For our first Issue Eleven teaser, cultural critic Mel Campbell discusses the charm and complexities of Downton Abbey‘s costly costumes.

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Downton Abbey is basically a hi-res soap opera. Created by Gosford Park screenwriter Julian Fellowes for British commercial network ITV, the television series is set in a Yorkshire country house between 1912 and 1920, and features an open-ended series of intricate personal and professional dramas involving the aristocratic Crawley family, their servants and associates. The third season began screening in the UK in September.

My friends and I call the show ‘Downtime Abbey’, because watching it is deeply relaxing, and its chief pleasure is the gorgeous costumes. They represent a noble, elegant display of wealth that has since given way to more vulgar socio-economic disparities. Corporate bankers precipitate a global financial crisis in pursuit of their own short-term gain; Western consumer goods are churned out in Chinese factories whose working conditions would dismay Charles Dickens. Russian oligarchs own English football teams whose players’ trashy wives and girlfriends attract their own notoriety. There’s a popular genre of semi-scripted reality television we could call ‘class clowning’, which spans the proletarian grotesques of Jersey Shore, The Only Way Is Essex and The Shire, as well as the idle antics of wealthy socialites including Paris Hilton, Lauren Conrad and Kim Kardashian.

Then there is Downton Abbey. Such a nostalgic reconstruction of old money reportedly costs a million pounds of actual money per hour of filming, making Downton Abbey one of the most expensive television shows ever made.

About a third of the series’ costumes are made from scratch. Many of the rest are hired from costume houses in London, Madrid and Paris, and then re-trimmed or re- dyed. Others are copied from period examples or pieced together from vintage garments in disrepair.

Downton’s only original Edwardian costume is a modest pink striped frock worn by scullery maid Daisy in season two. Sourced from a private collector, it had never been worn. ‘It was just so right somehow that I bought it for the show,’ costume designer Susannah Buxton told Time magazine.

As a promotional exercise, Savile Row tailor Huntsman offered to provide evening suits for the Earl of Grantham and his heir, bourgeois lawyer Matthew Crawley. The firm, founded in 1849, consulted its archives for period-correct patterns rarely used today and charged £2700 ($4195) apiece – discounted from £4000 ($6215).

Imagine the staggering cost of having similar suits made for all six male principals, plus recurring cast members. Instead, they wear rented suits altered to fit; it’s just common sense to spend money where it shows up best onscreen. NBC’s 2011 drama The Playboy Club offers a cautionary tale of over-extravagant costuming – it commissioned eight bespoke satin Bunny outfits, with built-in corsetry, at US$3000 apiece. The 1960s-set series was canned after three episodes.


Why spend so much time and effort on costumes? A certain suspension of disbelief: the more elaborate the mise-en-scène, the more easily we can forget the presence of a modern screenwriter, director, cast and crew, and imagine this is what a particular era was actually like.

Mel Campbell is a freelance journalist and cultural critic. Her debut book Out of Shape, a non-fiction investigation of clothing size and fit, will be published in 2013 by Affirm Press.

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