeping with her maid, we figure Rosamund can attract others because she’s always dressed in the latest fashions.

Lady Rosamund Painswick, Downton Abbey

Va-va-va-voom, Rosamund is dressed to kill in season 2.

Lady Rosamund Painswick, Downton Abbey

Her daytime look keeps it classy but note the oh-so-fashionable ‘oriental’ scarf.

Lady Rosamund Painswick, Downton Abbey

She’s a red-head, so she’s contractually obligated to wear green, as shown in series 3.

Lady Rosamund Painswick, Downton Abbey

Rosamund obviously keeps a vast wardrobe of fancy black evening gowns in her London home.

Lady Rosamund Painswick, Downton Abbey

Toque, check. Ethnic print, check. Green, check. It’s a classic Rosamund outfit, season 5.

Lady Rosamund Painswick, Downton Abbey

Her ensemble for Mary’s wedding in the final season wasn’t her best, but she definitely stood out.

 

Character: Martha Levinson

Martha Levinson, Downton Abbey
Clothing Style: “I’m your crazy American grandmother! We’re SO nouveau riche!”
Dominant Colors: Black, gold
Details: As played by Shirley MacLaine, Cora’s mother is a brash contrast to the Dowager Countess. Martha is fashionably up to date in her cocoon coats, cloches, towering feathers, and sparkly bandeaus, but she also has that trying-too-hard look of the newly wealthy. She wears ALL the bling, ALL the time, just in case you missed the fact that she has money (and that the Abbey is kept afloat thanks to Cora’s fortune, thankyouverymuch). There is nothing subtle about Mrs. Levinson.

Martha Levinson, Downton Abbey

Making an entrance in season 3.

Martha Levinson, Downton Abbey

Older than the Crawley girls, yet the first to wear a blingy headband with feathers for evening.

Martha Levinson, Downton Abbey

Still making an impact during her shorter visit in series 4.

 

Who’s your favorite lady of certain age from Downton Abbey? Which one has the best style?

10 Responses

  1. Susan Pola

    My favourite character is Lady Cora. I love how she is moral center of the show (Dame Nellie episode and supporting Tom to have Sybbie baptised Catholic). She’s the most forward thinking of the nobles and her Fashion sense is impeccable.
    Lady Rosamund, I always felt that she married someone as wealthy as the Rothschilds, was widowed and her widow’s portion could run a industrialised nation. Being wealthy, she has the funds to buy a fab wardrobe. Always imagined her introducing Robert to Cora and being Cora’s ally against the dowager in Cora’s early marriage.
    Lady Grantham would be complimented if you told her she was as fashionable as the Queen, Victoria not the incredibly well-dressed Alexandra (who was a contemporary.
    Isobel is first and foremost someone who used her money to address social evils, not her wardrobe.
    I loved the recap. Would have loved one centered on each.

    Reply
    • Kendra

      Thanks! We initially thought about writing a post for each character, then realized that would be about 15 posts and waaaaay too much work! :)

      Reply
  2. MaryC

    It seemed in the earlier seasons, the Dowager and Cora (and Isobel too) wore a lot more purple, I wondered if it was related to mourning clothes since there were so many deaths early on.

    Reply
    • Trystan L. Bass

      When I was looking at episodes, purple didn’t seem to track to mourning / deaths specifically. There were a few funeral scenes where everyone wore all-black, but purple would be worn before those episodes too. And it, at least with Cora, it was just as frequently mixed with lighter colors. The Dowager always wore dark colors until the end, & I think that was more to show character development in a tiny, tiny way — she wasn’t going to wear 1920s clothing, but she could literally lighten up in the colors she wore!

      Reply
  3. Lindy Shopper

    The Downton Abbey clothing making the rounds at museums made a stop at the Biltmore House and I went to get a closer look last March – Martha Levinson’s clothing was my favorite out of everyone, which I don’t know that I would have said had I not seen her garments up close. They were beyond rich, luxurious, and vibrant, and the Biltmore House as a backdrop wasn’t too shabby, either. That fur trimmed coat was larger than life in person. Although, Lady Edith’s clothing this most recent season has been giving Martha a run for her money…I would DEFINITELY like to see those garments up close!

    Reply
  4. Susan Pola

    So would I. But I would like to see the wedding gown worn by Lady Rose. The party one especially. It was beautiful beyond words. The dress she wore at the Registry Office also is due for a close up. Mary’s iridescent green dinner dress, too. But I agree Edith had the best costumes in season 6.

    Reply
    • Trystan L. Bass

      Of course she *could* dress behind the times, but it’s not required. Compare to Martha Levinson, even tho’ she’s American nouveau riche, she’s of the same age as the Dowager. And while Isobel really would be closer to Cora’s age (since Mathew & Mary wouldn’t be that far apart in age), Isobel got paired up socially with the Dowager, & Isobel’s wardrobe was always pretty up to date.

      Reply

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