Caroline McCall Talks Dressing Downton Abbey for the 1920s
Who’s ready for a glam-packed trip back to 1922? This Sunday, Downton Abbey—the British series that explores the dramatic lives of the well-to-do Crawley family and their staff—returns for its fourth season on PBS. And as the cast of lords, ladies, cooks, maids, and butlers enters into the 1920s, they experience a bona fide fashion revolution. With the exception of Maggie Smith’s uppity character, Violet Crawley, Dowager Countess of Grantham, the “upstairs” ladies begin to slip into the loose, beaded, embellished, and sometimes skin-baring designs of the pre-flapper age. Emmy Award-winning costume designer Caroline McCall is responsible for it all.
Many would argue that the elaborate period costumes worn by the show’s aristocratic characters, like the rebellious Lady Edith (who experiences somewhat of a coming of age this season), Lady Mary Crawley (who spends the entire season mourning the loss of her husband, Matthew, and thus exclusively wears frocks in mauve, black, and purple), Cora Crawley, and her mother, Martha Levinson, are one of the series’ biggest draws. “I think the romanticism and the glamour of the show attracts people,” offered McCall of Downton‘s international success. “Of course, the clothing helps with all that. The costumes help you understand who each character is, but would people still enjoy it without the costumes? I think they probably would.” Maybe so, but certainly not as much. Here, McCall talks to Style.com about how icons Jeanne Lanvin, Madeleine Vionnet, and Paul Poiret influenced Downton‘s looks, the perils of working with vintage clothes, and why she chose to dress Maggie Smith in the image of a queen.
Seeing as this season is set in the twenties, the characters are experiencing a fashion revolution. How are the new costumes different from what we’ve seen in the past?
Downton began in 1912, and now we’re in 1922 and 1923. In terms of fashion for women, that’s probably the most change we’ve seen in any single decade. It’s quite extraordinary to see the transformation from how covered-up women were, how uncomfortable and corseted they were, to how completely different they’re dressed in season four. I always tell the actresses that their characters would never have imagined in 1912 that they’d be able to go out like this. We’re not in the flapper period yet, but there are all sorts of designer influences going on in the early twenties. A lot of Lady Mary’s [played by Michelle Dockery] wardrobe is inspired by Vionnet. Lady Rose MacClare [played by Lily James] has a lot of knitwear because the argyle craze was beginning due to the fact that the Royals were starting to wear their knits in day-to-day life, instead of just for sport. Then there’s a lot of Lanvin-influenced dresses. And Edith [played by Laura Carmichael] has all sorts of influences, because of her being in London. She’s a journalist and she’s trying to be more sexy and womanly, so for her, I looked at lots of illustrations by George Barbier. Poiret has also been an influence throughout.
It sounds like Lady Edith’s wardrobe changes pretty drastically this season.
Yes, it’s really the arc of her story. When you come back in series four, Matthew has been dead for six months, and it feels like the house hasn’t moved on. The whole house has been in darkness since his death, and Edith is desperate to get out. And when she returns to London, boy does she go for it. She’s decided that she’s a new, independent woman of the early twenties, so her wardrobe has changed to reflect all that.
Are any of the characters’ wardrobes inspired by historical figures?
Well, for Violet Crawley—she’s played by Maggie Smith—we looked a lot at Queen Alexandra and what she was wearing. She was the same age as Maggie Smith’s character in the same time period, and she was very glamorous. But she had a particular style. Queen Alexandra was an Edwardian woman, and her wardrobe and her silhouette remained as such during the twenties, but she still had a little pizzazz about her. That’s what I’ve tried to give Maggie. Alexandra always had stunning hats, and she always wore a high collar. Maggie’s silhouette has been more or less the same throughout the whole series—the fabrics and the trims have changed, but the silhouette of her clothing will not. However, a character like Martha Levinson [played by Shirley MacLaine] is desperate to keep up with fashion, even if she’s slightly older in years. She wants to stay young.
How important is historical accuracy when you’re designing these costumes? Do you take any liberties?
We try to create something that’s as true to the time as possible. There are looks this season that people will think are not right, they’ll think they’re ahead of their time, but they’re not. We do a lot of research—I look at books and magazines from the time, and I visit Cosprop, a costume house in London where they have a museum of original clothes. Going through original pieces helps me understand the way things were constructed and the differences, the little nuances, that changed from one year to the next. But obviously you can’t be slavish to the period because you can’t only use original clothes. The fabrics are too fragile. However, when we make new costumes, we make them as closely as possible to what they would have been.
Do you use any vintage pieces? And if so, where do you find things from 1922?
Yes, we have used a lot of vintage dresses in particular, but they need a lot of help. I get them from auctions or vintage fairs, but usually they’re very expensive. It’s too expensive to get something that’s in perfect condition, so I often buy things that are really quite tragic, and then we have to revive them. So maybe there’s a dress that’s got a beautiful beaded skirt but the rest of it is disintegrating. I’ll buy that, and we’ve got very clever people who can revive it.
The costumes you design—and revive—are very complicated. They must be expensive to make.
We actually work on a very tight budget, so you have to be quite clever. Downton isn’t a big HBO production like Boardwalk Empire. It’s very small. And it’s really tough! It’s hard enough dressing everybody, but what keeps me awake at night is getting all the women in the room in different colors, and making sure everything they’re wearing works in harmony together. It’s like the most complicated jigsaw puzzle you could imagine.
Have there ever been any wardrobe malfunctions on set?
Quite often I hear the sound of beads dropping off the vintage dresses and onto the floor. And once, we had an antique necklace completely fall apart! It had to be removed for the next take. When you’re working with very fragile clothing, you have to be very, very careful.
What do you feel makes a good costume?
If the scene requires a costume that the audience needs to go wow at, that’s one thing. But you shouldn’t just be looking at the costumes. I’m not really doing my job if that’s what happens. Good costuming is creating a wardrobe of clothes for these characters, and the actors shouldn’t feel like they’re in costume—they should feel like they’re wearing regular clothes, and the wardrobe should be helpful to them. I work closely with the actors to make sure that they feel comfortable. You’ve got to be true to the actors, and if you serve them correctly, hopefully it will please everybody else.
Do the actors enjoy wearing these costumes? And how do the clothes help them get into character?
They do enjoy wearing the clothes, particularly the upstairs characters. Apart from the men—they can’t bear the starched collars. But they will all say, as much as they dislike them, as soon as they put the collars on, it changes their posture and takes them back in time. All that aids them in remembering that they’re one hundred years in the past.
How do you hope viewers react to the costumes?
I really hope that people enjoy the series and that we’ve created a beautiful world. I’ve had a fantastic team. You’re only as good as the people that you work with. We’re a small team, but it’s a supportive team, and we could not work any harder. The thing about television is that it comes into everybody’s home, and if the escapism of Downton comes into your house, and you just get lost in it, then we’ve done our job.