The worldwide phenomenon of Downton Abbey returns for its fifth series in the UK tonight and one thing that many people always have their eye on is the costumes. From its very first episode, set in April 1912 just as the news is coming in that the Titanic has sunk, the lavish designs have been showing us the subtle changes that occurred in fashion over the early 20th Century. Bring it up to date and tonight’s episode has reached 1924, a time when the Bright Young People in London and the Flappers in New York and Chicago were just coming into their prime. But what we want to know is what do Lady Mary and Lady Edith wear underneath those beautiful dresses and in the bedroom!
In 1908 French couturier Paul Poirot launched his Directoire style of dress which was largely influenced by the fashions of the French Revolution, over 100 years before. Waistlines rose to between the natural waist and the underbust giving dresses a Regency look.
The garment that every woman wore during the previous Victorian period, the corset, had to quickly adapt to these new designs and create a silhouette that, rather than exaggerating the woman’s curves, it moulded it into a much sleeker line. Therefore the underbust corset with its straight busk came into its height of popularity.
These new styles were long, very long, and started just underneath the bust, giving no support for larger busted women, and reached all the way down to the mid thigh. This gave the wearer a dainty wiggle-like walk because they couldn’t move their legs too far apart. And this was the time that the Hobble skirt came into fashion!
Suspender clips were added to the bottom which pleased many women who would often find garters would cut off their circulation. Boning was also vastly reduced and the shape was created by clever cutting techniques with several pieces cut on the bias and this, along with the straight busk, allowed the wearer’s diaphragm to open up and the body to not be compressed.
Starting in 1916, series 2 of Downton Abbey shows us that women’s garments are becoming looser, giving the wearer a less defined waistline around the mid-torso. These styles are the beginnings of what we all know as the 1920s Flapper style, although the hemline is still very sedately towards the ankle.
Nightwear was still very traditional and was, more often than not, made in white cotton or the lighter weight crepe georgette and trimmed with matching lace around the edges. Delicate white embroidery was also popular as all garments, including lingerie, daywear and outerwear, became less fussy.
The silhouette very much followed the shape of the day with both the nightgown and peignoir falling loose on the body. The gown often had detailing around the mid-torso to create a subtle definition whilst worn on its own and sleeves were either short or not at all. The peignoir would often be cut in just two pieces and would loosely tie under the bust with its batwing-style sleeves falling in drapes around the elbows.
The Grantham’s have made their way into the 1920s in series 3 and what a difference it has made to the costumes. Waistlines have dropped, hemlines have risen, hat brims are almost covering the eyes, fabrics have become more sheer and luxurious for the day and and primitive prints have become very popular.
One strong influence that swept through the the early 1920s was the Far East. Spurred by international growth since the war, increased importing and exporting and finding it easier to travel overseas, the women of the 1920s fell in love with the Orient. One area this exotic land influenced heavily was nightwear the kimono style becoming the most popular shape for peignoirs.
Silks of all colours were produced, embroidered with colourful Oriental designs and crafted into exquisite robes. Many had contrasting trims around the neckline and front, as well as the belt, although another popular style was to let it remain loose and just close with one feature button low on the hip.
The hemlines had also crept up in line with dress and skirt styles of the day, falling somewhere around the mid-calf, although the ladies of Downton were far too high class to embrace this length just yet. It was definitely something for racier girls.
We’re beginning to see more skin in series 4 with hemlines beginning to rise further, but still a respectable length of course, necklines going down and good old Lady Rose to show us just how high society girls really liked to party in 1922.
Women had more freedom after the war and their eagerness to compete in a man’s world influenced their fashions greatly. Coco Chanel was a forerunner of the more masculine looks and created many outfits that featured ties, male shirts and sportswear touches. She is also renowned for bringing the pyjama to the female of the species.
Cut in a loose style, often with an Oriental influence, these were a must for any young wannabe Flapper. Their liberating shape, full body coverage and contrasting silk fabrics made them perfect for lounging in, smoking cigarettes, listening to jazz music and reading the latest gossip columns without causing too much of a stir. This new liberation and a sense of leisure epitomised the era.
We look forward to seeing what new delights the costume team will show us this season. Will you be watching?