'Downton Abbey' Costumes Are Often Recycled From Past Period Films

Costume designer Susannah Buxton says pieces on the British series were previously worn by Helena Bonham Carter and Catherine Zeta-Jones.
Courtesy of Masterpiece/PBS

To do a proper period costume drama on TV these days, one must learn the fine art of recycling.

Just ask Emmy-winning Downton Abbey costume designer Susannah Buxton. While approximately one third of the Masterpiece Classic series costumes are designed and made, many of the women's gowns are actually worn agains, having previously appeared on other actresses in past period films.

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For instance, a cream dress worn by Laura Carmichael (Lady Edith) was initially worn by Helena Bonham Carter in A Room With A View. Lady Mary has already worn a black beaded choker previously worn by Monica Belucci in The Brotherhood of the Wolf. And in Season 2 she'll don a scarlet gown initially made for Catherine Zeta-Jones in the film Death Defying Acts.
 
Season 2 premieres on Oct. 2 in the U.K. Sadly for stateside fans, it will not air in the U.S. until Jan. 8, 2012, on PBS.

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“I think it’s wonderful that the dresses are worn again," says Buxton told the Sunday Mirror. "It’s a marvelous example of recycling – and it would have gone on in real life. It does now. Look at the Duchess of Cambridge (Kate Middleton). She has her outfits remodeled.”

The only Abbey actress who does not wear recycled costumes is Dame Maggie Smith, who plays Lady Violet. According to Buxton, she has every single piece made for her. Well, she is a Dame, after all.

In Season 1, Abbey actresses could barely breathe --  much less eat -- in their corsets. Thankfully, things will loosen up a tad in Season 2, which takes viewers through WWI, when impractical corsets begin their fall from fashion. Buxton also advises preparing youself for (gasp) glimpses of ankles. And in Season 3 Buxton promises provocative peeks at calves when WWII fabric shortages cause hemlines to rise substantially.