One of the fashion highlights of the spring/summer 2018 season was the debut of Downton Abbey, the 8-part series set in early 20th century England. What made the outfits stand out was not only the luxurious fabrics, but the use of camouflage as a way of life for the upper classes at the time.
The fashion style of the abbey was heavily inspired by the great outdoors. The outfits included trousers, shirts and blazers with matching camo patterns that were so realistic that you’d practically need a guide to differentiate them from real animal hides.
The first episode of the series premiered on ITV on Sunday, March 3rd and quickly became one of the biggest shows of the year. It follows the fortunes of the Crawley family, in particular Lady Mary Crawley (Michelle Dockery), who is determined to secure the title of “Madame Curie” after her husband, Lord Crawley (Alan Richardson), becomes ill with cancer. With the help of her mother-in-law, Violet (Joanne Whalley), and a team of doctors, nurses and social workers, Mary successfully manages to extend his life. But with the nation’s health service under strain and the strain of taking care of her son and father-in-law, Lady Mary considers throwing herself a “barking mad” event and entertaining some guests with a dramatic display of her famous embroidery.
It is during one of these embroidery sessions that we first see one of the costumes that have made the show so memorable. As the camera slowly pans over to the left, we are greeted by a Robert Pattinson in full camo garb. And not just any camo, but faux-leather or rather “tree-kini” camouflage, which is what we in the United States refer to as “animal-print” camouflage.
The fashion style of Downton Abbey is certainly distinctive, borrowing elements of both traditional and modern dress. The outfits are usually designed with elaborate and stylish cuffs, collar, and pocket linings. Many of the designs are loosely based on the traditional costumes the upper classes would have worn, but with added touches of the modern world, like leather trousers for men or high-waisted trousers for women.
The designs are so realistic that replicating them seems impossible. The show’s costume designer, Michael O’Neill, said that the makers of the costumes had experienced a backlash from people who thought the outfits were impossible to replicate. In one instance, a pair of trousers was worn by a member of the public and the media had a field day ripping it apart, asking how he had managed to pull off such a masterpiece.
With regards to the camo jacket, however, nobody can accuse Lord and Lady Crawley of being underdressed. We see them regularly in various costumes, but it is the day that Lady Mary wears this particular outfit that truly stands out. The embroidery on the jacket is spectacular and it is clear that it took a lot of work to get it just right. As we learn in the show, it was designed after an encounter with a bear on a walk in the Scottish Highlands.
This type of camouflage was worn by the upper classes during the First World War, when they were forced to take up arms against Germany. It was originally used to conceal the English countryside from aerial bombardment, hence its colloquial name “pillowcase camouflage”. It was originally designed to be worn by men, but in the early 20th century, women also began sporting it, as the following picture from a 1927 issue of Ladies’ Pictorial shows.
Although it would be unusual to see women in trousers back then, it is clear that most of the female guests at Lady Mary’s party are not wearing conventional dresses. Some are even wearing bloomers, which are women’s undergarments. These kinds of undergarments were worn by women in secret during the first half of the 20th century, particularly during wartime. The sight of women in trousers during the 1920s and 1930s was actually rather shocking for those who were used to seeing women in long dresses or even skirts.
Pattinson’s Bear-Inspired Outfit
One of the most distinctive outfits worn by Pattinson is inspired by a bear he encountered on a walk in the Scottish Highlands. The animal strongly resembled a polar bear and stood approximately two feet tall at the shoulder. (This was before they were considered an endangered species.)
The bear’s resemblance to Lord Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Scottish” brown bear is uncanny and it seems likely that the inspiration came from the famous musical producer. As a keen hunter, he would have been familiar with the look of a real bear. It is known that Lloyd Webber saw the bear first and it is quite possible that he had it in his mind when he wrote the lyrics to “The Bear”, the opening song from Cats.
The singer, Dame Shirley Bassey, was asked about the bear during an interview for the UK broadcast of the show and she commented that the outfit looked like “a cross between a polar bear and a toy bear”. According to the Daily Mail, Bassey was not the only one who thought the bear looked familiar. Audience members recognized him as well and some of them were heard saying that they thought him to be “the spitting image” of the bear they had just seen.
With the bear as a reference point, designers from London to Hollywood have submitted their versions of what a bear-themed outfit might look like. This includes the white fur jacket worn by Geena Davis in the 1989 film adaptation of Stephen King’s The Stand.
The Lady Is Fashion-Savvy
The outfits worn by Michelle Dockery are just as fashionable as those worn by her character. On one occasion, she dons a full skirt, which is very similar to the kind that women would wear in the early 20th century. Dockery’s fashion-savvy character would have been accustomed to wearing beautiful and classy outfits and she puts this skill to use when she helps her son, Tom, prepare for his wedding. With the help of a personal shopper, she helps him choose the right suit and the right accessories for the big day.
Other characters, like Lady Edith, are also fashion-savvy and they often try to keep up with the latest trends. During one scene, Lady Edith puts on a revealing dress and black high heels in order to attract her husband, Sir John, who has just returned from the office and is about to go out for a drink with a colleague. She wants to keep his attention and, as she puts it, “make him notice me again”.
One of the most fashionable characters in the show is Lady Anna, played by the always glamorous and fashionable Anna Chancellor. One of the highlights of Lady Anna’s wardrobe is the beaded evening gown that she wears during a reception for the Russian royal family. The gown is so beautiful that it takes our breath away.
The final member of this fashion-savvy crew is Matthew Crawley, played by the handsome and dashing Michael Sheen. During one scene, Matthew is seen wearing a beautiful brown suit with a matching brown shirt and tie. The suit is very similar to the one worn by Winston Churchill during World War II, which makes him look like an “extra serving of salt” according to one reviewer.
We can also take inspiration from the fashion styles of the time to create our own versions of how World War II dress might have looked. The costumes for Downton Abbey are very luxurious, extremely detailed and they are an example of the kind of clothing that one might see during the early part of the 20th century. The fabrics are soft and light, which makes it easy for the characters to move around in them. It’s always important to keep the atmosphere of the period while also wanting to look stylish and glamorous.