21 January 2015

The 'Downton Abbey' frocks

The wonderful Lady Lever Art Gallery in Port Sunlight has recently hosted a small but beautifully formed exhibition of ten gorgeous frocks, entitled ‘Style from the Small Screen’.  The designs of these frocks date from the period 1912 to 1923 – some were period originals, others were made in the 21st century but true to the style of the period. Many were used in the filming of my favourite television series, Downton Abbey, and worn by such glamorous women as Lady Grantham, Lady Mary Crawley and my favourite character, the Dowager Countess of Grantham.

As so many of my friends weren’t able to get to the exhibition, I am publishing this blog to share the delights with you all. These garments, especially the evening dresses, are quite simply ethereal and a stunning endorsement of the designer’s creative skills and the dressmaker’s craft.

The photographs are my own and the words that accompany each item are taken from the exhibition labels. All are reproduced here with kind permission of the exhibitions team at the Lady Lever Art Gallery, for which I am extremely grateful.





Evening dress with train, silk satin, marquisette net and machine-made lace, trimmed with gold metallic lace (right)

Made by T & S Bacon, Young Ladies Department, Bold Street, Liverpool, about 1911-14

Before the First World War evening dresses were made from a variety of luxurious fabrics, including silk, satin and metallic lace. Like this dress, they were often layered to give a subtle effect of changing colours as the wearer moved.

Gift of Miss Catherine Holland, 1960. National Museums Liverpool


(This and the other dresses gifted by Miss Catherine Holland were donated to National Museums Liverpool in 1960 as part of a bigger collection of clothes from the Holland family. The Hollands were Liverpool ship owners, and partners in the firm of Lamport & Holt.)



Evening dress with train, silk satin, silk chiffon and marquisette net, trimmed with celluloid sequins and glass bugle beads (above and right)

Made by T & S Bacon, Bold Street, Liverpool, about 1910-12

Between 1910 and 1914 fashionable dresses became increasingly complicated in their construction. Their shirts were made from several layers of fabric, often cut asymmetrically, and bodices had high necklines. Evening dresses like this one usually had trains and were decorated with heavy glass beads and sequins.

Gift of Miss Catherine Holland, 1960. National Museums Liverpool

Day dress, silk with embroidered details. Hat, silk satin and printed silk (above and right)

Made by Cosprop, London, 2009

This dress was designed by costume make Susannah Buxton and is largely constructed from new fabrics, with some original trimmings applied on top.

It was worn by the actress Dame Maggie Smith as the imperious Dowager Countess of Grantham in series two of Downton Abbey, set in the period between 1916 and 1919. By that time, the fashion had changed, leaving the shirt straighter and shorter with no train. The Dowager’s brimless hat is till in the earlier toque style made recognisable by Queen Mary, the wife of George V. Dowager Countess Grantham’s costumes are made to create a look that dates back to her early Edwardian heyday, rather than the more up-to-date fashions worn by the younger members of her family.

Courtesy of Cosprop


Walking outfit, gros grain wool and silk, cotton lace inserts. Toque style hat, fine silk brocade with feather and fur trim (left)

Made by Cosprop, London, 2009

This suit reflects the obsession with military dress in the early 20th century, using frogging braid as the decoration on a simple but finely cut jacket. Although this is called a walking outfit, the long and narrow skirt would have made walking very difficult, ‘hobbling’ the wearer. These hobble skirts were very fashionable around 1912.

This garment was worn by actress Samantha Bond as Lady Rosamund Painswick, the wealthy sister of Robert Crawley, Lord Grantham. The hat is a toque style but designer and maker Susannah Buxton chose a smaller more stylish shape for Lady Painswick that worn by the Dowager Countess of Grantham. It perches on top of her head, to create a coquettish look.

Courtesy of Cosprop


Evening dress, silk with velvet and chiffon sleeves (above and left)

Acquired by Cosprop, London, made early 1920s

As the storylines in Downton Abbey move towards the 1920s fashionable styles change. There are also more original dresses surviving from this period which can be used for filming purposes.

Most of this costume is original to the period after the First World War. The shape of the dress is looser as women began to follow more active lifestyles. This style began predominately as daywear but quickly began to influence evening wear.

This dress was worn by the actress Zoe Boyle as Lavinia Swire, Matthew Crawley’s fiancĂ©e during season two of Downton Abbey, set between 1916 and 1919.

Courtesy of Cosprop



Evening gown, silk and silk chiffon, with applied silk folk motifs (above and right)

Made by Cosprop, London, 2010

This dress was worn by the actress Michelle Dockery as Lady Mary Crawley during season two of Downton Abbey, set between 1916 and 1919. It was designed by costume maker Susannah Buxton. The garment is a mix of new fabrics with old panels. Although off-screen the age of the panels may be noticeable, on-screen the occasional flaw cannot be seen and so does not detract from the overall effect.

The colour red was chosen for Mary as it suits her skin tone but it also puts her at the forefront of the scene, emphasising her place in society. Significantly, Mary wears this dress a the dramatic moment when she tells Sir Richard Carlisle that they will not be married.

Courtesy of Cosprop



Maternity evening dress, silk crepe with applied glass beading (left)

Made by Cosprop, London, 2011

This dress was worn by the actress Michelle Dockery as Lady Mary Crawley during season three of Downton Abbey, set between 1920 and 1921. It was designed by costume make Caroline McCall and has been cut to allow extra room during Mary’s on-screen pregnancy. 

As Lady Mary likes to follow fashion even whilst pregnant, the dress has been made in two separate pieces and is heavily beaded, giving weight to the fabric and creating a draped look.

Courtesy of Cosprop



Tunic-style evening dress, silk net embroidered with sequins and glass bugle beads, reproduction silk under-slip, about 1920-24 (above and right)

Vibrant colour was an important element of evening dress during the early 1920s. Previously, black and subtle shades of other colours had been thought most appropriate but attitudes were changing. 

Together with glittering sequins and beads, bright colours typified the new, young feel of fashion at this time.

Gift of Mr T A Towers, 1973. National Museums Liverpool



Tunic-style evening dress, silk net embroidered with glass bugle beads, rayon silk under-slip, about 1921-23 (left)

By the early 1920s fashions in evening wear were changing. Tunic-style net dresses, completely covered with heavy glass beads and sequins, were extremely popular. 

Despite the practical, shorter styles encouraged during the First World War, hemlines became long again. They grew gradually shorter as the 1920s progressed.

Gift of Miss Catherine Holland, 1960. National Museums Liverpool


Tunic-style evening dress, printed crepe with diamante pearl and mirrored glass beading (right)

Made by Cosprop, London, 2012

This dress was worn by the actress Elizabeth McGovern as Cora Crawley, the Countess of Grantham during season four of Downton Abbey, set in 1922. t reflects the long, loosely draped style of the early 1920s, a fashion which was especially popular for evening wear.

Her character carefully chooses her dress styles, ranging from the theatrical fashions inspired by the French designer Paul Poiret of 1912-14, to the looser trends and fashions of the war years and beyond. As a Countess at the pinnacle of society, Cora would have been a setter of trends as well as a follower of fashion.

Courtesy of Cosprop



Shift-style evening dress, silk underdress, net overdress with coloured sequins and glass beading (above and left)

Acquired by Cosprop, London, made early 1920

This dress is typical of 1920s evening wear and was made during this period. It is quite fragile due to the weight of the beading which can cause the supporting fabrics to tear. The entire dress has been reinforced by handstitching new net onto the old, in order to conserve the beading and make the dress wearable for filming.

The dress was worn by the actress Janet Montgomery as Freda Dudley-Ward during the 2013 Downton Abbey Christmas Special, which was set in 1923. Mrs Dudley-Ward was famously a mistress of the Prince of Wales, later Edward VIII.

Courtesy of Cosprop





Evening dress, gold metallic lace, rayon satin under-slip and silk net trimming, about 1929-30 (right)

This dress belonged to Lady Helen Nutting (1890-1973), daughter of the sixth Earl of Airlie. She was married three times and spent much of her life campaigning for women’s rights, including their economic rights and divorce reform.

By the late 1920s evening dresses such as this were typically full-length and looked forward to the styles of the 1930s.

Gift of Lady Helen Nutting, 1961. National Museums Liverpool



Evening dress, silk crepe with applied glass bugle beads (left)

Made by Cosprop, London, 2012

This dress was worn by the actress Michelle Dockery as Lady Mary Crawley during season four of Downton Abbey, set in 1922. When Lady Mary wears this dress it symbolises the end of her mourning period for the loss of her beloved husband Matthew, who was tragically killed in a car accident.

During the early 1900s the mourning process required women to wear only black when they were first bereaved. After a few months purple, mauve and grey could be worn as a sign of half mourning.

Courtesy of Cosprop



Tunic-style evening dress, cream silk under-dress with front panel embroidered in silk flock Over-dress of black chiffon with gold metallic trim (above and right)

Made by Cosprop, London, 2012

This dress was worn by the actress Shirley MacLaine as Martha Levinson, the Countess of Grantham’s mother, during the 2013 Downton Abbey Christmas Special which was set in 1923.

Martha’s brash American character embraces change and new ideas which is reflected in her style of dress.


Interestingly, despite the character’s onscreen age she has kept up with new trends in fashion and adapts them to suit her more mature figure. In contrast, the Dowager Countess Grantham’s style look back to the early Edwardian period of her younger days.

Courtesy of Cosprop