Guide to Downton Abbey Costumes

This little show called Downton Abbey is coming back to the U.S. soon. You may have heard about it? Kind of Upstairs Downstairs for the 21st-century (on the same TV channel here, even). It’s kind of popular, if you like British drama, soap operas, amazing historical costumes, and Dame Maggie Smith dropping snarky bon mots all over the place. And let’s face it, we do like that stuff!

Now, series 5 has already aired in the U.K., so what we’re going to see starting January 4, 2015, on PBS’ Masterpiece is old news to a large chunk of the Downton-loving world. But for us Anglophiles in America, it’s a good time to recap the past four series’ worth of beautiful early 20th-century clothing and take a sneak peek at what the Crawleys and their associates will be wearing this year.


Downton Abbey Costume Guide, Series 1: 1912–1914

The show premiered with the news of the RMS Titanic’s sinking, and the first season slowly, inexorably moved towards the declaration of England’s entry into World War I. This was our introduction to the high-society world of Lord and Lady Grantham, their three unmarried daughters, and their cadre of servants, plus the distant relation who stood to inherit it all. The family changed into elegant gowns and white-tie and tails for dinner each night, and everything was done with a sense of formality and propriety. The first series’ clothes are very lovely Edwardian-1910s styles, with delicate beading details on evening gowns and lots of lace and big hats for daywear. The one wild and crazy moment in series 1 is when Lady Sybil, the youngest Grantham daughter, wears Paul Poiret-inspired harem pants to dinner at the end of episode 4. Shocking!

Downton Abbey Costume Guide, Series 2: 1916–1920

From here on out, I’m including the Christmas special (which the first season didn’t have) as part of the previous season’s date range because that’s how the episodes are packaged in the U.S. on PBS and on DVD. Usually, this works best thematically too. Series two is pretty much all World War I, except for the Christmas special, which is the first and so far only one to actually take place in December at Christmas. In this second season, the men (including Lord Grantham and Mathew Crawley) sport British military uniforms, natch, while the women’s clothes become a touch more utilitarian and subdued, as befits a country at war and an estate turned into a temporary hospital. Sybil also takes on the role of nurse, and Isobel Crawley looks quite professional in her trim suits as hospital administrator.

Downton Abbey Costume Guide, Series 3: 1920–1921

And bam we’re in the 1920s. Mary gets married, Sybil has a baby and dies in childbirth, Edith gets jilted at the altar, Bates is freed from prison (c’mon, this is over two years ago, we’re past the spoilers stage!). And the clothes start showing a marked distinction between the generations. The young Crawley ladies are wearing dresses with more dropped waists and rising hemlines, while Cora and, of course, the Dowager Countess remain in outfits closer to 1910s fashion. Cora’s American mother visits, and her clothes are a mix of old and new, being age-appropriate yet not as dowdy as the Dowager.


Downton Abbey Costume Guide, Series 4: 1922–1923

Wacky young Lady Rosamund joins the family, adding a flapper vibe. Doesn’t really matter fashion-wise because Edith was already going ’20s headlong (I mean, when you’re getting knocked up by a married man, what’s to stop you from wearing whatever the heck you want?). In this season, the costumes are really all about Rose and Edith because Mary’s in widow’s weeds (fancy ones, but still), the Dowager continues to live in the 19th century, and Cora is just Mom. Mrs. Levinson is back in town, along with Cora’s brother, but their outfits just can’t hold a candle to the fantastic stuff Rose and Edith get to wear.


Downton Abbey Costume Guide, Series 5: 1924

What will we see next? Without giving away any plot spoilers, here’s a few images from the next season. It appears to be a logical continuation, fashion-wise, from series 4, heading deeper into 1920s styles for most of the characters.

What have been your favorite costumes in Downton Abbey so far? Which ones have been the worst? What will you be looking for in series 5? Share in the comments!


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