The Great Change

August 14th, 2016  |  Published in Summer 2016

Changing Times for Changing Fashion is the tagline for the costume design exhibition, Dressing Downton, currently on display at the Taft Museum of Art. With those five words, the curators perfectly sum up the societal changes that serve as the show’s main theme.

In just over a decade, nearly every aspect of British society changed. War, as they say, was the great equalizer and made everyone re-think the roles that had defined previous generations. Men of all classes, aristocratic or otherwise, fought alongside each other for a common cause. At home, women took over the jobs previously assigned to men and houses like Downton Abbey were transformed into hospitals and recovery homes. When victory was declared, everything was different and would never be the same again. Former staff in great houses, after their military service, came back to better paying jobs, as well.

One of the reasons why Downtown Abbey ® resonates with such a wide audience, especially in America, is that it portrays this change visually. You can see from the pilot to the finale that a great change has occurred. And at the forefront of this visual are the costumes.

Downton Abbey (Masterpiece / PBS). Michelle Dockery as Lady Mary Crawley, Laura Carmichael as Lady Edith Crawley, and Jessica Brown Findlay as Lady Sybil Crawley. ©Carnival Films

Produced by Cosprop Ltd., the costumes are true to the period in both detail and significance. Audiences find themselves squarely in the middle of the Edwardian period as the series dawns in 1912 with its restrictive wear for both men and women. The rules, even in mourning, were set in stone. Upstairs, the Crawleys lived by these rules and, downstairs, they did as well (minus the privilege that came with a title).

With The Great War came women in pants and slightly shorter skirts to keep up with the demand of their new wartime positions. Lady Mary, the last of her sisters to make the change,  eventually evolves to even more practical clothing. Men, quite obviously, were mainly in uniform during this time. The costume designers brilliantly created wartime regiments from scratch, basing them on real life cavalries and incorporating custom regalia.

Downton Abbey (Masterpiece / PBS) Season 2, 1916–1918. Dan Stevens as Matthew Crawley, Heir to the Earl of Grantham Title, and Michelle Dockery as Lady Mary Crawley. ©Carnival Films

After the war, change was here to stay and, so with it, the fashion. Eventually, we see the ushering in of the period of the flapper, as well as Art Deco and the Arts & Crafts movement.

Even if you’re not a fan of the British series, Dressing Downton is still a very important exhibit to see. Although the flapper style present in later seasons tends to fascinate the fashion community most (it’s a go-to point of inspiration for designers and fashion lovers alike), it’s the Edwardian Period that is most intriguing. For the real change often accredited to the 1920s happened in the mid-to-late 1910s. Spurred on by designers such as Paul Poiret, the fashion elite was experimenting a great deal during the Edwardian era. Hemlines were rising. Waistlines were dropping. And, thankfully for all, corsets were becoming a thing of the past.

These quiet changes of the Edwardian era didn’t hit the mass population of consumers until well into the 1920s when Jeanne Lanvin and Coco Chanel were its greatest of champions. Add a dash of jazz and you have the Roaring 1920s.

Downton Abbey (Masterpiece / PBS). Lily James as Lady Rose MacClare. ©Carnival Films

Paralleling the first wave of feminism taking shape in both Great Britain and the United States at the time, these innovations weren’t simply for fashion’s sake. Women were fighting (and winning) for their right to vote and more equal rights in society in general. Less restrictive clothing styles and shorter hair were just the tip of the iceberg.

Downtown Abbey ® and the exhibition do a beautiful job of showing and speaking about this gradual change. In the show, Lady Sybil’s baby blue embroidered harem pant marked the beginning of the revolution in the British household, but it took until after the war for the flapper to appear (in the lovely form of Lady Rose).

Speaking of these baby blues, it would have been wonderful to see these as part of the exhibit in person. The pieces in the collection are very well chosen to show the arc of the societal and fashion change in the main characters. We see the loosening of corsets from Mary’s Edwardian gown to the switch to pants in Edith’s new age jodhpur. But given how this particular look of the series foreshadows the great fashion changes of the1920s, it was greatly missed among the choices.

Another aspect of the exhibition that was an exalted surprise was its location change. Of the 36 costumes, 10 were housed in the manor part of the Museum. This served two important purposes that made the exhibition sing. First it encouraged visitors to explore the home of Charles and Anna Taft which is quite literally full of treasures. Secondly, and more importantly, it seemed to give the costumes context. Not everyone can relate to the halls of a British country mansion or London flat. The Taft’s home felt like the American version of the Downton sensibility and it was great to see specific costumes in that light. The yellow drawing room where the couple married served as a sitting room for the generations of Downton women. And the change never felt so real.

Dressing Downton: Changing Fashion for Changing Times will be open to the public at the Taft Museum of Art until September 25, 2016.

Downton Abbey (Masterpiece / PBS) Season 1, 2010. Hugh Bonneville as Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham and Elizabeth McGovern as Cora Crawley, Countess of Grantham. ©Carnival Films


– Jenny Perusek is a freelance Brand Manager, specializing in fashion and the creative arts.

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