Jace Lacob: MASTERPIECE Studio wants you to know that Downton Abbey: The Exhibition is currently making its US debut in New York City. You’ll see Mrs. Patmore’s kitchen, 50 extraordinary costumes, and so much more.
Tickets are available for purchase at www.downtonexhibition.com. The exhibition runs through September 3, 2018.
Mr. Bricker: As for your clothes, you’ll be the best-looking woman in the Ritz dining room whatever you’re wearing.
Cora: Oh, golly. That’s cheered me up. I mean it.
Jace: I’m Jace Lacob and you’re listening to a special bonus episode of MASTERPIECE Studio with Downton Abbey costume designer, Anna Mary Scott Robbins.
Style matters at Downton — from Lady Mary’s Chanel-influenced chic to Edith’s muted color palette, costumes say a lot about each character.
We asked Anna Mary how she uses fashion to illustrate the characters’ inner-lives and to transport us back to the roaring 20’s.
Anna Mary Scott Robbins (Anna): Thank you very much.
Jace: What is your design process for each episode or season? Are you working off of finished scripts, conversations with Julian or magazines from specific years?
Anna: At the beginning of the series I’ll do a lot of general research, so I’ll spend hours sort of trawling online and looking at the sort of amassed research that I’ve had over the years of historical costume, 1920s specifically. And then I’ll go back to fashion designers, sort of more specifically, that I feel should influence certain characters kind of on their journeys.
Jace: Now we’re seeing a lot more sort of societal movement for women– Do you see that as being a connection between their clothes?
Anna: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, the emancipation of women during that time is really exciting and was obviously first seen when the corsets were abandoned and so movement was just freer and clothing became looser.
But then also I think socially and sort of through professionalism Lady Mary and Lady Edith both have careers of their own in very different spheres. You’re looking at the way clothing is translated into kind of what used to be kind of male-dominated industries, and these women are coming in and sort of challenging those norms.
Jace: Well, the formal dresses have rightly taken a bit of a spotlight in Downton. Some of the most striking designs this season are actually from Mary and Edith’s work clothes, which I think are incredible. How did you handle the shift between formal pleasure to formal professional for these two women?
Anna: With Lady Mary, I see her as being the epitome of Downton Abbey. She’s the next generation, and she’s taking the estate onwards and into the future, and sort of securing it. So she, acting as the agent, is competing with men in this sort of man’s world. So I sort of looked at the three-piece suit and translated that into kind of women’s wear. And color-wise, I’d look at colors that sort of mirrored or worked with the colors of the house itself and the grounds in the estate so that she really felt like she was a fabric within that world.
Jace: Now Edith used to be sort of a big of a wallflower. What was that transformation like for you as the costume designer?
Anna: Well, really exciting and just a real pleasure to be able to take her through that. And I just think that she’s blossoming as a person, as a mother, as a professional, and as somebody who has sort of found her place in the world. And, again, with her working wardrobe I wanted to explore a different vibe to how she dresses at the Abbey. But this time, this world is London, it’s bohemian, and taking that really sort of fashion-forward edge for her meant you could explore sort of bits of her personality that you otherwise haven’t been able to because she’s been so held back emotionally. We’ve had to therefore mute the palettes within her wardrobe and really sort of have her sitting at the sidelines fashion-wise. So I think for Series Six it was like shining a spotlight on her and just having fun and seeing kind of, you know, how far we could go with it.
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Jace: Now the men’s formal dinner attire could be, you know, a sea of similarity. But how do you differentiate between what Henry Talbot, Tom Branson and Lord Grantham are wearing? How do you make them sort of pop?
Anna: For me, with the menswear it’s all about the fit and the cut. But, I mean, our basic goal is to make them look incredibly dashing, and to have their suits speak for themselves, so they should be just tailored brilliantly.
It’s more within daywear that you can differentiate generations by going to a soft collar for the younger generation; details like that, allow us to sort of differentiate.
Jace: In just two seasons on the show, you created 290 — and correct me if I’m wrong — 290 original designs?
Anna: Two hundred and ninety for Series Six.
Jace: Oh, just for Series Six.
Jace: I mean, that’s just nine episodes. Two hundred ninety original designs. I mean, that’s a huge, huge feat.
Anna: Yes it was. Yeah. I mean, it was a challenge. I mean, and that doesn’t include the things that we bought, the kind of original pieces that we bought.
Jace: And what is the percentage of sort of original design versus purchased?
Anna: I think within our principal upstairs women, we made about 80 percent of their wardrobe. But that included some original pieces that would have to be customized, so we might have to make a slip and augment it slightly, drop the length, because everything was so tiny in the ’20s, and our girls are tall. And so that proportionally we would have to play around with things. And quite often you’d find dresses that actually were unwearable because they were so fragile. So we’d do a lot of work to back them and strengthen and restore them.
Jace: Do you have a favorite design? I know that’s a bit…when you’ve done 290 designs for nine episodes, it might be hard.
Anna: It is hard. It’s nigh on impossible. I don’t know when– As I’m designing each piece, I’m obsessed with it and I love it, and when it’s translated onto screen it’s my favorite, and then I move onto something else and I’ll be kind of consumed by that design.
They’re obviously some outfits that really just jump out. So, for example, in Series Five, Lady Mary’s dress at the fashion show was one that for me really jumped out because that’s when I had a bit of moment where I thought, I found her signature, that this is where I want to take her. And then as soon as we hit it, it then really informed the rest of her wardrobe going forward.
Jace: We have one episode to go this season, any hints on what viewers can expect from the costumes in the finale?
Anna: I’ve been working towards the final episode, and so there are some of my favorite pieces in there. And I just want to go out with a bang and make sure that this sort of lasting impression is this sort of beautiful decadence of the ’20s and of the wonderful people wearing the clothing.
Jace: To purchase Downton Abbey DVDs and Blu-rays, or Downton Abbey merchandise, visit shopPBS.org or other retailers. And for more Downton Abbey behind-the-scenes content, check out the MASTERPIECE Studio podcast at pbs.org/masterpiece, on Stitcher, and on iTunes.
MASTERPIECE Studio is hosted by me, Jace Lacob and produced by Nick Andersen. Elisheba Ittoop is our editor. Susanne Simpson is our executive producer. The executive producer of MASTERPIECE is Rebecca Eaton.
Sponsors for MASTERPIECE on PBS are Viking and The MASTERPIECE Trust.