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‘Downton Abbey’s’ biggest stars could well be those spectacular gowns

Costume designer Anna Robbins, a two-time Emmy nominee
Costume designer Anna Robbins, a two-time Emmy nominee, with two of her creations for the “Downton Abbey” movie.
(Genaro Molina/Los Angeles Times)

It wasn’t just Lady Mary and the biting Dowager Countess who transitioned from the much-loved PBS series “Downton Abbey” to the feature film version in September.

Costume designer Anna Robbins was more than ready to make the move to the big screen, where her designs play out in their full and intricate glory. The story now is set in 1927 and sees the cast changing outfits seemingly as often as they turn around. It’s a glorious turn of events given the gowns on parade with an expected royal visit and its attending balls and formal events.

Educated as a lawyer, Robbins says her legal skills help her pull together divergent research important in design, “and, of course, I’d rather be investigating a 1920s costume than a 1920s legal statute, any day.”

The film has a beautiful color palette of lavender, aubergine, navy, light blue, and then peach and brown. Was it a complicated process to arrive at this palette choice?

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Costume sketches from the film ‘Downton Abbey’
Costume sketches from the film “Downton Abbey.”
(Anna Robbins)

It’s quite an organic process. For me, “Downton” was never excessively bright and not too primary. The characters already have established palettes, which suit them and that already work together well with the other characters and their suited palettes. So there’s a kind of “Downton” world color I learned over the years. For the film it’s a case of being a very taut and considered exercise to make sure the colors are absolutely on point and work in each setting.

Lady Mary’s clothes are exceptional. Let’s start with her breakfast vested suit and tie.

The estate suit. We’ve seen that caramel tawny-toned suit before, by the way: A handful of costumes are series repeats, since I wanted a feel of an existing wardrobe. Lady Mary managed the estate — she was a woman in a man’s world — and I wanted her to compete in that field, so I played with the man’s three-piece suit. Even though she couldn’t wear the jacket seated at the breakfast table, we managed to track the wool down and made the waistcoat. It’s an amalgamation of new and old, and I wanted to make sure it was our opening view of her.

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Mary’s gorgeous pleated navy ball gown — please tell us its story.

Lady Mary of ‘Downton Abbey’
Michelle Dockery stars as Lady Mary Talbot in “Downton Abbey.”
(Sketch - Anna Robbins | Photo - Jaap Buitendijk/Focus Features)

It’s a Fortuny Delphos gown. I collaborated with Fortuny on it. They’d loaned us some original pieces from their archive for the series and so we’d worked together over the years. The gown’s not an original vintage piece, or a replica, it’s a kind of brand-new original. We dyed the hand-pleated silk — I call it a Prussian blue. It’s stunning in the setting and definitely one of my favorite costumes. Michelle Dockery was born to wear that dress!

What about the day dress with the falling front side-ruffle Lady Mary wore to lunch at Princess Margaret’s — was that a vintage piece?

Yes, it was an amazing original vintage dress I’d found with this extraordinary print of little churches and hedgerows. It was an original silk dress but had seen better days. Even so, I just adored it, so we took the dress fabric, used what we could, and I commissioned the print be reprinted on silk; it matched perfectly for that wonderful ruffle and the skirt. I really love that dress.

Lady Mary’s gorgeous silver and black ball gown. Was that your original design?

It’s an oyster color, a very pale warm gray, and was an original French beaded evening dress; I found it at a vintage London trader I knew quite well. I knew I wanted to use it for Lady Mary’s final scene.

The original dress was knee-length, so I had another silk hand-beaded with the exact same lines of silver and clear glass beading and then grafted on the lower portion with a perfect color match to create a floor-length gown with a bit of train. Then we totally reimagined the neckline and added black satin neck-drops, which become the velvet tabs that hang down the back of the dress. It’s a good example of how I reappropriate vintage and create something new.

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Younger sister Edith’s clothes were wonderful as well, but who knew Edith had such pretty underwear?

(Laughs) Right. Just as soon as you have a dressing scene, you know you need to have period underwear. Edith’s was specifically made for Laura [Carmichael] with vintage 1920s over-lace. It was a perfect opportunity to look at the beautiful undergarments these women wore under all their beautiful clothes.

Of course, all the jewelry bling; it was almost a tiara show. What should we know about the tiara headpieces?

Dame Maggie Smith stars as Violet Crawley in ‘Downton Abbey’
Dame Maggie Smith stars as Violet Crawley in “Downton Abbey.”
(Jason Bell / Focus Features )

The social rule was only married women wore tiaras, so for the film it’s great news because [our main characters] are all married now. Bentley & Skinner lent us three original tiaras: Violet’s was an 1890 Victorian original as was Edith’s, and Cora’s was Edwardian. Lady Mary wore one original tiara I found and the other was a replica. Queen Mary’s was a replica of real royal jewelry that Queen Elizabeth still wears today. The tiaras are all real diamonds twinkling away.

And then those diamond necklaces upon necklaces in layers and layers …

Yes, on top of (the tiaras) we had multistrand diamond necklaces we commissioned, as I had to be very specific about the length of each strand. With those, you had to be very exacting so everything would be perfectly proportional.

And the long flapper necklaces — were those vintage or commissioned?

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Again, they were commissioned because I had to be very specific on length and color; I could specify what color stone or glass crystal I wanted. For instance, with the blue Fortuny dress, the beads on the necklace mirrored the beads on the dress perfectly and the gloves were then made and dyed so the whole thing worked exactly.

How did these women actually look this good?

That’s why you had ladies’ maids who dressed you all day long; you were dressing four to seven times a day. Every day. It was a full-time job, and I think it was probably exhausting.


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