Costume designer Susanna Buxton won an Emmy for best costumes in a movie/miniseries in 2011 for Downton Abbey, for her decadent and extravagant wardrobes of the privileged landed gentry and the plain regimented working class clothes of the household help.
For her 2012 Emmy submission, she chose the Masterpiece Theatre show's two-hour premiere (“Fall 1916 — Spring 1917") that introduces the start of World War I.
As well as making precise and historically accurate British officers and enlisted men’s uniforms, Buxton’s challenge was to depict how the war impacted British society through fashion’s silhouettes and fabrications, while maintaining the clarity of the British class distinctions.
“We had moved into a period when there was less emphasis on decoration and more on the cut and the line of the dresses,” says Buxton. “Things got simpler because they had to."
There was not as much sumptuous fabric as before,” she explains, adding, “The upper classes definitely carried on in the evenings behind closed doors in all their riches. But it would not have done for them to show their wealth publicly in that era.”
Bustles began to vanish and skirts grew narrower and crept up to the ankles, in part due to the shortage of fabric. Waistlines dropped and dresses were loose fitting, enabling women to be more physically active in war efforts and hold down jobs outside the home.
Buxton also used historically accurate darker colors while being careful not to make the show look “too drab.”
Still, there are some stylish standouts such as Lady Mary Crawley’s (Michelle Dockery) black dinner gown. “It was an original vintage gown," Buxton said. "We had to send it to Paris to get mended and have beads replaced. We also had to make an under piece -- a fitted silk slip -- because it was completely see-through. It was only possible for her to wear it a few times because it was so delicate.”
The season two constant is, of course, Maggie Smith’s Lady Violet, the Dowager Countess of Grantham, who makes a grand entrance in the premiere wearing an elaborate black frock with a large hat covered in cockerel feathers.
“Women of that age and position tend not to change their style,” says Buxton. “They don’t move on with the fashions of the time. It wouldn’t suit them. Maggie’s costumes become a bit less corseted but the same silhouette. But all of her costumes are made just for her. She is the most expensive actress to outfit on the entire show."
By contrast, Matthew Crawley’s well-to-do fiancé Lavinia Swire was on the razor sharp cutting edge of fashion, which is why Buxton dressed her in a green chiffon gown made from pieces of an original '20s frock found in a costume house.
“We did a lot of work to pull it together and made the headband for her dramatic entrance. It was probably a bit premature to use a '20s dress, but I used the theatrical license that she was very young and would have been at the height of fashion. You have to sometimes. The impact is worth it.”
Sadly, Buxton's impact will not continue on season three.
Another costume designer will replace Buxton, who has other projects she's focusing on. But Buxton says the show has already picked out several costumes from LA's own iconic costume house, Western Costume, celebrating its 100th anniversary this year.
Some of these Western costumes will be seen on Shirley MacLaine, who will play Cora Crawley's (Elizabeth McGovern) American mother, Martha, whom we hear will have a razor sharp battle of the bon mots with Smith's indominitable Lady Violet.
Here's one that was revealed at the American Cinematheque Tribute to MacLaine last week:
When Martha arrives at Downton and joyously greets the Dowager Countess, Martha gives the Lady Violet a once over and remarks, "Oh dear. I'm afraid the war has made old women of us both."
Lady Violet demurs: "Oh I wouldn't say that. But then I always keep out of the sun."