I love a good costume drama and Downton Abbey delivers in spades. This universally acclaimed British television series follows the lives of the aristocratic Crawley family and their servants at their country estate around the time of World War I. The budget is a reported £1 million per episode and it really shows in the sumptuous period costumes.
As a formalwear buff it’s been a delight to watch the dinner scenes where the gentlemen are always resplendent in their full-dress kits. And as the show’s timeline progressed closer to the end of the war I was thinking that if the costume designers knew their sartorial history we should be seeing the arrival of the dinner jacket for the family’s less formal dinners. Thus I was thrilled (sad, but true) to not only see the jacket’s debut in a recent episode but for that debut to actually be acknowledged. The setting is Lord Grantham’s bedroom where the master of the house is being dressed for dinner by his faithful valet Bates:
Lord Grantham (indicating his outfit): What do you think? All the chaps are wearing them in London. Only for informal evenings of course.
Bates: I’m not sure you’ll have much use for it once the war is over.
Lord Grantham: Maybe not. But I can wear it when her ladyship and I are on our own.
Interestingly, Bates seems to think that once hostilities cease society will return to its pre-war state and formal dining will once again be in style. In actual fact the war permanently relaxed social standards, as wars typically do, and in its aftermath the short dinner coat and black bow tie was promoted from its Edwardian informal status to default evening wear. From that point onward his lordship’s white tie and tails would be donned only for particularly formal occasions. Or for dinners with his imperious mother, the Dowager Countess, as we witness in the subsequent episode:
Lord Grantham: I nearly came down in a dinner jacket tonight.
Downton Abbey season 2 is currently airing in the UK on ITV and will air in the US in January on PBS. You can learn more about Black Tie in our Tuxedo Guide