The highly-anticipated Downton Abbey movie spin-off finally hits the big screen this week! We return to the Crawley’s home in 1927 and see the family anticipating a royal visit by King George V and Queen Mary themselves. Can’t wait to see how that turns out? We have a little sneak peek of the movie’s elaborate costumes for you, plus some very special insight from the costume designer Anna Robbins herself…
How did you transition from working on the series to going into the movie?
Coming onto the film was interesting because from doing the series I already had my years and years worth of ’20s research, my understanding of the characters and their style, so working on this has become second nature to me. Now when I go shopping for Edith I can walk into any vintage shop and know exactly what I’d pick for her. Coming into the film I wanted to elevate what I’d already done and find that really cinematic quality. It was all bigger and better. Things are going to be seen on a bigger scale, so you’re almost looking at museum quality pieces and the restoration we did had to be so good that any flaws were invisible on screen.
You generally need a lot more costumes in a series than in a film, but in a film you’ll get to see each costume in more detail – is that something that influenced your work on this film?
Totally. Over the course of the series I had nine episodes so there were so many more characters, outfit changes and story days. You’ll have to create hundreds of costumes to tell a story. On the feature however, I just had five or six story days to costume and I had to edit my choices and make sure they were really considered. But I also had more time to spend on each costume and to make sure that I crafted them exactly how I wanted them to be. It was a different challenge on both sides.
Which costume took the most research and work in the film?
Costuming the royal family. You’re working with a fictitious world but you want to make them as believable as possible. The references are inspirations, they’re not literal. There’s a huge amount of visual reference for the royal family of course, and lots of material to work from but that also means that people are going to make comparisons and fact-check you. I tackled it a number of different ways. There were certain costumes that needed to be absolutely accurate, like military wear for example. When it came to the Queen I found a couple of images that I totally loved and was as faithful as I could possibly be. The costume I made for Queen Mary (below) came about because I found this silver lace that became a starting point and I gathered more fabric together to make it feel like a whole dress. I designed around that with references of her evening wear, but it was about emulating that rather than recreating it.
Do you have a favourite costume in the film?
I don’t know if I could put my finger on just one. I would say the Queen’s costume of course, which is just beyond beautiful. Underneath the lace I mentioned is this lamé which actually belonged to Queen Mary. It was mind-blowing and an incredible privilege to be able to use that. That costume is definitely a highlight of my career. The other one would be Lady Mary’s ballgown. It’s monochromatic, it’s striking, it’s really feminine but not too pretty and really bold. It was everything I wanted it to be. It’s an original French muslin beaded dress which was knee length and had a completely different neckline originally. We added a satin floor length aspect to it and then re-beaded from the knee down.
How much of what you used was original period material and how much did you make from scratch?
For the women it was probably 40% original, but the originals are all worked on to some extent. Another 20-30% would be using vintage fabrics to make something new and then the rest would be new makes from scratch. Day wear more than evening wear is made from scratch as that hasn’t survived as well from the period. For men it’s all from scratch as the originals you find are too small for the man today.
Is there any symbolism in the clothes that ties back into the storyline?
There are – but I can’t tell you want they are because they are spoilers! I always look to use colour and palette as a way to tell a story, and show the mental state of a character and the journey they are going through. I’m always trying to contrast and complement Lady Mary and Lady Edith. There’s always a dichotomy between the two of them in strength and softness or a focus on whoever is more in focus in the scene.
Are there any other differences between working on the film and the series?
You see more shoes in the film. In the film you have the luxury of wide shots where you see the full length of costumes, which is great. You get to see and appreciate the costumes as a whole. But then we also come in a lot closer and get to see the detail. It works both ways.
Do you start with the dresses or do you concept the full look as a whole?
Usually it starts with a dress which will inform the rest of the look, but it could also happen that I find something like a great tiara and follow that. It usually happens by mistake if it’s that way round. I love the shoe design and creating things like hats matching a coat for the dresses I already have.
Why should people go see the film?
Because it’s Downton at its best. It’s everything you love about Downton but bigger and better. It’s opulent, cinematic and majestic and just a beautiful bit of escapism that takes you into this beautiful world with really well-written characters and amazing performances.
Downton Abbey is out in UK cinemas 13th September 2019.