Revisiting The World of Downton Abbey

A new Downton Abbey Exhibition has opened in New York and something was clear to me during my visit this week: I have missed this extraordinary show! Revisiting the world of Downton Abbey; the exquisite house with all its rooms – both upper and lower levels – and the beloved characters whom I had come to love, with their engaging story lines, was thrilling to me. I have been drawn to the costumes and costume design of Downton Abbey, and have written about it on TFIO, but it was actually seeing the fashions up close that brought my fascination to life. The hats, the gloves, the dresses, the evening gowns, the tuxedos, the jackets, and the jewelry were all integral to the storytelling. But there were two specific costumes that were everything: the red scalloped dress worn by Lady Mary Crawley, when she and Matthew are together on that snowy evening as he gets down on bended knee and proposes to her, and the harem pants with which Lady Sybil Crawley shocks her family. Seeing these two costumes brought me back to those quintessential Downton Abbey moments.

Downton Abbey’s costume designer, Susannah Buxton, was able to tell the story of the times in these costumes. In creating Lady Mary’s engagement dress, Buxton looked to the period designs of Parisian design house Lanvin. The beading gives definition and pop to the scalloped edges, which otherwise might disappear in front of the camera in the dark snowy scene. For Lady Sybil, who represents change and a shift in the social order for her aristocratic family, she disarms them by showing up to formal dinner wearing harem pants. Buxton chose the Ballet Russes-inspired silk trousers as a way to tell Sybil’s story of rebellion and independence.
The fashions of the times displayed at the Downton Abbey Exhibition are so worth seeing!

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Fashions of the Times

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I have been under the weather and homebound these last few days. One of the ways I am cheering myself up (as my brother used to say!) is to turn on Turner Classic and watch old movies. Alfred Hitchcock’s 1934 thriller, The Man Who Knew Too Much, was particularly riveting. The story involves a British couple who become inadvertently involved in a political assassination plot and learn that their daughter has been kidnapped to keep them quiet. In typical Hitchcock style, it’s a thriller where the authorities cannot be trusted and the husband and wife are left to figure things out on their own and unsupported.

I loved the suspense, but I of course, was mesmerized by the fashions of the times. The year was 1934: women’s hairstyles were pin-curled and framed to the face with a softness, and eyebrows were pencil-thin. I noticed the soft, satin gowns and dresses, accentuated with flowers, probably gardenias. And lots of fur. Reading up a bit about the style of the 30s, it was probably a reaction to the more boyish, flapper styles of the 1920s. The men in the film wore fine suits that were well-tailored, with topper coats, mostly trench, to carry out their espionage. I wouldn’t recommend getting sick to catch an old movie, but if you happen to find yourself with free time sit back and watch the fashions of the times come to life.

Photos from 1934 Film The Man Who Knew Too Much

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