Costume Design

'Downton Abbey' Costume Designer Talks Season Four's Embroidered Ensembles

Caroline McCall spills on Lady Edith Crawley's social, sexual and fashion awakening, as well as Lady Mary's finale wardrobe.
Lady Edith (played by Laura Carmichael) in the "Beadith" dress.
PBS

When we first met Lady Edith Crawley (Laura Carmichael) in 1912, she was Downton Abbey’s irretrievably dowdy middle daughter. She was nowhere near as vibrant as her impulsive and fetching younger sister, Lady Sybil (Jessica Brown Findlay). And she certainly did not reside in the regal realm occupied by her older sister, Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery).

But among the many intriguing surprises in season four of the PBS hit drama is the emergence of Edith as a comely independent woman. Not only is she openly having a relationship with a married man, she also is taking risks with her formerly staid wardrobe. In episode one, viewers gasped on seeing the sexy, backless, beaded green-silver-gold halter gown with the diamante neckline and green chiffon skirt Edith wore to a London restaurant. The gown has since been unofficially dubbed the “Beadith.”

The show’s costume designer, Caroline McCall, who spoke to Pret-a-Reporter, sees Edith blossoming into a fashion flower. "Edith has never been completely confident in her own skin. When you feel like that, you tend to dress the way you want other people to perceive you," said McCall. "She was hoping that various men would find her appealing. She wore clothing that was a bit too old for her when she was engaged to an older man. And when she was attracted to a farmer, she began to wear farming gear. Then she dressed more nurse-like at the hospital."

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McCall added: "This season, she’s already met a man she’s attracted to, so when she gets to London -- away from the bleak sadness at Downton -- she dresses very differently."

McCall feels that the Downton women's change of clothes telegraphs the characters' arcs, explaining: "We are watching Edith and where she is going in this new age of more apparent freedom for women. Rose (played by Lily James) is finding her way in the world and she is of a new generation that is much more frivolous than generations past. Even Anna’s (Joanne Froggatt) clothing, because of the situation she finds herself in. When something like that happens to you, it’s the natural thing to try to cover yourself up."

Season four goes from 1922 to 1923, opening six months after Matthew Crawley’s (Dan Stevens) sudden death. The Downton women -- but not all of them -- are beginning to move from full mourning black to half mourning hues like lavenders, purples and grays, even black and white.

"Victorian tradition meant that the widow would stay in mourning for a year. Queen Victoria actually stayed in mourning for the rest of her life. After a year, women could move into mauve gray, black and white," said McCall.

McCall stayed true to the early 1920s sensual and sleek bias-cut silhouettes, the result of an intense period of post-WWI creativity from European designers.

"It wasn’t until 1926 that the flapper look actually came into vogue," said McCall. "In the early '20s, there was an explosion of designers like Lanvin, Coco ChanelMadeleine Vionnet and Paul Poiret, who were tremendously inspired by global influences."

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True to form, Young Lady Rose continues to favor pink hues and is keeping up her image as a fashionable pretty young frivolous thing, shocking the family further this season with her attraction to a black nightclub singer.

But even the indomitable Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith) lightens up this season. "Her look is based on Queen Alexandra, who was a contemporary of hers. Throughout her life, she kept the same look -- the nipped-in waist, high-neck collars and beautiful hats. But now the fabrics are getting softer and lighter. Even her hats are lighter and less fussy. For instance, we put a sheer fabric -- a lace or net -- on her chest, in between the dress and the choker."

Lest you think that McCall simply pops into London costume houses such as Angels and Cosprop for delicate vintage costumes, be advised that there is precious little vintage clothing left intact. She usually has to design a dress around a bit of vintage beading or lace she finds tucked away in a shop.

For instance, the “Beadith” was born from a small piece of original beading. And the coral dress Edith wears in episode two was fashioned from a dress that was literally falling apart. "We re-created it from a part of the original," said McCall.

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McCall is most proud of the season-four finale, aka the Christmas Special, saying: "We did the final episode without any extra prep time. I am really proud of it as a team. When you see it, you will see that it was massive undertaking for the costume department. We made quite a bit of it for the crowd, as they were very specific costumes. On the whole, we don’t have the budget for that."

Do keep a keen eye out for McCall's favorite finale costume: Lady Mary’s elegant Christmas dress that also was conceived from a piece of original beading. "The dress has beaded scallops and bronze flowers. They go really well with the silver-gray fabric underneath so it doesn’t look like a dense black dress, but a light graphite color."

McCall also advises audiences to watch for Cora’s American mother, Martha Levinson (Shirley MacLaine), and her playboy brother (Paul Giamatti) to attend the grand holiday bash. Oh, we can hardly wait to see the Dowager Countess’ trademark eye rolls at the nouveau riche American side of the family.

What do you think?

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