A Spin around the Abbey

20 Aug

Downton Abbey has been in my Netflix queue ever since a good friend asked me if I was watching it a few months ago. Knowing how much I loved period movies and TV shows, she told me I should definitely check out season one that had just been released on video. I had heard about it and knew it had won an Emmy or something, but her recommendation was all I needed to make it a “must see”. If you are unfamiliar with the PBS series, Season One begins in 1914 on a country estate in rural England. It is a drama about an aristocratic English family and their sometimes overwhelming number of household staff. Think Pride and Prejudice set 100 years later and at Pemberley rather than Longbourne. (If that sentence means nothing to you, stop reading this blog immediately and go watch the Keira Knightley version of the movie. And not the edited for TV version either, it leaves too much out.)

Lord Grantham, the Earl of the estate, resides at Downton Abbey with his wife and 3 daughters; not a fortuitous situation for the family in early 20th century England. The major story line centers around the future heir to the title as well as the estate, but there are enough side stories regarding the lives of the daughters, maids, footmen, kitchen staff, etc to make things interesting. One of my favorite characters is the youngest daughter, Sybil. As the youngest, she knows she stands last in line for marriage and pretty much has to take whatever is offered to her. Sybil, however, is not one to allow her future to be dictated to her. She is interested in politics, especially the growing women’s suffrage movement and determined to make a life for herself beyond that of a daughter and wife. While her oldest sister is adamant about not marrying someone who her parents select for her and makes sure her parents know of her determination; Sybil is the quiet baby of the family, and much more discreet about her rebellion. Secretly helping a housemaid find a job as a secretary one minute, while she sweetly kisses her father on the cheek as she requests the use of the carriage the next. In a recent episode, it is Sybil’s turn to go to the dressmaker for a new “frock” (love that word!). She complains that there is nothing new to have made, fashions are boring, she is sick of wearing corsets, and on and on. You can almost see in her, the evolution of modern dress and the desire to not only express herself but to have fun with fashion.

I have to say that the costumes on the show are exquisite. Every day suits and riding costumes are classic, tailored skirts, blouses and jackets worn with the perfect hat to complete the ensemble. But in an era when everyone of stature “dressed for dinner”, it is the evening gowns that are the most breathtaking. Layers of silk chiffon in brilliant colors, embroidery, brocades, and lace adorn ethereal empire waist gowns that float around the sumptuous drawing room. There is a definite distinction among women of different ages in regards to the dress, as the grandmother is clearly still in her comfort zone of stuffy, high collar Victorian dress.

Lady Sybil sees her turn for a new frock as her opportunity to express herself, and isn’t that what a new dress or pair of shoes should do for all of us? Even growing up in an affluent family where we assume money was not an issue, the selection of a new frock was a big deal. It had to be perfect. It had to represent who she was as a young woman and who she aspired to be. Her last new one was possibly 3 years ago when she was a young teen. This was her prom dress. The dress of her future. When the time comes for the big “reveal”, Sybil is painstakingly dressed by her maid with minute detail given to every aspect of her appearance. She keeps the entire family, including her Countess granny, waiting to go in to dinner until she makes her debut. And while Granny is shocked by the final product, Sybil beams and makes a grand sweeping curtsy to her speechless family.
I often feel sad that we do not have occasion to dress up anymore; to enjoy the time spent selecting a frock and the perfect shoes and accessories to complete the ensemble. We have lost the joy of dressing in beautiful fabrics and impeccably constructed garments. We opt for ease, comfort and practicality and think nothing about throwing on a dress that “will do”. I think that is why one of the many things I love about vintage clothing is that it allows us to go back to a time when women were more intentional about what they put on. Don’t get me wrong, as I sit in a car driving cross country for 12 hours, I’m glad I didn’t have to put on my corset, stockings, dress, jacket, hat and gloves before I lft the hotel. But what I would give for an opportunity to wear a peacock blue silk chiffon harem pantsuit!

20120820-204221.jpgFor more info on Edwardian clothing, click here.

All images courtesy of www.pbs.org

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