Jan 25 2012 9:30am

Clothes in the Time of Downton Abbey

Ladies Mary, Sybil, and Edith in Downton AbbeyI don’t watch Downton Abbey, but I absolutely adore reading about the time period in which it’s set. The first series begins in 1912 and ends in 1914; the second series occurs during the height of World War I and in its immediate aftermath, 1916-1919. I’m going to, very briefly, summarize general silhouettes and how clothing in these years altered in style, focusing on the aristocrats because, well, they were the ones with the fancy clothes.

A variety of influences shaped fashion in England during those years, among them the Arts and Crafts movement, Art Nouveau, the Ballets Russes, and French designers like Paul Poiret. During the war itself (1914-1918), though, the fashion industry was essentially dormant, as women discarded fripperies in favor of sturdy clothing that would hold up while volunteering in hospitals or working in a factory. Dressmakers took elements from military uniforms, like buttons and decorative braid, and incorporated them into women’s clothing.

In 1912, women’s clothing was heading away from the elaborate, concealing clothing from the beginning of the decade. The S-shaped silhouette with “monobosom,” lace- or Irish crochet-encrusted gowns with long sleeves, and high collars reinforced with boning so common in mid-decade began to give way to more natural waistlines, fuller skirts, and open necklines in the daytime rather than only in the evenings. There were fewer elaborate embellishments overall, though cuts and drapery might be more complex. Hats grew wider, then shrank towards the end of the decade; the silhouette changed from round and broad to taller shapes, perhaps with upright feathers. Tailor-made garments (the female equivalent of a man’s suit) also grew more popular. As the era progressed, women were more likely to cut their hair. Wearing long hair in ringlets was also popular, thanks perhaps to silent film star Mary Pickford’s look.

By 1916, open necks were the norm, waists were a bit higher, and skirts had grown much wider; sometimes skirts were doubled, one layer shorter than the other. Colors were more subdued. As the war progressed, skirts shortened, both to conserve fabric and to facilitate movement; as I mentioned earlier, military touches paid homage to the men in uniform. Corsets were worn much less often, replaced by the less constrictive bust bodice. Though not widely available, the first brassiere was patented in 1914 (the term was first used in Vogue in 1907). Boots came back into fashion for women because of practicality, as well; because of leather shortages, sometimes the tops were made of cloth rather than leather. By the end of the war, the overall silhouette was very simple, and edging towards the cylindrical look that would prevail in the 1920s.

In the picture of Violet Crawley below, she’s wearing an old-fashioned dress for the period that’s depicted, perhaps because she is an older woman who’s stuck with a dress she already owned. Note especially all the decorative elements in her garments:

Violet, the dowager countess, in Downton Abbey










Meanwhile, compare Violet’s outfit with the neckline of Lady Mary’s dress and her much larger, floppier hat—she’s considerably more modish:

Mary Crawley in Downton Abbey








Men’s clothing was then, as now, much less elaborate and less colorful. Men generally wore three-piece suits, of which two or three of the pieces matched; a Homburg hat or a bowler, both rounded in shape; and a narrow “four-in-hand” tie. Shirts had standing collars with starched front and cuffs. Slightly looser jackets, striped or in brighter colors, were worn for leisure activities, perhaps with a flat-topped straw hat, while outdoorsmen and hunters would wear tweed Norfolk jackets, sometimes with soft caps. Formal wear for men was worn for many more occasions than today; upperclass men were punctilious about differentiating very formal evening white tie from dinner jackets.

This picture of Robert shows most elements of men’s daywear:

Robert, Lord Grantham in Downton Abbey









This picture gives an excellent overview of outdoor clothing—note the dull colors and wool plaids:

The cast of Downton Abbey in hunting gear









Finally, let’s chat about lingerie. In this period, women’s underwear was often made by hand and decorated with embroidery and/or threaded ribbon. A woman’s camisole, knickers or drawers, and petticoats might be made of gauze, cambric, silk, or wool, or ribbed knits. French knickers were widely cut with frills, while “Directoire” knickers fit more closely and had removable cotton linings. For sleepwear in this period, women generally wore square-necked gowns with short sleeves, but during World War I, men’s-style pajamas gained in popularity.

As you look at these pictures, you might feel as though you’ve seen some similar designs recently—that’s because current fashion designers are beginning to show vintage influences that are inspired by the series.


Victoria Janssen is the author of three novels and numerous short stories. Her novel The Moonlight Mistress is set during World War I, and she has a terrifying love of research about that period. Follow her on Twitter: @victoriajanssen or find out more at

Subscribe to this conversation (must be logged in):
K.M. Jackson
1. kwanawrites
I love Downton Abbey and the clothes are a big part of it for me. I find it's worth a re-watch on line just for the clothes to pick up the finer details which I did this week. Mary was wearing a slightly ruffled blouse with muted embroidery along with a long skirt and I tell you I gasped it was so beautiful. I know I'm a corny fashion girl but still. What a great show for the fashion lover.
Victoria Janssen
2. VictoriaJanssen
@KwanaWrites, I saw a neat blog post somewhere last year that showed how some of the specific costumes had been worn by different actresses in different shows - it was really cool to see how the garments looked in the various contexts.
Darlene Marshall
3. DarleneMarshall
It's my understanding that one development which got women out of restrictive corsets was the need for metal during the war. The framework of the corset contained metal bands and women gave them up for the war effort.

I love Arts & Crafts style, Art Nouveau and Edwardian fashion. Thanks for sharing this, because I've been drooling over the Downton dresses.
Victoria Janssen
4. VictoriaJanssen
@DarleneMarshall - I read that somewhere, too, about metal for corsets - but I think they were growing less restrictive anyway, too, because the dress styles were changing before the War. I don't have a definitive answer. I suspect a lot of factors came into play.

Those weird "S-shaped" corsets were supposed to be healthier for you because they didn't squish your stomach. I suspect they had a worse effect on your back than the older ones.
Keira Soleore
5. KeiraSoleore
What a great blog, Victoria. I know nothing about this period, so reading about how fashion changed comparatively drastically in such a small time period is very interesting.
Victoria Janssen
6. VictoriaJanssen
@KeiraSoleore, I didn't know a lot about the Edwardians until I started reading the blog Edwardian Promenade - that led to me starting to collect research material on that period.
Connie Fischer
Love Downton Abbey and all of the fashions of that time period. Sometimes, I wish I could "play" the show on slow motion so I can fully admire all of the lovely fashions.

I'm happy to see more authors writing of that time period too. I enjoyed "The American Heiress" and look forward to Elise Rome's upcoming books of the 1920s. A delightful time with all sorts of changes going on in the world. Very exciting to read about.
Victoria Janssen
8. VictoriaJanssen
@ConnieCape, I too have noticed there seem to be more 1920s set novels coming out lately.
Sven Raphael Schneider
9. Sven Raphael Schneider
In case anybody is interested in the clothing men wear at Downton Abbey, you should take a look at Lord Grantham's clothing as well as the
Mess Dress article.
Sven Raphael Schneider
10. Hannah B.P.
Nice write up! I just wanted to mention that Violet could have had any new fashion she wanted. But just like today, most older women wanted to wear the fashions of their youth. She would have been laughed at by her granddaughters for her old-fashioned dres but she wouldn't have caed.
Sven Raphael Schneider
11. Danialah
Thankyou very much for putting this information online. I am writting a blog for media studies on Downton Abbey and now know how to explain the clothing for the era that Downton Abbey is set.
Post a comment