Thoughts on Downton

FAIR WARNING!  This post contains spoilers about Downton Abbey, season 3, so read no further if you are not wanting to know how the season ended.  And if you are not a Downton fan, I think you’ll want to sit this one out.

It’s the show we all either love, or love to hate.   For the most part, I enjoy watching the show, but I’ve become increasingly irritated by all the bad history.  I guess you can take the teacher out of the classroom, but you can’t take the classroom out of the teacher.

There has been so much discussion about clothing along the lines of are they or are they not properly attired.  As in most costume dramas, there is a combination of the good, the bad, and the downright silly.   For the most part I think that costumers today are much more aware of the need to be historically accurate than they were in the past.  All you have to do is watch a few episodes of M*A*S*H* or Happy Days to see how bad TV costuming was in the 1970s.

Generally speaking, the clothing in Downton Abbey has been pretty much correct to the era, but it is in the details that it goes awry.  After the sinking of the Titanic, Lady Mary complained about being forced to go into mourning and wear black.  But then, even when released from it, she continued to wear black on many occasions.  Of course, black began its move toward chicness during the war, but it is unlikely that she, a young woman who was not in mourning, would have worn it out of choice.

Then there is the problem of the same clothes being seen over and over and over.  A family as rich as the Crawleys would never have been caught dead in last year’s clothing.

But I think that the worst case was this season when Cousin Rose sneaked away to meet her married boyfriend in a “jazz club”.  This was 1921, I believe, and all the pretty young things in the club were dressed like a bad version of 1926 flappers.  Dresses were to the knee and much too tight.  Yes, I know that people automatically associate the 1920s with a wild, frenzied party of flappers, but this is just bad history.

There are also problems with the characters exhibiting modern sensibilities.  Would Lord Crawley have discouraged a suitor for his 26-year-old daughter merely because he was a little old?  Would an older man actually have defended a homosexual saying it was not his fault as he was born that way?  It seems unlikely.

I’ll only touch on the speech anachronisms because there are entire websites and blogs devoted entirely to exposing the dozens of them found in each episode.  Some are pretty obvious, but in order to find them all, some people are using a function of google that isolates English expressions by date of usage.  We all can isolate phrases and expressions that have come into the language during our own lifetimes, but the ones that predate us are just a natural part of our language.  So I didn’t realize that the word “rematch” was not used until 1941, but the usage of “I’m just sayin'” and “steep learning curve” and “a lot on my plate” were more obvious, and frankly, distracting.

Which is the problem of bad history.  It irritates the people who know better and ill-informs those that do not.

But if it is so bad, then why do we keep watching.  My guess is because it is so pretty.  My favorite scenes continue to be the ones that really don’t have a lot to do with the overall story line, but that show the Crawleys engaged in the leisure pursuits of a wealthy family of the time.  They are at their best when shooting or playing cricket or just rambling about.  It helps that they pick spectacular backgrounds.  Anyone care to join me in a trip to the Scottish highlands?

There were rumors that the show would have only three seasons, but the overwhelming and unexpected popularity of the program shelved that idea.  I’m thinking that it just cannot go past four or five, as there is just not going to be anyone left to inhabit Downton Abbey.  I suppose they could move the venue to Heaven, where so many of the characters now reside.

Why is there so much death on this show?  I guess we should not be surprised considering that it was the deaths of the heir and his son that form the basis of the series.  There have been 24 episodes and at least 12 deaths, for an average of a death every other week.

Poor Matthew.  The moment I heard that Dan Stevens was leaving the show I knew that Mary was destined to be a widow, so I watched the entire finale peeking out from under a blanket that I used to shield my eyes from the impending doom!  I feel bad for the little heir, as he sure looks expendable to me.  With the succession secure, who cares about who Mary marries or how she and Edith spar?  Yep, that baby is toast.

All photos copyright Carnival Films for ITV


Filed under Currently Viewing, Proper Clothing, Viewpoint

26 responses to “Thoughts on Downton

  1. Yes, the whole Mary continuing to wear black has always bugged me! Probably an actress preference despite that line about her hating it.

    I do love the show even with all its inaccurate historic details (I even managed to get my husband hooked!). As long as you can appreciate the production itself, it’s a fun ride. =)


  2. I’m one of those people who is a stickler for accuracy, however, being unfamiliar with this era, I generally shrugged off most of the show and was just in awe of, yes, the prettiness of it all, but also the characters.

    I think that we like to rewrite history in a sense, regarding Lord Grantham and his view of Tom and homosexuality. We like to think that not everyone was bad and that there were people who understood when really there were very, very few.

    Love to hear your viewpoints on things like this!


  3. Do you think perhaps we also enjoy the tongue-in-cheekiness of it all? We know what will happen: the Depression (or its British equivalent) then WWII followed by country houses turning into zoo theme parks to sustain their upkeep. Early on the Dowager Countess asking “What’s a week end?” set me up for looking at Downton this way. Not to say I haven’t enjoyed every single minute and still can’t understand why Dan Stevens decided he’d inhabited Matthew Crawley long enough.


  4. KC

    “Yep, that baby is toast.”
    Maybe Bates will poison it?


  5. Teresa

    Downton Abbey is such a period soap opera and that’s why I think it’s so popular. It’s magnificient to look at and it’s dramatic… it hooks me in! I was really disappointed with how they handled Matthew leaving the show but I have since heard that Mary’s new love interest is one of my favourite fellows, Gary (from the TV show Miranda)… so I don’t think I’ll be in mourning for too long. 😉


  6. rose

    Good Morning! I really enjoyed todays post. I was just thinking of writing to you about something a little similar so I guess now is as good a time as any! I would love you to do a post on inaccuracies of Etsy 🙂 The number of “Vintage 1950s” dresses that are listed which are actually 1940’s drives me nuts. As does many of the house coats and dresses listed as party frocks! I can’t imagine any self respecting housewife in the 50’s getting out and about in the dress she cleaned the house in!
    I have also been struggling to find a real, genuine fur astrakan/ persian lamb 1950’s vintage jacket – so many of the ones listed are faux fur! You probably already have done a post about all of this in the past but Im a relatively new follower so do forgive me if Im asking you to repeat yourself!
    Kind regards


  7. Fashion Witness

    I don’t follow sites devoted to Downton Abbey, but I’m glad to hear that I’m not the only one who finds some of the dialog jarringly modern. However, when it comes to costumes being worn repeatedly, I have to defend the show’s three credited costume designers. As a professional costumer, I understand how (relatively) small television costume budgets are. The number of costumes used in a series like this is enormous. Viewers seem to focus on the high fashion costumes. However, next time you watch, remember that the costume designer’s budget has to cover every costume seen on the show: servants, villagers, wedding guests, farmers, passers-by, suffragettes, gamekeepers, gardeners, policemen, etc. And every costume has to be complete — with shoes, shirts, hats, period corsets for women, etc. Imagine the labor, finding or making all those outfits, in the right sizes and the correct period, and fitting and dressing every actor. Think of the wedding scenes on Downton Abbey — the villagers putting up decorations and cheering the couple, the wedding guests, the servants…. That episode alone required hundreds of individual costume pieces to be rented or made. TV shows usually have one budget for the entire season’s episodes, so, if the designer wants to make copies of dresses by Patou for one episode, he/she has to make economies elsewhere. Also, although aristocrats did change their clothes several times a day, wearing the same dinner dress for dinner at home several times a week was no more un-natural than for the gentlemen to wear the same dinner jacket night after night. Judging from biographies, many upper-class Englishmen took pride in wearing their father’s old tweed suit or tailcoat. The passion for new things was a characteristic of the nouveaux riches (like American heiresses and movie stars), while a bespoke garment was expected to last a lifetime. (My favorite scene so far was Lady Mary explaining to her nouveau riche fiance that her people don’t buy their furniture: they inherit it.) Thanks for raising this topic!


    • Yes, Fashion Witness is correct and this is why when I watch I am SO glad I’m not working on a show like this! Dealing with masses of background extras is even more frustrating when they have to look period specific! I’m sure you can see some of the same costume pieces on multiple people in takes from different angles/days once it is all cut together – I see that often in modern setting shows. (I haven’t really looked because I try to turn off “work-mode” as much as possible when viewing a show or movie.)


    • Yes, men could wear the same suit for quite awhile. Good wool holds up, and men’s fashions change more slowly. But for women, it was different. I think we’ve largely forgotten the incredible pressure women used to be under to stay up-to-date with fashion changes, at almost every level of society, but particularly at the top. There is no modern equivalent. Women further down the social ladder wore clothes that were out-of-date by couture standards, but they bought or made those clothes to conform with whatever style had trickled down to their social level that very season. To fail to conform to current fashion was to fail to conform to society.

      Yes, a wealthy woman would wear the same evening dress repeatedly – but only for one season. Indeed, the fact that she wore the same dress over and over during that season helped ensure that it would be too shabby to press into service the next year, even if it had managed to avoid any dating details. There are many, many references in the literature of the time to impoverished women desperately remaking their clothes, or suffering in embarrassed shame because they have to pull out last year’s dress since they have nothing else appropriate to the occasion.

      It’s an exaggerated example, but in the 1940 Cary Grant – Irene Dunne comedy “My Favorite Wife,” Dunne has been shipwrecked for seven years and when she returns puts on the clothes she left behind her. We then spend a lot of time being invited to laugh at how ridiculous she looks in her incredibly dated clothes. People are staring at her in public, and she resorts to diving into the restroom and removing part of her skirt to get it to a “normal” length. Can you imagine anyone nowadays even being able to tell that a dress is seven years old? I have a skirt I’ve worn since the 1980s that still gets me compliments.


  8. I’ve kept watching it too, despite begin frequently annoyed with anachronistic speech and social attitudes.

    In response to the comment by Fashion Witness above, a recent TV series on social class in the UK (In the Best Possible Taste – Grayson Perry) showed members of the upper class still wearing items of clothing that belonged to their parents or even grandparents.


  9. I too, watched the final 15 minutes peeping out from under a blanket. I simply did not want to accept Matthew dying. I know I wouldn’t want to be that poor little baby, he may as well have been born into royalty!


  10. It’s really fun reading all the different takes on the subject. And thanks to Brooke and Susan giving a professional view of the costuming problems.


  11. Lisa

    You’re such a stickler, Lizzie ….and we love you for it!


  12. Lizzie I’ve been holding off watching the show, but now you actually made me want to watch it!! I love shows where fashion is so central…ordering on netflix now 🙂


  13. Well, as much I would love to chat? I have never seen this show….so I will have to pass on any chit-chat (unfortunately…or perhaps fortunately!) smile


  14. Gail Ann Thompson

    I’d be very interested to know your favorite movie titles. Which do you find to be as accurate as possible with regard to costuming?


  15. I’m actually really disappointed with the show, and it’s not just the anachronisms that bother me. Sybil and Matthew were my favorite characters but I expected their deaths as it was well-known that they wanted to leave the show. However, the series has become more of an American-style soap opera this season and now I expect to see silly plot lines about amnesiacs and evil twins. I think that the costuming has been fairly accurate (though I actually wondered why full mourning for a first degree relative like Sybil seemed to be over so quickly for the family) and that is why I will continue to watch Downtown.


  16. Oops, I was typing to quickly in that last comment: I meant “Downton!”


  17. Fashion Witness’s comment about limited budgets for costumes reminded me of a website called ‘Recycled Movie Costumes’ which highlights the many costumes that are re-used on different productions at different times. Because many of the period costumes are labor-intensive and/or costly, it makes sense that they are re-used.


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