Period Detail

What Downton’s Fashion Really Means

When ‘Downton Abbey’ returns Sunday night, its fashion fans are in for a familiar treat. But throughout the series so far, its style has also had a profound story of its own to tell.

Nick Briggs/Carnival Film & Television Limited

SPOILER ALERT: This article contains details about the Season 5 premiere of Downton Abbey.

In the depths of winter, when thoughts turn to solstices and new year’s beginnings—and when the dark chill nights provide the perfect excuse for staying in—along comes a fresh season of Downton Abbey, with its message of inexorable change. If Season 4 was frothy and fraught with drama—from dark sexual violence to giddy escapades at court—the start of Season 5, which premieres Sunday night in the U.S., is all about the slow march of deep time, of societal and personal shifts so seismically profound that the earth under Downton might as well be shuddering at its pre-Cambrian core.

Downton has always set the tone, and given us clues to the inner whims and aspirations of its characters, with clothes, and Season 4 was no different: and so it was that Lady Edith, flush in a new affair, swanned about in shimmering backless gowns as she met her clandestine lover at the Criterion, while Rose’s silky beaded dresses and Grecian headbands ushered us into a world of jazz clubs and flapper culture. And when Mary—finally open to the prospect of new suitors after the death of her husband—emerged from a year of dark purple and drab navy to don a pale blue confection in the season finale, as she visited the portrait gallery with the dashing Charles Blake, it was a zephyr of freshness, light with the promise of the future. It was a season of energy and desire, of high-society scandals and coming-out balls with the Prince of Wales—a jewel of a season, as gilded and embellished as the girls’ glittering gowns. Everyone showed lots of skin and courtship perfumed the air.

And yet, as the series’ beloved butler, Mr. Carson, notes in the new season’s first episode, “The nature of life is not permanence, but flux.” (The same might be said of fashion.) After the headiness of London, with its gay grand parties, the characters are back at their country estate—back to life, back to reality—and Season Five starts in muted tones. There is an uneasiness in the air, a feeling that the Crawleys and their household may backslide into bad habits—and a foreboding that they may never again achieve their former glory with quite the same brilliance. Perhaps somewhere the rich are still living it up in grand Roaring Twenties-style—probably in America, where their gaudy new-wealth relations, the Levinsons (played brilliantly by Shirley MacLaine and Paul Giamatti), are throttling toward the future with open arms and cash to spare—but in England, in 1924, the aristocratic world is being pared down. There is a sense of contraction, of a mighty river reversing course—households are losing servants, the Labour Party is ascendant, and commoners from the village don’t need their lords and earls in quite the same way anymore.

The characters’ appearances reflect this disquiet. There are lots of gray tones, lots of damp tweeds. Edith still retains a hint of her London glamour—she’s found the colors that suit her, those sunset ochres and pale spring greens—but with Michael Gregson’s disappearance and their out-of-wedlock child to keep secret, she’s feeling rather crushed by life at the moment. There are hints that Edith could be an incendiary live wire this season—that she may slip back into her penchant for inappropriate infatuations, or that her grief may drive her to reckless extremes—and her attire seems to reflect that. In one of the teaser photos released for Season 5 (yes, the one with the anachronistic water bottle), Edith’s dress picks up the hues of the fireplace flickering dangerously behind her.

Lady Rose is also rather subdued in the premiere, which is a pity. Gone are the scarlet speakeasy gowns and her frothy pink confections; in their place, Rose wears sensible and somewhat modest dresses. They are still youthful and pretty, but definitely more proper than what the old Rose would have worn, even during the daytime at Downton. She also not particularly naughty in the premiere—her mother’s away on the subcontinent, so perhaps there’s less joy in rebelling—and while she has a brief return to form during the Crawleys’ anniversary party, when she sets a little love scheme in motion (and wears a gorgeous gown to top it off), it’s possible we’ll be seeing a less frivolous Rose MacClare this year.

As for Lady Mary, she’s slipped back into her half-mourning palette—blacks and plums, with the occasional violet hue—and seems stuck in a smothering limbo. Even though those funereal colors look smashing on the actress Michelle Dockery, we want Mary to achieve the pastel airiness of her London sojourn. She’s still deciding between her two suitors, and Lord Gillingham—who seemed destined for the rubbish bin in Season 4—is now apparently in the ascendant. Yet there’s something about Gillingham that leaves us a little cold, and even Mary doesn’t seem particularly enthused about his marriage proposals. Compared to her lustful rendezvous with the Turkish diplomat in Season 1, or even the chemistry between her and Blake during the pigsty escapade, her exchanges with Gillingham are a a cup of tepid tea. Maybe Mary is being more realistic about a second marriage—but is it too much to ask for a little fire? Gillingham tells Mary that he wants to make their lives simpler, but it sounds a little like the dying of the light. Then again, this is not the high-spirited Mary we met in Season 1—indeed, none of the Crawleys are the same. They now know that bad things can, and do, happen to those they love. Sybil is dead, as is Matthew; Gregson is missing with dark hints about his fate. Sometimes you can’t go back to the way things were, and sometimes the future looks very different than you’d ever anticipated.

If Gillingham is no Turk, Miss Sarah Bunting is no Sybil. Certainly, it’s a high bar to match, and one can’t expect Tom Branson to be alone forever. Still, when Bunting arrives for the Crawley anniversary party—she looks lovely in dark blue, but her style is slightly off, and she apparently doesn’t know or doesn’t care about high society’s penchant for elbow gloves—the discomfort between her and Branson (dashing in his white-tie attire) is palpable. It’s the ultimate role reversal from another scene in that drawing room, back in Season 1—when the effervescent Sybil showed off her daring turquoise harem pants to her stunned family, and Branson (then the lowly chauffeur) gazed at her through the window in a reverie. At the time, he had hot-headed socialist ideas, and in that way Bunting’s presence symbolizes a return of the old Branson. But if Sybil was the personification of spirited charm, Bunting is a dour “Boudica of the North Riding,” as Lord Grantham dubs her. There’s a fine line between spirited and rude (or between idealistic and grating), and Bunting consistently errors on the latter.

No one’s arc is better represented by his or her clothes than Branson’s. At the start of Season 4, costume designer Caroline McCall noted that Branson was still on the outside looking in when it came to his in-laws. [] “Branson has now accepted his role as the estate manager, so we’ve tried to dress him more efficiently and workaday,” she said at the time, “but he hasn’t accepted the tweeds of the aristocracy. We tried to make his suiting more Irish, to keep him a step away from the aristocracy.”

Flash forward to Branson’s aristocratically tweedy ensemble as he goes hunting with Mary and Gillingham in Season 5—or his perfectly fitted tuxedos at the family dinner parties. At the episode’s end, he shows himself to be the trusted lieutenant of Lord Grantham during a five-alarm crisis. Their solidified friendship is one of the most touching details of the premiere, but it also puts Branson in a tricky predicament. He’s no longer an outsider—yet Bunting certainly is, and she seems to care little about crossing the battle lines. Will he go for the schoolteacher and abandon the family, leaving behind his smashing dinner suits? It’s hard to tell which way the tide is flowing on this potential romance.

In the promo image for Season 5, the “upstairs” characters all have on hats and overcoats, as if they’re about to embark upon a long journey. As it turns out, 1924 was a leap year, and the residents of Downton seem to know that they must make a great leap into modernity—with its cocktail hours and premarital sex, with its mixing up of the landed and working classes—even if none of them appears particularly enthused about it. “I feel a shaking of the ground I stand on,” Carson tells Mrs. Hughes with trepidation. World War II is still a long way off, but the seeds of conflict are already being sown on the continent. Lenin is dead and Stalin has started his purges. Fascists are sweeping to power in Italy. Hitler is in prison for his Beer Hall Putsch. Change is coming for the Crawleys and for Britain. Some are more ready to embrace it than others, but all will certainly be transformed by a future they’re still unsure that they want.