I feel a little strange just jumping into a post that’s essentially all ‘pretty clothes!’ without talking a little bit about what happened this week. I’ve had a few more days to digest it, and I’ve come to a few conclusions:
1. It was jarring as hell, and felt really out of step with most of the show
2. Somehow, it made me feel both angry and kind of dirty
On point number 1–let’s face it, we’re not used to that sort of brutal realism on this show. We’ve had tragedies, yes, but most of those were so overblown they almost took on an air of comedy (I’d say William’s and Sybil’s deaths are notable exceptions to that). This incident, coming at the end of what had been a fairly light and enjoyable episode, was shocking and horrifying, and not in a ‘wow, that was a brave move on their part, that totally changed the game,’ which is how I felt after Sybil’s death, much as I missed her. I watched this in the UK, so I didn’t get any spoilers that this was coming, and it was honestly a shock.
Which brings me to point number 2: I think one of the reasons I felt gross after seeing this was because it felt exploitative. It felt like Julian Fellowes heard all of our complaints about constant storyline rehash and though, ‘hmmm, what terrible incident have I not used yet to promote DRAMA in the show? Oooh, I know! A horrific rape! That’ll get people talking around the water cooler!’ Thing is, there’s kind of a reason why something like that hasn’t appeared on this show before: Downton is, essentially, fairly light Sunday-night viewing. We’re not tuning in anymore for complex characters and moral dilemmas, we’re watching for pretty people in pretty clothes and Maggie Smith’s one-liners (which have been seriously lacking this season, wouldn’t you say?). Suddenly throwing in one of the most awful things that can happen to a person, and having it happen to a really beloved character just feels gross. I highly doubt we’re in for a nuanced look at a woman dealing with this sort of extreme trauma (though I could be wrong about that), because this show mostly does nuance very poorly indeed. It was just done to get us talking about it. And that’s gross. Add in the whiff of ‘if only she’d listened to Bates’s warnings’ and I came away from this with a definite feeling of ickyness.
All right, I’m off my soapbox for the moment. Want to talk about clothes now?
As I mentioned in the recap, this is the first time we’re seeing a full-scale house party at Downton, and it certainly delivered on the costume front. Even the men were more colourful than usual.
Before about mid-century, men’s suiting was a bit more fun, colour-wise, and even pattern-wise (though you don’t see much of that here). In the country, rules about dressing were, to some extent, more relaxed. Colours such as green and brown were quite acceptable, along with looser cuts and informal touches like knitted vests (we’ll get to that). This isn’t a shooting party, so we don’t get to see any tweeds, but those could get really wild. Looking at old pictures, it’s clear the men out shooting birds weren’t interested in blending into the background.
I will say that I found it interesting that in an episode where Tom’s complaining about feeling like a fish out of water, he never appears in his favourite green tie. Absolutely nothing about this situation is making him feel comfortable.
Anybody else notice that Michael and Lord Gillingham, the two men going after Crawley sisters, were dressed identically in their first scene together (aside from suit colour, though their ties match)?
Before the 1920s, knitwear was mostly seen as clothing for the lower classes. Poor people knitted stuff to keep warm; rich people piled on wool and coal fires. But then in the early 1920s, the Prince of Wales (later Edward VIII/The Duke of Windsor) appeared on a golf course in a knitted jumper and suddenly knitwear was cool amongst those in the know. The hottest thing was fair isle knitting, which Michael is wearing, above. Because fair isle at the time was only made by hand on one little island in Scotland, it was pretty hard to get. Note that Rose and Michael are the only two people at this house party who wear knits during the weekend. That’s because they’re both the most in-tune with what’s fashionable at the moment. Rose is young and has little else to do but read fashion magazines and Michael hangs out with a pretty hip crowd. So it makes sense that they’d both be a little more ahead, fashion-wise, than the other guests, who stick with three-piece suits and floaty blouses that must have been freezing.
At night, however, the men all have to stick to their white-tie uniform:
But the ladies get to have a little more fun.
Again with a jaunty little head scarf (she loves those, doesn’t she?). Taking this together with Rose’s evening dress from last week, I’m going to say this blushing pink is the colour of love in this household. Rose is flirting with that guy, and Edith’s getting to spend the weekend with Michael. Love is in the air!
And Edith, again, is taking some fashion risks:
Wow. That is a seriously sexy dress. Much sexier than I’d ever have expected to see her wearing at home. She’s showing quite a lot of skin there. The peacock design on the bodice also calls to mind that amazing green dress she wore to have dinner with Michael in London:
Now, the earlier dress is far less flattering–the cut’s not as good, nor is the peachy tone quite the right shade for her, but it’s still a good callback. Remember that she wore that earlier dress the night she got Strallen to propose to her (though maybe the less said about that the better). Love colour. And also, moving her relationship forward colour.
Speaking of colours, what was up with Cora and blue this episode? She wore a blue dress every single night. It’s practically a signature:
It could just be a fluke, but I think that, in a way, it ties her to Dame Nellie, who also appears in blue, and with whom Cora feels a certain affinity:Dame Nellie’s outfit is interesting–it’s much more costume-y than the clothes worn by the other ladies. Which makes sense–she’s performing here. It’s definitely a more stage-ready than dinner party-ready gown, with that face framing stand-up collar, the heavily beaded panel down the front (great for catching stage lights), rich-looking gold, and long sleeves (she’s the only woman not wearing gloves, aside from Violet, which makes me wonder if she didn’t expect to be permitted at dinner, since gloves were generally part of the uniform).
Mary’s still in widow-appropriate dark tones, though she’s starting to introduce a bit more tone:
A word on that last dress. First, it’s lovely, and perhaps the most up-to-date thing she’s worn yet this season. Looks like she might have picked up some new things ahead of the party. Second, she’s wearing her wedding tiara. In a scene where she seems like she might move on to a tentative new romance before she’s plunged back into the depths of despair and memories of Matthew. So it’s fitting that the lovely dress is also in the most somber tone she wears all weekend. Third, she’s dressing like her grandmother again:
And for those interested, equestrian gear, ca 1922:
Things have changed considerably, for both men and women. Gill’s outfit is far more casual than his contemporaries of a decade ago (granted, that was a formal hunt while this is a laid-back country hack), and Mary’s is looser and more colourful. Look how buttoned up and strapped in she was back in 1912. And her skirt was immensely long. You couldn’t get dressed in that without a lot of help. You couldn’t even get on your horse without a small team of people lending a hand. But by 1922, you didn’t have a team of people around to help you. Even if you had the money, the employees often couldn’t be found, because people who used to go into service in droves discovered they could get more pay and better working hours elsewhere, like in factories. Clothing loosened up for a lot of reasons.
Let’s have a word about Isobel. Poor Isobel. This woman really needs lots of hugs and some serious therapy, which obviously wasn’t available back then. She’s still deeply in grief over her son, and as such, her clothing is about as bleak as Mary’s was back in the first episode.
Lots and lots of black. And a subdued plum, with black lace gloves. Her grief and prolonged mourning are, of course, understandable: she lost her only child and feels rather adrift at the moment. My only issue is that her behaviour doesn’t really seem to fit with how this particular character has been presented to us over the course of the series. Isobel has always been a rather hard-headed, determined, full-steam-ahead type who kept herself very busy. She claims now that she has no identity, since she’s not a mother anymore, but she’s never seemed like a woman who defined herself solely by her maternity. In fact, that seems like the opposite of her personality. Of course, being Matthew’s mother was important to her, but it wasn’t the only thing she had going on in her life. She got involved with the hospital (whatever happened with that?), went to France during the war to nurse, went about saving wayward prostitutes. This was a woman who had lots of identities. I find it hard to believe she’d utterly forget about all that to sit around her black-draped house and wallow, and judge everyone else for not wallowing with her. Her stiff-necked disapproval of Mary for daring to laugh didn’t seem quite right. At the very least, I’d have expected her to take a passing interest in her grandkid, but she seems less concerned with him than Mary does. If anything, I’d have anticipated Isobel being the person to start bringing Mary out of her grief–that would have seemed much more realistic to me than Mary just starting to magically snap out of it. The two of them coming together to share their pain and channel it into actual productive work would have been interesting and far more organic to the character. Remember, this is a woman who, when her son went missing, threw herself even more heavily into her Red Cross war work. Because that’s how Isobel deals with things like that.
Remember how I mentioned two weeks ago that Violet’s still dressing like it’s the Victorian or Edwardian period? She’s not the only one:
And remember what I said about Rose’s PJ’s being pretty ahead-of-their time? Check out what Cora wears to bed:
The depths to which Molesley has fallen continues to be told in clothes. First, he shows up in a deliveryman’s garb:
I think it’s hard for us nowadays, and possibly especially hard for Americans, who tend to take a certain pride in the notion that it doesn’t matter what you do, as long as it’s an honest day’s work, to fully understand the level of humiliation this man would endure just walking through the door with those groceries. He was in a very high position in this house before Matthew died, and now he’s so lowly that even Daisy pours scorn on him (which was rather unnecessarily bitchy of her, no?). Even without that box, he would be identifiable as a working man, just based on the clothes. The serviceable suit, the flat cap, and the white overcoat are all a very particular uniform.
And as a final humiliation, he’s made to wear white gloves to serve at table as a footman.
He’s mortified at the thought of wearing those things (which even Carson clearly thinks are contemptuous articles), because it so clearly shows how far down the downstairs hierarchy he’s tumbled. Remember back when Isobel thought he had impetigo in season 1 and told him he’d have to wear gloves to serve dinner? He was aghast at the very thought, even though nobody but Isobel and Matthew would have seen him wearing them. It was the principle of the thing. He’d earned the right not to have to wear gloves, but now he’s working backwards.
For comparison purposes, a quick look at upstairs servants vs. downstairs servants:
Upstairs wears their afternoon/evening uniforms in black, while downstairs clothes are more serviceable, less fancy cottons that are easier to wash. Mrs Patmore would have definitely taken off her apron and changed her cap before appearing abovestairs, though.
And finally, we have Anna. After her attack, one of her primary concerns is getting herself back together, which includes finding a new dress to wear, her own having been torn up. Mrs Hughes gets on it, and this is what she puts her in:
The very costume-y dress Anna put Rose in last week so Rose could have one last encounter with her working-class crush/dance partner. Contrast that cute little scene with this dark and awful one. Ooof. At least they left off the frilly bits, because that would have just been a little too much.
And not to leave you on a sour note, but here’s something for your dartboards: