A new season of Downton Abbey offers up the sprawling British countryside, eye-rolling maids, and a sharp-tongued Dowager Countess. But if you ask some of us what we’re most looking forward to with Downton’s return, the answer is simple: the costumes.
The third season of the Emmy-nominated series, which premieres in the U.S. on January 6 , continues with the show’s tradition of lavish period fashion. Since it premiered in 2010, Downton has secured its place in the fashion world: Ralph Lauren themed his fall collection around the show, and recently announced a sponsorship of Masterpiece. The show’s fashion has received so much attention that its fashion designer, Susannah Buxton, was nominated for an Emmy Award this year. Michelle Dockery (Lady Mary) has appeared in countless fashion glossies; Anna Wintour has given the show her seal of approval; and even Pippa Middleton is a fan, visiting the set with her parents last season for a guided tour. “I explained to her that the costume tries to reflect personality and class of each character, and she was really interested,” Buxton says.
The show’s second season introduced World War I, and the upper-class Crawley family was forced to adapt to the changing times. “There was a question of how we would portray them,” Buxton says. “There were constrictions on the availability of good cloth. They weren’t able to indulge their fashion desires the way they would previously. In the daytime they dressed more somberly, but behind the scenes in the evening, all the diamonds came out.”
But since the finale of Season 2, a lot has changed. For starters, the war has ended. And Buxton is gone; now the costume department is run by her former assistant, Caroline McCall. “I just felt the time was right,” Buxton tells The Daily Beast. “You can lose your initial passion for it.”
Season 3 opens in the dawn of the 1920s, and styles change considerably over the course of the season. Men’s suits have slimmer waists and wider legs; dresses are shorter and less fussy than those of the Edwardian period. The show’s fashion is reflected most in the three young daughters of the house—Mary (Michelle Dockery), with her passion for sophisticated style; Edith (Laura Carmichael), who tarts up to snare a husband; and Sybil (Jessica Findlay Brown), with her love of bohemia— but certain characters remain stuck in the mud. Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) remains largely unchanged, and Violet Crawley (Maggie Smith)—practically mummified in Edwardiana—comes face to face with new cast member Shirley MacLaine’s Martha Levinson, the jazzed-up American mother-in-law who shows her ankles and is covered in jewels.
While the costumes appear to be a pitch-perfect backdrop to the unfolding drama, they surprisingly don’t adhere to the period as much as one might imagine. “I wanted to achieve the aesthetic of the time, but to make it attractive to modern audiences,” Buxton says. “It’s a translation rather than trying to be historically accurate.” That meant dying modern fabrics to appear old, creating pieces and accessories inspired by the period, and being influenced a fair amount by modern styles. The designers say they create a mood board for each principal character.
“You try whenever possible to recreate the feel of the period,” says McCall, who designed the costumes for season 3. “I bought a lot of vintage fabric. It’s much easier to start with something real and work with that than start from scratch.” McCall says there are a lot of original period pieces this season, adding that she scoured the pages of contemporary fashion magazines for inspiration. (She even says that Lady Mary reads Vogue in one episode.) Mary owns a dress by designer Vionnet, which McCall created around styles from the period.
And, of course, since Season 2 ends with a proposal, you’d have to guess that Season 3 opens with a wedding. “There is a wedding dress,” McCall confirms, though she wouldn’t give us details. “It’s sophisticated and stylish, and you start with the actress, but I did look quite a bit at the back catalog of Lanvin from the time.”