The stars of Downton Abbey are not the actors who portray Lords, Ladies, footmen and valets. The real stars of the show are the clothes each of the characters wear. I have watched Downton Abbey through numerous times, but it was not until I watched the show for the clothes alone that it struck me how much of the story they tell. Subtle changes in the shape of a man’s hat, the cut of a woman’s dress, or even the collars on an overcoat say so much about the bigger picture, both in terms of the show’s story as well as changes in British society as a whole.
So I jumped at the chance to see some of the clothes first-hand when the “Dressing for Downton” exhibit made its only Canadian stop at Toronto’s Spadina House (our very own, very small version of Downton).
I am well aware that these items are all recent reproductions, not originals from the 1910s and 20s. And sadly, there were only 3 pieces of menswear in the entire collection. As there were 2 men, including myself, in my tour group of 35, I suppose the organizers know their audience – women – and therefore cater to them. But I suspect the scarcity of men’s clothes has more to do with an ignorance of menswear and the role it plays on the show.
The only pieces present were Lord Grantham’s cream linen 3 piece lounge suit, Matthew Crawley’s brown with red overcheck tweed three piece and one of the latter’s tan overcoats. There’s also a panama hat and a fedora. What is obvious, upon looking at the menswear, is that it’s not as flamboyant as the women’s. Plus, the tweed at least, could be worn today without catching John Bull’s attention. The same could not be said for any of the women’s clothes. But that’s exactly the reason why menswear of the era is worth studying. What may look like consistency over the last 100 years is actually a history of subtle change, if you pay close attention to the details. Not to mention that during the era of this show is when British menswear truly began its invasion of men’s closets the world over, a dominance it still holds today.
A lot more could have been included from the men’s side of the Downton wardrobe. There is the hugely significant switch from white-tie to tuxedo. But there are more subtle changes that happened during this period, exemplified by Lord Grantham’s tweed replacing frock coats as the series went on. This was a major shift in British tailoring, as the more formal, stiff clothing of the 19th century gave way to the more relaxed and even colourful suits of the 20th. This echoed changes in British society, which was also becoming more casual. There were also some truly gorgeous outfits worn during the show, especially by Matthew Crawley, who was a bit of a dandy if you look closely at his collar pins, blue shirts and colourful tweeds.
All that said, Dressing for Downton is highly recommended for fans of the show. As exciting as it would be to meet the actors themselves, I suspect I would be let down to discover – of course – that Hugh Bonneville is not actually Lord Grantham. The clothes, on the other hand, hold fast to their secrets, allowing me to get within touching distance of that great age of menswear.