Downton Abbey: A New Era arrives in US theaters this weekend three years after the first film earned nearly $100 million at the domestic box office. Both films are, of course, based on the popular British series which ran for six seasons on ITV overseas and PBS in the US.
Directed by Simon Curtis, A new era again follows the Crawley family, although this time it is split in two, with half the family traveling to the south of France to a villa that the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith) unexpectedly inherits as the other half welcomes a team of Hollywood strangers (including Hugues Dancy, Dominica Westand Laura Haddock) seeking to shoot a film on the hallowed grounds of Downton.
While the actors and their characters have always been great and have long been recognized as such, Downton Abbey continues to show excellent below-line values that are often overlooked, as noted in my movie review last month. This includes the gorgeous outfits of A new erawhich come courtesy of the costume designers Maja Meschede and Anna Robin.
Meschede was in charge of the costumes for the aforementioned “Old Hollywood” characters, while Robbins, who has been with Downton since its fifth season, was in charge of dressing the Crawley family and their servants, including those who venture beyond their traditional comfort zone to the sunnier south of France.
Last week, under the line spoke to Meschede and Robbins about the awesome work they did on A new era, whose large ensemble cast allowed the two talented costume designers to show off a wide range of design elements. Read on to find out more…
Below the line: How do you approach working on a film that has a legacy behind it, like a TV series and an earlier feature film?
Anna Robin: It’s very interesting when there is such a legacy with the brand. The characters are known and appreciated. You have to try to remember to do the same job. So I followed the same steps – the franchise evolved over a few years, so fashion changed. And you do research specific to fashion, characters, and storylines. [Screenwriter] Julian Fellowes had [written] such a great storyline with complex new characters, and it allowed us to do a very nuanced look. Of course, I’m lucky to have a shorthand with the characters and to know them, [so I] can instinctively design for them. I can spot a vintage piece from a mile away that matches their body, so that’s good. But research and all that is the same thing you do as in any process.
My overall goal has always been to raise the bar higher and higher. Downtown has always done this and all of our departments have always worked hard to create something that is greater than the sum of its parts, and [they] pay even more attention to detail as the costumes would be seen on a larger scale. It was always about challenging ourselves to do what we had done before, only better.
Maja Meschede: I focused on these three new characters and all the agents that come with them – Hugh, Dominic, and Laura. It was really important to me that they fit in, but also that they don’t fit in, because they’re new. Laura had a very icy blue palette, and her costumes were overdone compared to the Downtown cast, [which] is so elegant and aristocratic. I really wanted her to stand out. And her jewelry deliberately never matched the color of the clothes she wore, because while she may be a Hollywood star, she comes from a different background. She’s a diva and somehow she’s not dating very well, she has all these insecurities. I wanted her to stand out and be the center of attention because of these things: “Here I am, I run the show.” That’s why we used cold colors for her, acid green, to stand out emotionally from everyone. That’s how she feels there, not knowing what her future will be with movies that have sound. She also wears gloves, to show this distance, this separation.
BTL: Anna, tell us about what the Crawleys wore in France?
Robin: France was particularly exciting. The whole scene was about to change. The lighting, the backdrop, the outdoor spaces, all different. The costumes inhabit the space and must adapt to this space. When I read the script and realized that the story was moving between Downton and the Riviera, and this beautiful intertwining of plots, I wanted to contrast tonally. We were looking at beautiful Neapolitan colors and sordid hues in daywear in France. The weights of the fabrics are diaphanous, the gentlemen are in these magnificent silky suits, which made a good counterpart to the colorful costumes of the women. It was reversed from Downton, where the color scheme is reversed. It’s always about pairings and creating ensembles, but France was a nice brightening of clothes. We had double-breasted suits so we could do without vests. We also had it in our tuxedos and linen suits for gentlemen.
BTL: Give us details on how you created a character on the way to France?
Robin: We had Robert [Crowley, played by Hugh Bonneville] in ‘separates’, which felt like we were moving forward with him. He’s in this Grenadier Guards blazer, for when he travels to France. He has a regimental tie, a gray flannel tie. He’s gone from felt to straw when it comes to his hat, and it’s like he’s arrived. He is the quintessential English gentleman abroad.
BTL: Maja, give us the character details of Dominic West.
Meschede: He’s a Hollywood actor. He hangs out with Charlie Chaplin and Cary Grant. So I talked to Dominic and we wondered what Cary was like, and we went. So he’s got this impractical, off-white, pinstripe suit — he conveys someone who’s really making an effort to draw attention to himself. Like with Laura, we wanted to show that he just walked out of Hollywood and straight into Downton. We wanted it to stand out so its color palettes were greens and white.
BTL: The show started in 1912, and we are now in 1928, so what fashion changes did we see then?
Robin: Huge changes. In terms of women’s clothing, hemming increased, but by the 1930s it actually decreased a bit. Waistlines dropped low, disappeared for a little while in 1927-28, and they come back and things start to be belted, and with shape again, as we come to the 1930s. I took advantage of the opportunity to be in 1928 to really look at what was to come in the future – to be able to unravel the truly striking changes that are afoot when it comes to fashion. It is “a new era” after all. We have Lady Edith in pants on the Riviera, it was just the right time to put it on [in those]. Edith would embrace this kind of liberal, forward-looking taste. We put Lady Mary in pajamas – beautiful originals, by the way – and we’ve never had this before, and she always wants to be state of the art. We also added wasp sashes to her dresses, alongside typical 1920s dresses. We explored a lot.
Meschede: I agree, and for me and my team, as for Anna, authenticity is essential. And with 20and Costumes of the century, you can go everywhere. You can get very nice clothes that are still intact, like [they’re] made from very delicate silks. Much of it is still available for purchase, across Europe – in Italy, France and even Germany. Sometimes we used leftover clothes and pieced together the costumes. But we found a lot of original fabrics from 1928, which was not easy to do with [the] lockdown. We found flowers, jewelry, and fabrics from the 1920s, and it’s remarkable how much and how quickly fashion changed back then. But Downtown has been here for 11 years and being part of this family was lovely.
BTL: What are the contrasts between movie stars and the world of Downton?
Robin: Maja and I wanted to make sure we brought in new layers of civilians from around the world. We leaned into knits and separates instead of three-piece suits, which made them more relaxed. I’ll let Maja talk more about that, but it was really about creating a big personality for these people.
BTL: How many costumes did you do for this film?
Robin: I mean, in total, thousands, because of the supporting cast. But we built 300 clothes or outfits from scratch, not counting what we bought or used right away. The scale of Downtown is huge – around 25 main cast and 24 days of story.
Meschede: I did a lot! For Laura, 15 years old, [while] Dominic had four different costumes, plus a kibble outfit. And then about 10 costumes for Hugh. That is, as Anna said, not counting all the others we bought from vintage stores etc.
BTL: How was the collaboration process?
Meschede: Anna and I worked very closely together. We were together every day for several months. It is very important that the color palette of each character somehow matches the others. We worked very closely with Simon, our manager. It was really good and exciting [being] the new, working on the new characters, bringing my own different vision into the Downtown family.
Focus Features will release Downton Abbey: A New Era in US theaters on Friday, May 20.