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War, Wealth And Passing Time: The Look Of “Downton Abbey”

The second season of Downton Abbey found the British aristocracy struggling through the turbulent years of the first world war.  For series costume designer Susannah Buxton and production designer Donal Woods, shifting through the difficult time period provided a great opportunity to emphasize change in the smallest and most well-placed details.


A Stitch in Time

Buxton emphasized the way the war affected clothing style throughout the season.  Balancing the shifting attitudes towards fashion as the twenties approached and the difficulty in purchasing fabrics or new clothing, Buxton paid particular attention to the changes in the silhouette of the women’s outfits.

“I tried to show in season two how the silhouette changes for the young girls who are more aware and interested in fashion.  The skirts in the early periods are very high waisted; the shape starts to change at the beginning of the war,” said Buxton.  “The emphasis of the war was more on the cut of the cloth than on the sumptuousness of the fabric.  Fashion doesn’t totally come to a standstill, it goes more towards the relaxed, A-line skirt.”

While conducting research, Buxton was not only attentive to the style of the outfits, but to how and when clothing should be worn.  Working with two very different social circles in the series, Buxton ensured servants wore the appropriate uniforms and the elite’s formal wear was worn at correct times of the day.  During the war it was improper for the aristocracy to venture into public displaying their wealth in their attire.  She also had to correctly outfit military officials.

To keep her head around the vast amount of costumes needed for the many characters, social settings and scenes, Buxton utilized a detailed breakdown of costumes needed per episode.  That breakdown focused on how many costumes each character wore, how the costumes interacted together within a scene, and how the costume affected the scene.  Once she had a handle on what was necessary, she introduced color palettes and styles that were realistic choices for each specific character.

Adding to the complexity of the costumes was the use of original materials and patterns worn during the period.  Working with sources such as a supplier who primarily buys original pieces for British museums as well as a London company that reproduces original textile patterns, Buxton carefully recreated period pieces.  While she finds using contemporary fabric extremely challenging, for it doesn’t have the same weight as original fabric, current technology has forced her to pick the fabric that will look the best on camera.

“Maggie Smith’s purple dress, for instance, is made of a contemporary silk taffeta, but is designed from an original pattern,” said Buxton.  “Hi Def brings a lovely sumptuousness to clothing but you have to work much harder because it shows everything.  If we have faded pieces of cloth that we previously got away with, we wouldn’t be able to now, because the camera is showing everything.”

While the shots themselves dictated her choice of material at times, working with the DP and camera operators helped her focus energy and use of details with certain outfits through understanding the focus of the lens.

“I do try to emphasize points where the costume will work, to spend the money where the costume appears on screen,” said Buxton.  “I have a lovely collar that is heavily beaded that has a heavy drop in the back that Maggie wears in the Christmas special.  I brought that at an antique market bearing in mind that the camera moves around her and you get such lovely details that might otherwise be lost.”

Love Is a Battlefield

Working on a television budget, Donal Woods also is very calculating about how his department’s budget should be invested.  With many scenes early in the season taking place on the battlefield, Woods knew this location would require an investment to obtain an authenticity that has elevated Downton Abbey above the level of a costume drama.

“You can’t back off from the first world war; everybody’s got an image of it,” said Woods.  “There were some trenches in the east of England built by an enthusiast.  We created craters and were there for a number of weeks adding a lot to what he already had.  We decided all the war sequences would be shot early in the year to make use of the dampness.  We had grim, rainy days and I feel that made it look even more miserable.  You get a bit of luck sometimes.”

Woods utilized clay and mud and was careful to mute any sense of color in the scene, aiming to achieve a black and white finish for the war sequences.  Woods has a similar approach to his treatment of the servants’ quarters, creating an army like appearance.  Inspired by his extensive research and the style of the servants’ rooms at Highclere Castle that were uniform in color and furnishing, Woods collaborated closely with Buxton and the DP, to chose a very monochromatic palette composed primarily of grey, beige, and creme.  When the servants are in their area they appear to fully recede into their surroundings, to become generic and as devoid of color as a black and white photo.

Over the last two seasons, Woods has found himself emersed in three main types of locations.  He’s made minor adjustments to rooms such as the library, the drawing room, the dining room and the main hall at Highclere Castle in Hampshire, he’s created the bedrooms and all the servants areas on the lot of the Ealing Sound Stages, and has traveled throughout England looking for appropriate locations.  While some location scouting can be done on the internet, Woods feels that the most accurate method of ensuring a location matches the needs of the scene is to take a crew and investigate it.

“A lot of the designing is choosing the locations,” said Woods.  “Sometimes you find something unusual: Downton is a village called Bamton which we liked because it has the same stone as Highclere itself and the same tonal look as the main castle.  But any other location is all about getting in a car with the location people and picking the right one.  We keep the expectations high and sometimes it causes headaches but we’ve been able to sit down, thrash it out and we go for it, really.”

Much of the original interior of Highclere Castle had the right look for the series, with unique features such as 16th century leather wallpaper from Spain lining the main hall.  Typically the aristocracy would have little changes in the interiors that reflect the passage of time.  During the course of season two, however, Woods was able to greatly modify the rooms as sections of the house were converted into a recuperation center for ailing soldiers.

Through his research Woods found that war offices would supply country houses with furniture from boarding schools and other facilities, as well as providing donations of blankets and supplies from the community members.  He enjoyed finding furniture that would appear dreadful to the inhabitants of Downton for these scenes.

“We made a conscious effort to make it look very different from the usual lavish furniture in those state rooms,” said Wood.  “We had paint spilled on them and splinters – we really went for it.  It’s a typical war time thing, to make due and mend, to do as best you can.”

After season two concluded Buxton declined the invitation to return to her role as costume designer for season three.  She felt that the styles of the 20s deserved a fresh eye and has turned her attention towards several feature films.  Woods has returned to set, focusing on modifying color palettes to reflect the change in the country’s mood even if little will change in the furnishings.

“The aristocracy in this country don’t change at all,” said Woods.  “Most English houses don’t have a piece of furniture past 1920.  They disregarded the art deco style completely.”

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