“Downton Abbey” Style

Rapid Fashion Changes in the Early 1900’s

The era between the World Wars was a time of great unrest, and art and fashion reflected rapid cultural changes. The voluminous dresses and heavy corsetry of the European and American Pre-war era were discarded as sensible movement was preferred by women who became more active in public and social life.

How to Create Your Own “Downton Abbey” Style

Sadly, few of the fine designs created in the early 1900’s, 1910’2 and 1920’s are in circulation now. Many have been lost to the passage of time but some of the finest examples are preserved in archival collections. Talented seamstresses can recreate the period look with fine natural fabrics and meticulous hand beading, but at great expense and time. There are currently few companies that exclusively offer reproduction apparel in the style of that era.

True Vintage Silk Charmeuse & Lace Edwardian Tea Gown (1910-1914)

1980’s Beaded & Fringed Cocktail Dress in 1920’s Flapper Style

A lovely alternative is to create your own unique Downton Abbey Styleevening gown, tea party ensemble, or dramatic costume, by assembling new pieces which are based on fashion motifs of that era.  If you recognize certain design elements like drop waists, flutter sleeves, and rich beading, you can creatively re-imagine your own work of art from current pieces. Be “inspired by” the times and acquire pieces which are reminiscent of the era, but feel free to add your own modern twist and personal flavor. There is no need to duplicate the style exactly…going for the flavor of the times is “the bees knees”!

What were the 1920’s Styles?

The style most commonly associated with the 20’s was the flapper, but the short skirt, fringe and rolled stockings of the jazz baby was a revolutionary reaction to the upper class lifestyle. Sewing machines were installed in factories for the garments of the working class, and mass production began in this era, but among the wealthy, unique ensembles remained in demand and sustained the European Couture Houses of Design.

Eventually, freedom of form was embraced across all social boundaries, and feminine fashion was simplified in couture as well. Of course, elegance was not discarded, and the fine workmanship was carried forward with fabulous beading, embroidery and shirring.

The Italian designer Mariano Fortuny created a secret process for finely pleating silk, and he patterned his society gowns on the ancient Greek Delphic style. The secret was lost at his death, and is still not known, but with the introduction of synthetics in the 1970’s, designers then were able to reproduce the look in their fabrics.


Finding Later Era Vintage Pieces

This Mary McFadden couture gown is a fine example of this revival in style, and similar beaded and pleated gowns of the 1970’s and 1980’s era can still be found. The trick is to find those of a high quality and accessorize with complementary long strands of glass beads or pearls.

Achieving the Look with Contemporary Items

Gold Satin Gown with Chocolate Silk Beaded Blouson

By the late 1920’s, the corset completely disappeared and the waistline dropped, so the silhouette was simple, but the intricate detailing remained. Embroidery and beading was heavier in more expensive pieces, but the foundation fabric was always carefully selected.

Contemporary Lacy Tunic paired over Tiered Lace Skirt

Natural fibers, such as linens and silks and Egyptian cottons had a lovely “hand”, meaning that they felt luxurious by finger touch or with any body contact. The draping of the fabric was carefully executed with the nature and weight of the fabric honored.

The classical Greek motif was pervasive throughout the 1910’s and early 20’s, with highwaisted tunics layered over an ankle length dress or skirt. With transparent and lacy layers draping over more heavily weighted underlayers , this look can easily be recreated. With two or three layered modern pieces accentuated with a wide belt, satin sash at hip level, or waistcincher, depending on the decade you are recreating.

Modern Downton Abbey Style pieces with simple straight patterns made of natural fabrics and embellished with a sash can often be used to recreate these looks, The addition of easily accessed accessories which reflect the era can include: beaded headbands tucked into a Marcel coif (“finger wave”), feather accents, and elbow length gloves. Classic T-strap shoes can complete a period look.

Lisa Genevieve Ziemer