Why Downton Abbey's 1930s wardrobe is its best yet

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Riviera silhouettes, silent movie stars and Neapolitan colours inspired the film’s looks, writes Melissa Twigg.

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Pink, blue and yellow beads on a sea-green chiffon gown, flannel tennis whites worn with knitted sleeveless jumpers, and cream and mint patterned silk pyjamas with velvet slippers. The costumes are so sumptuous in Downton Abbey: A New Era that on leaving the cinema, you will feel somewhat disappointed to find yourself wearing jeans on your local main street, rather than a yellow floral tea dress with matching jacket on the French Riviera.

Set in 1928 between the South of France and the Abbey, this film has by far the most interesting costume design of any Downton iteration yet. Former releases have been firmly rooted in England with characters made up of either the British aristocracy or the staff. Now, a new storyline turns Downton Abbey into a film set, while most of the family decamps to a villa near Antibes. The result is costumes galore, from the brasher, sexier clothes of the silent movie stars and the Victorian-era bustles they wear on set, to the array of colours we see the Crawley family and their French neighbours wearing at their steamy Mediterranean retreat.

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Equally, the year itself is important. The show has been set in the 1920s since the fourth television season but as it nears a new decade, we see a shift in silhouettes for men and women. “What I really wanted to do in the second movie was to push the design towards the emerging fashion of the 30s and the trends that were soon to dominate the fashion world,” says costume designer Anna Robbins.

Elizabeth McGovern (Cora) and Laura Carmichael (Edith) sail into the new film.

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Style-wise, the 1930s have exerted a long shadow over fashion. Yes, the 1920s captured the collective imagination — most of us have been to a Great Gatsby fancy-dress party — but modern shapes owe far more to the following decade, which was a pretty balance of elegance and comfort that saw the rise of flattering bias-cut dresses that gave women a waist but didn’t demand the complicated corsetry of the 1900s.

“Downton has always explored the fact that waists dropped then disappeared and hemlines began to rise and hit their shortest point in 1927,” says Robbins. “Then they began going back down again into that really longline 30s look, alongside finding the female form again.”

For men, the 1930s heralded the arrival of knitwear and suiting separates. Hugh Dancy’s film director character wears a variety of waistcoats but rarely a jacket, while Lord Grantham, Branson and Bertie are dressed in double-breasted two-piece suits for the first time. “The trends for menswear evolved more slowly, but this film definitely afforded a few interesting opportunities to show what was happening societally,” says Robbins.

Lesley Nicol (right) reprises her role as Mrs Patmore.

It was around this period that the British aristocracy started swapping their traditional (and certainly damper) holidays in Scotland for the French Riviera, so Robbins had plenty of designs from the era to be inspired by. “Oh, it was such fun,” she says. “With the French palette I wanted to move away from what the characters would typically wear and look at paler and brighter pigments, bolder prints and combinations of beautiful sorbet colours that are often quite Neapolitan in flavour.”

While most of the Crawleys travel to Antibes, Lady Mary stays behind with the staff to oversee the transformation of Downton into a film set, and to welcome movie stars Myrna Dalgleish and Guy Dexter, who are played by Laura Haddock and Dominic West. While she is hugely glamorous, Myrna is supposed to be from a very different social background to the Crawleys, and the clothes needed to reflect that.

“We looked at icy cool tones that set Myrna apart from everybody else at Downton,” says Robbins. “Her arrival costume was an eau-de-nil, asymmetric dress with a velvet coat trimmed in repurposed vintage fur. Everything about Myrna is bold and slightly brash, right down to the jewellery she wears. When you see her next to the likes of Cora, Edith and Mary, her beauty is designed to clash with theirs.”

New cast member Laura Haddock and Michael Fox, who plays Andrew Parker.

Another contrast is between the 1880s — when the fictional movie is set — and 1928. This allowed Robbins not only to make Victorian-era costumes as they would have been seen in the early 20th century, but to dress up the below-stairs characters like Baxter, who are roped into playing bit-parts in the film.

As for Lady Mary — she sadly doesn’t get to wear the silky sorbet tea dresses or voluminous swimming costumes of her French sojourning family members but she is, as ever, a scene stealer. “I particularly loved dressing her in a blush long-sleeved pussy-bow blouse with a really unusual beaded waistcoat,” says Robbins.

Michelle Dockery, who plays Lady Mary, agrees. “I have an original Missoni piece that I loved wearing, along with a beautiful Fortuny suit which is a nod to the 30s even though we are in 1928,” she says. “Some of the dresses I wear are a little longer because Mary is always a step ahead when it comes to the latest fashions.”

Indeed she is, and watching this film will remind you why the lean, languid silhouettes of the 1930s are always worth emulating.

Downton Abbey: A New Era is in cinemas now.

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