Last year, during Downton Abbey’s wildly popular first season, we posted an article about the clothes of Lord Grantham, played by actor Hugh Bonneville. Currently, the second season is in full swing in the US.
As such, it is about time to write another piece on this superb period drama – in the two short “years” since we last encountered Downton’s inhabitants, political, economic, and social change has effected a dramatic shift in the purpose of the characters wardrobe – though some things remain unchanged.
The second season brings us to Downton during WWI and progresses to the dawn of the 1920’s. The footmen have joined the army and Downton Abbey is converted into convalescent home for British officers. While Lord Grantham is unable to participate at the front, heir apparent Matthew Crawley finds himself worlds away from his home in the Somme’s mud and smoke. In the meantime, Lady Mary grows increasingly less fond of her fiancé Richard Carlisle (Iain Glen). Nevertheless, it is a pleasure to watch Carlisle’s nouveau riche clothing and Matthew’s military wardrobe; in general you will find many greatcoats, military uniforms & mess dress.
In the past, if you recall our coverage of the British Warm Coat, the connection between the modern coat and it’s WWI ancestor are clear. Matthew Crawley’s character is the most prominent figure that is seen regularly in a greatcoat. These greatcoats were often made of a heavy, sturdy, grey or olive-green wool, which protected its wearer against the elements, hid the inevitable dirt, and kept them warm. The ulster collar has a hook so it can be closed in order to cover the neck. Also, the cuffs can be turned down, to provide another layer of warmth to the hands. Of course, it features epaulettes and it is double breasted, since it is military coat. The roomy pockets were designed for storage. Mr. Crawley’s coat features hacking pockets, gold buttons and reaches just over the knee.
All men of position wear a military uniform even though they are not actively fighting. As such, Lord Grantham – the Boer war veteran – wears his uniform during the day, whereas Bates – his fellow soldier during that war- wears his standard valet stroller outfit. The doctor also wears his uniform, as do Matthew, and footmen Thomas and William.
In the first season of Downton Abbey, we witnessed numerous formal dinners where all the men at the table would wear a proper white tie outfit, which did not vary based on the occasion. Now, we can see a number of changes.
Instead of the classic tailcoat ensemble, we see quite a few scarlet red spencer jackets, also known as mess jackets. These coats are cut like a tailcoat, with the exception of the tails.
Historically, mess uniforms first surfaced in the British Army around 1845. Although it is hard to believe today, these mess uniforms were the casual dinner alternatives to the elaborate full dress uniforms which used to be worn by officers for evening functions such as regimental dinners or balls.
In Downton Abbey, we can see Lord Grantham and Matthew, as well as other high ranking military personnel wear the so called No 10 (Temperate) Mess Dress. Here, this popular evening uniform of the British Army consists of the scarlet red mess jacket with a black shawl collar lapel and black accents on the cuff. Only some wear epaulettes, though all of them wear black, deep cut waistcoats with a stiff fronted shirt, studs, detachable collar and black tie. The older gentlemen also wear it with their decorations. The high-waisted trousers – also know as overalls – are black and feature a nice, wide red galon stripe on the side as well as stirrups that buckle underneath the dress boots (like Prince William in this article).
All these uniforms are actually original from the period, and hence they were not custom tailored for the individual actors. As such, the fit is not perfect and the styles are slightly different. For example, compare Lord Grantham’s narrow shawl collar lapel with Matthew’s wide bellied, rounded ones.
Dinner Jacket Debut
Later in the season, we also see how the dinner jacket is introduced to Downton Abbey by Lord Grantham. In one scene, we see how Robert gets dressed with the help of his personal valet Mr. Bates. Their conversation is very revealing about the attitude towards such a “modern” style:
Lord Grantham (indicating his outfit): What do you think? All the chaps are wearing them in London. Only for informal evenings of course.
Mr. Bates: I’m not sure you’ll get much use out of it when the war is over.
Lord Grantham: Maybe not. But I can wear it when her ladyship and I are on our own.
Looking back, we know that both great wars had a dramatic influence on formality, but back then, no one could know how things would develop after the war. However, it is quite interesting to see that the domestic servant Bates is rather conservative in his assumptions – and he is not on his own. At another points in the series, Lady Violet remarks: “Servants are always far more conservative than their employers.” The Black Tie suit is very classic: single breasted coat with peaked, silk covered lapels, stiff fronted white shirt with detachable wing collar, two shirt studs and a black waistcoat.
Thereafter, we do see the male dinner crowd more often in black tie. However, white tie has yet to become superfluous, especially in the presence of his mother, the Dowager Countess Violet. In the seventh episode, they share their thoughts on the dinner jacket:
Lord Grantham: I nearly came down in a dinner jacket tonight.
Dowager Countess Violet: Really? Why not a dressing gown? Or, better still, pajamas?
Lord Grantham: That’s why I didn’t.
Instead, he wears his tailcoat with cloth covered buttons that was made for him by Huntsman of Savile Row. Overall, the series is very well done with interesting character strings, stories and developments. And while the costumes designers were spot on in terms of period clothing – unlike Boardwalk Empire - the entire series is not representative of how things were back then. The formality was much more rigid and consequently warmth, love and hugs were the very rare exception rather than the rule.
If you have a chance to watch Downton Abbey, please do expect splendid entertainment but not a historically accurate portrait of society as it was in the 1910s.
In our next article about Downton Abbey, we will focus on country clothing – so stay tuned.
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Sadly, I just read that many of the garments in Downton Abbey and King’s Speech, were destroyed by arson in April 2011. This would explain, why we only see the mess dress in the first half of the season.
Take a look at our coverage of Downton Abbey Season 3.