Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Downton Abbey Style: The Only Way is Up

Downton Abbey, Series 2 aired in the UK a few months back, and following on from its success came a feature-length Christmas special, which I finally caught up with thanks to the joys of ITV's Internet player a little while ago. It's had me unashamedly gripped, and the Christmas special was a piece of pure, magical escapism, not least of all for the costumes.

After the first season finale left viewers on the eve of the First World War, Series 2 picks up again in 1916, and the hemlines of Downton's younger leading ladies have become noticeably shorter. It is to this subject that I want to devote today's post; to exploring the reasons for and why, as well as debunking some popular myths surrounding this fashion revolution.

Inching Upwards: Ladies Edith, Sybil & Mary - Downton Abbey Series 2
For hundreds of years, womens' legs were kept firmly hidden from view. Despite a myriad of changes in shape and silhouette, one essential remained: a long skirt that all but covered the feet, and if not, most certainly the ankles. An accidental (or deliberate) flashing of leg could cause more of a stir than a low-cut neckline. 

Rising hemlines, pre-war: Silk Skirt & Jacket by Lucile, 1913, V&A
Yet even before the outbreak of the First World War, hemlines were beginning to creep upwards. This trend can be attributed to the leading couturiers of the day - Paul Poiret and Lucile. Lucile's creations were draped affairs with fullness at the hips, tapering to a narrow column of a skirt which ended at the calf. Poiret's Ballet Russes inspired designs were more avant-garde, and in the opinion of some, grotesquely vulgar. His muses were unfettered by corsets, cut their hair short and favoured vibrant colours. Ahead of their time, they were not afraid of strong shapes and harder lines when softness in all forms was thought to be the epitome of feminine grace. Some of Poiret's most famous designs from this period have bold, exotic influences and eyebrow-raising hemlines. It's interesting to note that despite this, however, the basic shape of a woman's skirt kept essentially the same shape as its longer predecessor. Gathered tightly at the bottom and secured to restrict movement to small, dainty steps, the new style was essentially a shorter version of a hobble-skirt.

Poiret-inspired exotic silk, net & taffeta dress, c.1914-16, V&A
The Great War, therefore, did not (as is often thought) bring about the sudden liberation of a woman's legs, but was a change already set in motion by high fashion couturiers, which then began to filter through the ranks of society. Costume Historian Aileen Ribeiro has also argued that the craze for more energetic styles of dance gave rise to a simple need for shorter skirts, and the replacement of the stiff corset with the brassiere.

Perhaps more importantly too, increasing numbers of women were entering the workforce from 1915 onwards. As men were drafted to the front lines of battle, women moved in to fill their places at work, as well as going to work in munitions factories, as nurses and in the auxiliary corps of the armed forces. This called for a new kind of practicality in dress. While skirts were still relatively narrow in shape, for everyday wear, the constricting hobble-skirt all but disappeared (along with several inches of fabric). Women could therefore move and work with more ease and efficiency; some women even went as far as wearing trousers and overalls. To a modern eye, nothing seems out of place about a woman wearing a pair of trousers, and yet in the mid-late 1900s, trousers brought about a whole new set of issues: it could be plainly seen that the female wearer had two, very well-defined legs. Of course, everyone knew this already, but trousers showed of a woman's body to a greater degree than ever seen before.

Lady Sybil's Nursing Uniform
A New Practicality: Lady Edith's Work Attire
These trousers and overalls were a whole world away from Paul Poiret's exotic harem trousers (as seen on Lady Sybil in Series 1 of Downton Abbey). While Poiret's designs didn't take off in a huge way, the wartime necessity for trouser-wear would set about a shift in attitude that would see them become a staple item in a woman's wardrobe from the 1920's onwards.

Poiret's Bejewelled Exoticism,1911, Metropolitan Museum of Art
Lady Sybil's Harem Trousers, Downton Abbey, Series 1
Another common misconception is that skirts became shorter because of a shortage of fabric, brought about by the rigours of war. Clothing rationing, however, was not enforced during the First World War, and although the press urged women to shun lavish decoration and ostentation in favour of plainer dress (to reflect the seriousness of the time), those who could afford to dress luxuriously still did so. As seen in Downton Abbey, the evening dress of the wealthy was as elaborately trimmed and dramatic as ever - if not more so.

Noticeably Shorter: Silk & Net Evening Dress, c.1914-16, Metropolitan Museum of Art
The stronger, darker colours pioneered by Paul Poiret and his muses found increasing favour, as corsets were routinely abandoned by younger women, to be replaced by brassieres and corselettes (a kind of bra-corset hybrid) which would, by the mid-1920s, signal the era of the true Flapper Girl; complete with boyish silhouette and haircut, and relatively acres of hitherto unseen leg.

For Downton's Christmas Special - set in 1919 - hemlines shrunk even further
There can be no single attribution to the revolutionary changes in female fashion during the mid-to-late 1900s. Cataclysmic world events acted as a catalyst to a change already occurring not only at surface level, but also in the prevailing attitudes of the time. A shift towards more secular ideals and a move away from (in many quarters) religious moralising in many areas of peoples' lives could only mean one thing - change.

Downton Abbey images and stills courtesy of The Washington Post, The Daily Mail, The Guardian & Modeknit.

Thursday, 16 February 2012


I should begin this blog post by saying the following things, and in this order:

Happy Christmas! (Did you have a restful, food-filled time?) Happy New Year! (Here's hoping this year is all that you would wish) And finally (and most recently) Happy Valentine's Day.

It was the 1st of December when I last sat down in front of this familiar screen with the blinking of a cursor before my eyes, and lots of things have happened since then. I should rephrase that, reasons for neglecting my blog, as they go hand in hand. Firstly, there was a trip to Canada for Christmas and New Year. After which came much feverish packing, followed by a house-move. We had known it would be happening prior to leaving for Christmas, but it was as busy and as messy as all house-moves are, and inevitably left us with too many boxes and, until a few days ago, no internet and phone.

So, now all connections with the outside world have been restored and the pile of boxes dwindling steadily, I can (hurray!) reconnect to the blogging world I enjoy so much.

Hello everybody, I'm back!

View from the plane, somewhere over the Atlantic
A beautiful, amazing snow-covered Newfoundland
Toronto by night
The Good Stuff!
This is as close as I get to the CN Tower...thanks, Vertigo!
Escaping packing for a weekend getaway here: Thoresby Hall Hotel, Nottinghamshire
The gardens and estate at Thoresby on a frosty day
Sunset on my way home from work
All photos by me.