The ‘Downton Abbey’ Movie Raises the Sartorial Elegance Bar with Lavish Royals

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In bringing Julian Fellowes’ beloved “Downton Abbey” British series to the big screen, the lavish wardrobes became the glam selling point, thanks to costume designer Anna Robbins. She not only had to raise the bar for the Crawleys and their servants but also faithfully recreate the wardrobes of King George V (Simon Jones), Queen Mary (Geraldine James), and their royal staff, who visit the Yorkshire country estate in 1927.

“For the family members, the idea was to put on costumes that belonged on the big screen,” said Robbins, who joined the series for Seasons 5 and 6, and took a deeper dive into researching 1920s wardrobe for the movie, frequenting the National Portrait Gallery and the Victoria & Albert Museum. “The level of detail that is seen is much higher so the quality control on the construction and finish and the restoration of original pieces had to be top-notch. My goal was to raise the bar for the Downton staff and design more finery than we’ve seen before and to elevate it.”

However, the royal visit posed a brand new challenge in dealing with such legendary historical figures. This meant abiding by more rules and coming under closer scrutiny to get it right. “The research was very different, because they’re real-life characters, so you’re looking at actual images of them,” Robbins added. “But you’ve got a lot of material with which to work so it was really fascinating. I looked specifically at the time frame that we were in, the time of year, and how they might’ve dressed.”

Kevin Doyle, "Downton Abbey"

Kevin Doyle, “Downton Abbey”

Focus Features

Robbins especially responded to one portrait of the queen. “I thought it was really beautiful,” she said. “And so we emulated it really closely. She’s wearing a pale green, gray wool coat with a fur collar that had flocking on the inside and this amazing silk, plastid hat. And that’s what we recreated for the military parade. And then her arrival coat was this really beautiful brown vintage velvet with a cape, and, again, this very interesting collar. So there was this theme that I honed in on with this cape aspect, lovely chiffon or velvet structures around her shoulders.”

For the ball, Robbins came up with the theme of metallic lace for the queen, also gleaned from her research. For the first evening, the queen wears gold and for the second silver. “That allowed me to then play color off against that and also set the jewelry off really wonderfully,” Robbins said. “She wears a lot of diamonds [including the Diamond Honeysuckle Tiara] and so that was a great base for all of her jewels.”

For the military parade, the king wore a scarlet field marshal uniform, which contained 53 elements to the costume with various decorations and medals, which had to be sourced as originals or replicated by a model maker. At the royal dinner and ball, he wore a white pique waistcoat, royal front shirt with detachable wing collar, white pique bow tie, black tails, black wool breeches, black silk stockings, and black patent pumps.

4127_JB_D002_0025_RC Simon Jones stars as King George V and Geraldine James as Queen Mary in DOWNTON ABBEY, a Focus Features release. Credit: Jaap Buitendijk / © 2019 Focus Features, LLC

“Downton Abbey”

Jaap Buitendijk/Focus Features

The royal servants, meanwhile, wore scarlet, which was a nice contrast to the lush green and doeskin of the Downton estate livery. “That was something that we hadn’t seen before,” Robbins said. “They had green tailcoat, white breeches, white silk stockings, and black patent pumps. The tailcoat and waistcoat were embellished with silver frogging and lacing. They looked really grand and stood up to the scarlet livery of the royal household.”

For the Crowleys, Robbins put Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) in more extravagant flapper garb, with cleaner lines and more monochromatic colors. The always forward-thinking Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael) gets an oversized gown with its own subplot. Violet Crawley (Maggie Smith) naturally clings to her stubborn affection for Victorian gowns, while Countess Cora (Elizabeth McGovern) falls somewhere in between.

The movie’s ultimately about the clash of tradition and progress — both socially and culturally — which the costume designer fully embraced. “We’ve moved into 1927 and time constantly marches on,” Robbins said. “My goal with the film was to move it forward but not so much that you didn’t recognize such an iconic and identifiable characterization that we’ve made through costumes. It should be familiar but new. At the same time, you’re well aware of what was changing and what was going to happen with that way of life. So I wanted the film to be a final hurrah and a celebration of the glamour and the sumptuous before World War II.”