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A classic corseted 'S silhouette' of the Edwardian era
A A "shopgirl" walks along Kensington Church Street, 1906

The changing styles of the magnificent costumes worn by the “upstairs” characters in the series Downton Abbey reflect the tremendous social changes which took place in Britain in the early 20th century, the period of the series.

Amongst the influences which caused irrevocable changes to the status and expectations of women, were the Women’s Suffrage movement and the First World War. 

The Women’ Social and Political Union (Suffragettes) sought the right to vote amongst other freedoms and independence.  Fashions became easier to wear and move in, and fabrics, while still wonderfully rich, became softer. Shortages of materials caused unexpected changes;  as an example the metal used for corset eyelets was needed for war purposes.


Demonstration in Hyde Park, 1908
Demonstration in Hyde Park, 1908


The rigidly corseted S silhouette of the Edwardian era gave way to softer less restrictive clothing which allowed more freedom of movement and did away with the multiple layers of undergarments of earlier times.

During and after the first world war the loss of so many of the male population meant that women had to take a more active part in the life of the country and this required more practical clothing. Upper class women, who would not normally have worked outside their homes, become volunteer ambulance drivers, nurses and  land army workers, while former domestic servants and housewives worked in factories (particularly munitions), offices and in shops. 

When the men returned from the war women were expected to return to their former lives. This was resented by many as the freedom they had enjoyed was curtailed and many former domestic servants found other work. Servants were poorly paid and worked very long hours so many chose not to return to domestic service after the war.  As a consequence it was more difficult to find the necessary staff to maintain the great estates and their occupants.

For people of the standing of the Crawleys being appropriately dressed at all times was very important.  In one early episode Lady Mary comments  “Women like me don’t have a life.  We choose clothes and pay calls and work for charity and do the Season.  But really we’re stuck in a waiting room until we marry”.


Catalogue page showing the latest fashions c.1924

The  social status of the Crawleys meant that they could afford the best of couturier designs and fabrics for the women’s clothing and, while the men dressed very conservatively, their clothing was also of the best.  It was necessary to always dress appropriately and this meant that at a weekend house party the women would change numerous times a day.   

For these women, a day at a country house party was a marathon of changes of clothing. Breakfast would be served in the dining room at around 9.30 and this required an elegant costume of velvet or silk. The men would leave to enjoy their outdoor activities and the women would spend the morning reading or chatting. They would change into tweeds and meet the men for luncheon in a well appointed tent or lodge, then accompany the men to watch a couple of “drives”. The women would  return home to dress in an elaborate tea gown, take tea,  play cards or listen to some music until it was time to dress for dinner. Normally the dressing bell would sound an hour before guests were expected to congregate for dinner. This was the most formal event of the day and the women would dress in very elaborate gowns and splendid jewellery.

It was not expected that the same gown would be worn twice, so for a four day weekend a woman needed 16 dresses and a collection of appropriate jewellery. It is no wonder ladies' maids accompanied their mistresses on these occasions.

During this period hemlines rose and fell and rose again, waistlines dropped and the interest in Oriental décor was reflected in clothing as well. 

New inventions like the motor car and the enthusiasm for cycling also  meant that practical clothing was designed to suit these and other social activities.  

Click here to visit our YouTube channel and watch several short films on the fashions of the era, interviews with the cast on the fashion of the series and the influence of Downton Abbey on the fashion designers of today.

Find out about our 19 day tour of Britain's Downton Era departing August 2015. One highlight of the program is a guided tour of Highclere, which is already fully booked for group visits in both 2014 and 2015. In addition we will explore the Victoria & Albert museum to view the changing fashions of the Downton Era.

Visit Get Up & Go magazine for your chance to win two places on this unique tour !






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