You Can Always Go…Downton: Costumes and Class in the Best Soap on Television

Lady Mary Crawley out for a ride.

Last week, Slate published a thought-provoking article by Katie Roiphe that addressed what she sees as our current obsession with class, as evidenced by the rampant popularity of the WWI-era PBS drama/soap opera Downton Abbey. In it, she argued that our cultural ambiguity and confusion around class (we HATE the wealthy, we want to BE the wealthy, we HATE the wealthy, we want their SHOES, they suck, GIVE ME THAT STEAMER TRUNK, etc.) eeks out into our fantasy lives and into the choices we make around entertainment.

Roiphe’s point is a strong one, but as one of the masses who is obsessed, OBSESSED with Downton Abbey, I think she underestimates the [possible] depth of its appeal. She frames her entire argument as though we are watching Downton only to take comfort in its depiction of class structure: “ There is in the show’s popularity some quality of nostalgia for a class structure we never had. We don’t wholly approve of it, of course, but we are somehow entranced by it, a little more than interested. The characters of Downton Abbey may chafe and aspire, but their roles are inescapable, clear; and it is perhaps the inescapability and clarity that is so seductive.”

She also asserts that we hope, “…as in a Jane Austen novel, that the Crawley daughters marry well, that they keep the money in the family and the estate intact.”

Disclaimer: I LOVE DOWNTON ABBEY SO MUCH.

Tip: IT IS NOT PRONOUNCED “DOWNTOWN.”

The thing Roiphe’s point is missing, as anyone who watches the show like an obsessive tween would know, is that the established state of the world in Downton is actually in decay and flux, as are the lines of class demarcation. The shifting political climate (in a recent episode, the Russian Revolution is discussed by Downton’s staff from a variety of angles), the War, and the changing roles of women are all folded into the landscape of the show to create what is far from an Austen novel narrative arc. I mean, I guess I hope the Crawley daughters marry well, but I don’t really care THAT much, because they themselves don’t appear to be overly concerned with it. Sybil’s busting her ass trying to be of use as a war nurse, Edith is trying to find something she’s passionate about that also involves driving, and Mary’s pulling some weird business with a newspaper mogul who is definitely not of her class. Frankly, I’m much more interested in the lives of the staff downstairs, as they struggle in different ways with the changing socioeconomic climate that’s accompanied the War.

I also wait with baited breath to see what sort of snarky one-liner Maggie Smith‘s Violet is going shoot off next. If my grandmother were British, she would be the Dowager Countess. And WHAT is shifty Thomas up to?? He has so much vitriol. Oh, I can’t wait.

Shit is about to get REAL with Thomas.

The point being, the writers of Downton Abbey actually give equal depth of consideration to both the wealthy Crawleys and to their staff, if not more so to the staff than to the Crawleys. It is not a show built to create an over-identification with the upper classes, nor is it a show that even necessarily encourages an embrace of some sort of class structure that brings with it a comfortable rigidity. I bet you’re wondering how in the world this connects to fashion.

COSTUME DESIGN!

Disclaimer #2: I LOVE PERIOD PIECES.

As a lover of period pieces (e.g. Emma, Remains of the Day, Wuthering Heights, and every single iteration of Jane Eyre), I can tell you that if you’re supposed to identify with the wealthy main characters, the servants and staff are outfitted so as to blend in as a single, faceless mass. I couldn’t tell you anything about any footman, house maid, or chauffeur in any Austen-esque movie, but Downton  costume designers Susannah Buxton and Rosalind Ebutt have taken the time to give every character in Downton Abbey their own, individual aesthetic personality. It helps to create a subtly democratic feel to the show that sort of undermines the perceived class structure, which operates by reducing the under classes to the above-mentioned faceless mass. For God’s sake, give them faces. They are PEOPLE, people!

Anna and her sensible hats.

Here’s Anna. When she’s not brushing Mary Crawley’s hair and helping her with man troubles (and vice versa), she’s wearing any number of understated, sensible hats with some sort of subtle flair. In this case, it’s a velvet (or is it linen?) bow.

A little feather action says that the under classes care about flair.

Anna is gentle and kindhearted, but totally willing to take a risk for Mr. Bates, with whom she is head-over-heels in love despite the fact that he is married to a harpy and has a squishy face. Anna also loves jackets with interesting angles and strong lines, and shirts with collars buttoned all the way to the top. Her off-work attire counterbalances the softness in her face well and conveys the strength of her personality.

Are they gonna work it out?? Is that a lady's straw boater??

Though we never really see him off duty, Branson has what is possibly the best costume on the show.

I wish we still needed aviator's goggles to drive a car.

Branson is an Irishman, the Crawley’s chauffeur, and is obsessed with three things:

1. Lady Sybil (who sometimes wears pants and has will of her own)

2. The idea that class structures are falling apart thanks to the War

3. Revenge on the British army (because he’s Irish…remember?)

Branson’s bomber pilot-esque professional attire unconsciously reinforces his radical political leanings even as he continues to shuttle around the Crawley family.

Are they gonna work it out?? Why don't I have driving goggles??

The other two characters I’m really interested in this season are Mrs. Patmore and Daisy. Mrs. Patmore runs Downton’s kitchen and is the lovable, hug-able, slightly infuriating mother we all have. She’s a bit dowdy and frazzled looking, and has a soft heart. Which is about to totally screw Daisy over, but it’s Daisy’s fault for running her mouth and for falling prey to Mrs. Patmore’s guilt trips.

Each character has a signature “look,” both in and out of the kitchen. Mrs. Patmore always looks a little like that teapot from Beauty and the Beast–matronly, hair always slightly askew, utilitarian fabrics, etc. Daisy is a little bit like the class clown, has an ornery grin, and an ability to verbally step in it. Which is reinforced by her bizarrely tight up-do…back-do…hairstyle? And an air of “Omg, I was so frazzled, I just threw this on and left the house.”

Daisy's knitted beret thing is hilarious.

As for the Crawleys themselves, even they often defy what you might expect of the upper class elite. The Dowager Countess is by far the most invested in upholding class standards, appearances, and expectations. And she is a class-A bitch. But because she’s played by Maggie Smith, Lady Violet more often than not comes off as comic relief.

Do not f#*@ck with Lady Violet. Or do, because then she'll say something hilariously cutting.

Check out Lady Violet’s Victorian lace and daytime opera gloves. Can you tell from her costuming that she comes from a rapidly disappearing era?

Apparently we’re possibly supposed to care about whether or not Matthew and Mary Crawley get together. But as the eldest and most straight-laced of the Crawley sisters, and as someone who is in love with some sort of cousin, her character is only nominally relate-able. Mary also has the least interesting outfits.

Perk up! There are people that you aren't related to that you could marry!

Sybil, on the other hand, will drop by in harem pants and a will to make her own way  in the world!

Dang, girl! Watch out for the Dowager's cutting remarks.

Here she is learning to cook so that she can be a nurse. Which is somehow connected.

And Edith, whose face is irritating looking, has a love of driving and hard labor!

A Lady, or Toad from Toad Hall?

As a modern woman, she eschews all things Victorian in favor of a bob haircut, jaunty hats, and dresses with  more modern designs.

Behind that pouty visage lies a tractor driver.

SCANDAL.

So while Roiphe believes that class structure in Downton Abbey is ultimately fixed, the nuance and subtly of the show speaks to another reading. Downton can’t be separated from the backdrop it falls against and which is regularly referenced throughout the series: the revolution in Russia is poised to remove the monarchy and set up an entirely new economic landscape, women are slowly taking on new societal roles that aren’t entirely bound up in who they marry, private homes are converted into convalescence facilities for wounded soldiers, and the War has necessarily removed socioeconomic delineations for soldiers in the trenches who are returning with a new outlook on possibility. At the moment in time in which Downton inhabits, roles seem anything but static and inescapable. Instead, the world feels at the precipice of a massive change. For some characters that possibility is terrifying, for others—of both the Crawley and staff variety— it is invigorating and freeing. It’s complicated.

The reason we don’t “…wish that Downton Abbey, with its majestic exploitation and sweeping gardens, be sold to a school or divided into apartments” is because that would be a democratic oversimplification of what is actually an incredibly complex and difficult moment in time. Would the school employ the fleet of Downton staff members we’ve come to care so much about? Would the apartments inherently go to people who need them most, or would they become luxury condos? Would tearing down the vestiges of one ideal for another actually address the complicated, frustrating, entrenched ideologies and twisted morals we’ve created, or should we instead acknowledge that things can get messy and confusing when we talk about a class system?

And maybe THAT is why, if there is indeed any unconscious reason, we watch the Crawleys and their staff muddle through. Because in some way, we Americans are similarly poised to have to re-envision class boundaries, societal roles, division of resources, and our most fundamental–albeit inequitable– ideals.

We also might be obsessed with Downton Abbey because frankly it is an ongoing parade of killer facial expressions:

Woops!

About Michael von Braithwaite

Does it look like I'd wear it on a boat, at an eccentric person's estate or accompanied by a peacock on a chain? Yeah, I'll probably buy that.

8 comments

  1. I can’t begin to tell you how much I love this post!

  2. blevit

    Love this! I agree that this particular period that they’ve chosen to set the story in is such an interesting one due to the changing societal structure. It certainly won’t end with a completely classless society—Britain still seems more obsessed with class than Americans. But it shows the beginning, which is fascinating.

    Also, I’d say another reason we watch is because British culture seems so close, but so foreign to American culture.

    Finally, we like escapism in our entertainment. What’s more escapist then settling in to a time decades ahead of your own. Same could be said for enjoying something like Deadwood—curiosity and escape!

    • Michael von Braithwaite

      I totally agree. I think we’re always interested in British culture because of its similarity to/difference from our own. And I think that the best entertainment provides a healthy mix of escapism and parable, which is why I think that Downton has taken off like wildfire in the States. It’s escapist, but there’s also something familiar in watching the characters move through the world that they do.

      Also, whenever you put Maggie Smith in something, it’s going to be amazing.

  3. Clearly, I need to be watching this show. I do think viewers long for social simplicity on some level, but the best shows/movies/books use that wish to draw us in, then reveal that it’s always been a myth.

    The fun thing about period dramas is that even the lower classes had great clothes. Dickensian peasant wear beats Juicy Couture any day. Great post!

    • Michael von Braithwaite

      It is odd to think that Victorian paupers were still better dressed than most modern day tourists. Watch this show now, Cheryl!

  4. I want to dress like the women for dinner, and the men when they’re shooting the whole rest of the time.

  5. Amal Joury

    my late grandmother = lady violet. the line she says about “not dying in a stranger’s house” my grandmother would TOTALLY have said that, in addition to things like “oh do be quiet, child and fetch me a sherry”
    also. i want driving goggles too. i think we should bring back that look.

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