Dressing Downton: A Talk by Costume Designer Susannah Buxton

It’s been regularly commented on this blog that I have a particular interest in costume design. I’m happy to say that more and more attention has been given to the art of costume design and fewer people associate costume with fashion. (And I will shout at anyone who says I have a degree in fashion. Be warned.) And with this interest comes more exhibitions and talks relating to costume design. The Victoria and Albert Museum in London’s autumn exhibition will be Hollywood Costume and concentrates on the role costume design takes in film making. The exhibition is guest curated by Deborah Nadoolman Landis who is a brilliant costume designer in her own right (responsible for Michael Jackson’s Thriller video costumes, Indiana Jones’s iconic look in Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Blues Brothers and more) was also a two term president of the Costume Designer’s Guild and responsible for a number of books on the subject of costume design. But, this post isn’t about her. That’s for later. This post is about a vaguely connected V&A talk I attended that, in my opinion, wouldn’t have come about were it not for the upcoming Hollywood Costume exhibition.

The talk I attended (due to my Mother’s membership at the V&A) was about the costume design in Downton Abbey and was “held” by the Emmy-award winning costume designer of Series’ 1 and 2, Susannah Buxton. (Series 3 was designed by Caroline McCall. I’m ashamed to say that I didn’t know there had been a change in designer until the talk.)

The talk itself lasted only an hour and also involved comparisons with Heather Firbank. Not heard of her? Me either. She was a very wealthy woman born in 1888 who lived a similar life to that of Lady Mary. But the main reason she was used as a comparison was that the V&A have a large number of her clothes either in store or on display. Some of her dresses are in such poor condition that they cannot be safely put on display but are currently being photographed for a new book about the V&A’s vast collection.

Heather Firbank (1888 – 1954) by Cecil Beaton.

As the talk was just that – a talk and not a lecture there is a fair amount of to-ing and fro-ing and my post will probably follow a similar tack as I’m following my slightly muddles notes, so I apologise in advance!

One of the first things that Buxton said was that costumes are intended to “engage the audience, introduce the characters and are aesthetically interesting and historically accurate.” (Or as close to that as I could write.) This is a very important statement and as I will probably write further posts on costume design I will discuss those opinions of other designers and possible even myself(!) But it is this statement that includes the word ‘characters’ that is so important in differentiating costume from fashion.

Some of the points that Buxton made I was already aware of but as a number of people are unsure of the relationship between costume design and film I’ll try to put in as many helpful notes as possible.

Buxton said that after an actor or actress is cast in a role the first person that they are likely to see is the costume designer. For the artist it is so important to be able to get a feel of their character – especially as pre-production time gets shorter and shorter. Buxton noted that she had about 7 weeks of pre-production and when you think of the casting and the size of the show you realise how short that time is.

There is a mixture of costume design practice from those designers that must draw designs first and those, like Buxton and Jenny Beavan (Gosford Park, Sherlock Holmes and The King’s Speech) who held a talk at my university a few years ago, who go to a costume house and pull a rail of costumes for the actors to try on. When I was in my final year and working on my final major project I was able to go to Cosprop (one of London’s biggest costume hire houses) to look at one of their costumes. When you sign in you can casually glance at other names. And back in 2011 I saw the name Dan Stevens written for the previous day. This was either whilst series 1 was still on the air or had just finished – fittings were starting for Series 2. ‘Pulling a rail’ means gathering together costumes of certain fabrics, patterns, shapes and styles so that you can see what works on an actor. You don’t want to have a beautiful dress made and then find that the cut is unflattering on the actress or that the colour doesn’t suit their skin tone/hair colour. Beavan showed us some sneaky photos of this process for Sherlock Holmes and stated that a lot of the feel of the character comes from those moments and that that was particularly true of Robert Downey Jr. So, my point was to mention costume houses. For any film or show nowadays unless you have an unlimited budget (and I mean that) you will have to hire costumes. A lot was made of this in the newspapers when it was “discovered” that Downton had done this – my favourite being the Daily Mail’s article of course. I stand by my opinion that if Downton had had the money available to make all the costumes there’d be more hoo-ha about that. And it would be led by the Daily Mail. But moving on from that.

Buxton then talked through various characters so I’ll try to do the same…

The Countess of Grantham (Cora) played by Elizabeth McGovern

Buxton was clear that where Cora was concerned she wanted to always design with the idea of an American woman living in the English aristocracy and being much more interested in fashion than her English equivalents – and wearing much more outlandish and colourful items.

This dress was mentioned as an example of how some costumes for the show were created. The panel for the bodice was found and loved and the rest of the dress was constructed around it. Buxton was happy to note (as I had previously commented to my Mum) that the dress had appeared in the previous night’s episode. Downton even recycles their own costumes. Do you hear that, Daily Mail?

The Earl of Grantham (Robert) played by Hugh Bonneville

All of Robert’s costumes were made to measure for Bonneville. All of them. But Buxton defends this because he is the Earl and such an important character that everything needs to fit perfectly. And, although he has numerous changes, he still has one black tie costume, one white tie, compared to at least ten evening gowns needed for each series for each female character.

Buxton also told a story of how Huntsmen in Savile Row were desperate to make for Downton and, in series 2, made one suit for Bonneville. However, they had problems adjusting their modern tailoring brains to the period tailoring techniques and positioning of things like shoulder seams. Bonneville’s other suits were made by tailors at Cosprop – trained in period tailoring.

Lady Mary Crawley played by Michelle Dockery

Numerous comparisons were made here between Mary’s clothes and those of Heather and there were striking similarities between them. Comparisons were also made between their personal lives and how that (mostly scandal) affected wardrobe choices:

Clothing is fundamental to and constitutive of both the woman and her biography

Sophie Woodward Why Women Wear What They Wear

The image of Mary’s ‘seduction’ dress is an example of costume leading the way for an important plot point – even if it is a little pre-emptive. The visual point is made, whether you consciously pick up on it or not.

Matthew Crawley played by Dan Stevens

(This image received a large number of gasps from the shockingly(!) largely female audience.)

Sadly, all my notes have on Matthew was that Stevens ‘wasn’t a hat man’. I think that most of his costumes were hired and one particular suit had been reused from a previous film.

The Crawley Sisters

Here they’re seen wearing purple shortly after the announcement of the sinking of the Titanic. This was to symbolise half-mourning. After death they would be expected to wear black but then move into purple. This was a lesson for me. (I think it’s also interesting to note that Edith is wearing more black as she is the one who mourns the death of their cousin the most.)

Lady Edith Crawley played by Laura Carmichael

In the script Edith is written as a plain Jane but Buxton didn’t want that to carry through quite so much in the costume (except for specific scenes such as the garden party in Series 1) as that is too much of a cliché. Carmichael’s performance gives across the ‘overlooked’ middle sister and dowdy costumes would make her look too out of place within her aristocratic family.

Lady Sybil Crawley played by Jessica Brown Findlay

Sybil has always been my favourite of the Crawley sisters and a lot of that is to do with her more bohemian style costumes.

Sybil’s most famous costume is her pantaloons from Series 1. They were shocking at the time and came about because of the Ballet Russes – who were also responsible for bringing more vibrant colours to the wardrobes of the aristocracy before World War One.

There was also discussion of this costume from Series 1 when Sybil attended a political rally. Due to the nature of the scene doubles needed to be made of the costume, just in case of any external damage to the costume – especially as eggs were being thrown in the scene.

The Dowager Countess of Grantham (Violet) played by Maggie Smith

Everyone loves the Dowager. Everyone. One moment from the last episode had my entire family in hysterics. I still find it hilarious. And always will I feel. All I can give you is this picture because I can’t find a YouTube clip. 😦

The costumes for the Dowager are intended to reflect a strong personality and the colours are probably a little stronger than historically accurate but could you imagine Smith in pastel colours?

The Dowager’s costumes were based on those of Queen Mary – a woman who stuck to pretty much the same shape regardless of fashions. This was true of a lot of older women who don’t instantly follow changes in fashion.

ALL of the costumes were made for Smith. ALL OF THEM. Would you try to put Smith in clothes made for and worn by someone else? If so you’re a braver person than I am.

Mr Carson played by Jim Carter

Carson’s jackets were all made for Carter mostly due to the actor’s size but also to help with his performance as Carson. As the butler he is the head of the servants (along with Mrs Hughes) so he would have a more expensive uniform and the jacket would help with his stature and posture.

(Sarah) O’Brien played by Siobhan Finneran

As a lady’s maid O’Brien’s uniform is one of the most expensive – and this marks out how importance particularly compared to the other maids. Her dress is made from silk fabric and, I presume, Anna’s uniform will be similarly “upgraded” following her new role as lady’s maid for Mary (now that she’s married).

Anna Bates played Joanne Froggatt

The aprons worn by the maids were all original aprons from a costume house. The little hats they wear were based on original hats but with the most flattering shape for modern audiences. The hats were then made for the maids.

Thomas Barrow played by Rob James-Collier (and William Mason played by Thomas Howes)

The suits for the footmen were hired from costume houses, fitted to the actors and refitted with Grantham buttons. The biggest problems came from the evening shirts. The starched fronts were very difficult to get dry cleaned. They ended up being cared for by the Queen’s dry cleaners. Obviously.

Mrs Patmore played by Lesley Nicol

The clichéd cook is fussy but the costume for Mrs Patmore is much simpler.

Daisy Mason played by Sophie McShera

Daisy’s main dress was an original cotton dress bought for the show. Although it was expensive, the purchase cost sort of evened out with hiring costs – and the dress lasted for at least two series’.


The servants generally have a day uniform, an evening uniform and one “civilian” outfit and outer coat.

Isobel Crawley played by Penelope Wilton

Isobel’s costumes at the beginning were intended to show her more working-class background and to emphasise the feeling of being out of place at Downton. Later on her costumes moved more towards the aristocracy so that she could hold her place more against the Dowager – particularly as they are always at loggerheads.

Lavinia Swire played by Zoe Boyle

When Lavinia made her first entrance it was a very important costume point. She needed to make a big impression as she is essentially competing with Mary.

We ended with the image of the cast at the declaration of World War One. Buxton wanted to drain all the colour so the cast are all dressed in white, cream and black.

The talk ended with some questions but the most interesting one was related to the budget of the show – which I was surprised that Buxton even answered. The budget that Buxton was given was £19,000 per episode while she worked towards £25,000. She thinks that she managed somewhere between the two. A lot of people were shocked but, to me, I can really see the difficulties of this size budget with the cast size of the show and the number of costumes needed for each character for each episode.

I hope this “little” post has been interesting to you and please let me know if I need to be clearer about things or answer some questions – I’d love any feedback!

And, in October, I will (finally!) be attending the V&A’s Ballgowns: British Glamour since the 1950s exhibition, a talk with Deborah Nadoolman Landis about the Hollywood Costume exhibition (I’ll try not to swoon or get too excited and actually take sensible notes) and then a one day advance visit to the Hollywood Costume exhibition – I WISH it was earlier! So hopefully if you’ve enjoyed this post you’ll enjoy those.

S x


6 thoughts on “Dressing Downton: A Talk by Costume Designer Susannah Buxton

  1. Pingback: Susannah Buxton Talks “Downton Abbey”, and In Other News, My Head Explodes! | Frocktalk

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  5. Pingback: Reel People: Character, Costume and Cinema [Another Talk with Deborah Nadoolman Landis] | Damn, That's Some Fine Tailoring

  6. Maybe it’s obvious, but the Heather Firbank / Cecil Beaton photo is of a circa 1960 model in a Heather Firbank dress, not of Heather herself.

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