Costume designer Anna Robbins is no stranger to creating the period look of Downton Abbey, she worked on the TV series and has dressed the Crawley family for all occasions. For the movie, Robbins had to create a new look altogether, preparing the family and the staff for a royal visit from the King and Queen of England. Gowns, tiaras, necklaces and their Sunday best made up the look of the movie.
Robbins sourced original material as well as created her own. While she was creating costumes for characters, a highlight for Robbins was creating the royal costumes for the King and Queen. I caught up with Robbins to discuss clothing the Crawleys and elevating the gowns and suits to a new level.
The TV show has always been gorgeous and the bar was raised high with what you did there. How did you even begin with the movie?
The production value on Downton was set really high for TV. That was part of the thing that attracted me to the project in the first place. I really did set the bar as high as I could in that capacity and it’s that thing where we wanted it to feel cinematic, and we wanted to elevate it and really give it that big screen quality. It was about raising the bar. In terms, of raising the bar, the quality of the craftsmanship had to be that much better to stand out on the big screen because the costumes are going to be seen in terms of feet rather than inches and you were going to see everything. It was wonderful because there’s so much to see in the costume and it was also challenging because the quality has to be absolutely perfect to stand up to that scrutiny.
Where do you source the costumes? Are you going to Brixton Market, finding fabrics and making them? Or, do you go to costume houses?
It’s a combination of finding originals and finding from scratch. I had an in-house workroom, so I could put my designs through the workroom. I could fit them on the cast as they were being made. It was a case of sourcing fabrics for those designs. Or, I sourced an original piece and altered it to fit or did restoration work. Some of the beaded dresses are delicate and fragile and might need to be strengthened a bit so they are wearable for the time you need the actress to be in them. I sourced costumes and materials far and wide. We shopped in vintage shops in Paris. I went to vintage shops in Scotland which is where I’m from. In London, there are amazing monthly and bi-annual vintage fairs and that draws all the traders into one place so you’re able to see fifty traders in a day, and you could cast a wide net that way. I’ve also worked with the traders for years so I have them on speed dial, give them a brief and say, “I’m looking for a dress that needs to be this size.” It was all over. There was an amazing guy who traveled over from the US with what he had for me to see. There were four or five key pieces that we got from him. It’s kind of an amazing treasure hunt that I go on.
With the storyline of the King and Queen coming to Downton, and you have the protocol of what to wear. We saw everyone in their Sunday best. So, how did you distinguish between the upstairs and downstairs look for that?
There are lots of events in Downton where they dress correctly for that event. In the series, we’ve seen many posh and well-appointed events. They might have been cocktails, dinner or a ball, but none of them have been royal which is about as high up that hierarchy as you can get. It was about creating a range and allowing myself to have that pinnacle at the top so you’re working and leading up to that.
What was nice was chronologically we were filming in that order so I was able to build towards the ball and create costumes for the other events as I went knowing that I was building towards that which I think helped the creative process.
It is Sunday best for upstairs and the downstairs staff. The thing is the downstairs staff would have their Sunday best and that’s what they have. They’d wear it to church and they’d wear it to meet the Queen. They’d have a more restricted wardrobe, but it’s still lovely when you get them out of their uniforms and to just explore their characters through that and show them at their finest.
We made a lovely little dress with a lovely built-in waistcoat for Anna and it’s just showcasing her at her best. We used lighter colors and created a palette for them rather than have them be entirely monochromatic.
With the family, it was just great to be able to look back at what I had done in the past and you could cherry-pick the ideas that had worked so well. We used that as the starting point for the best costumes that you could come up with for the arrival, the dinner or afternoon tea. As I say, I’ve had years of getting to know these characters, so it comes very naturally to me to design an outfit for the multiple numbers of occasions they needed to dress for.
How much fun was it to do the King and Queen because it hasn’t been done?
That was amazing. It was a different experience as a designer because you’re designing for real people. It was a responsibility of getting it right and making it as accurate as possible. There’s a huge amount of pictorial references out there which makes your job easier in one way and then harder in another because there’s so much pressure to do them justice. It was about making them sure we had the imagery for the right type of away days, the right type of tours, the right type of dinners, and balls. We had to be very detailed such as with the military decoration on the King. He had medals. The Queen’s decorations had to be very exact.
The ballroom scene was stunning and you can see the detail. What I loved was that everyone had their individuality in a scene like that?
It’s a gift when you have all the characters together in one scene and you have this amazing scene to compose to the costume. It’s about working out the key characteristics within a garment that really suits the character and is right for the event. Within the palette, you can really make sure they all complement each other and you have lovely pairings. You know there’s going to be a conversation between Violet and Mary so it’s about working to compliment that but also to make distinctions. That way, you have a really lovely contrast between the two women who are similar in many ways, so you create this lovely link within the details of the dresses.
Then you have a conversation snatcher between Lady Mary and Edith and it’s about the dichotomy of those two. They work well together, but they also play off against each other. It’s a gold printed velvet against the monochromatic beading and you don’t want that against each other because you want to explore all the lovely textures you can explore within 1920s evening wear.
It’s also a celebration of the era which is why I love the decade so much and this was the perfect chance to showcase it.
What about with the men? You don’t have chiffon and silks to play with?
With men, there is as much attention to detail. I was obsessed with period tailoring and the beautiful detailing you get there. Quite often, I use the tweeds as a way of complimenting the women and creating harmony within the groups. The fabric choices for suiting was very much dictated by protocol and what would have been worn by gentlemen in the countryside versus the town.
There are differences in the collar that’s worn depending on the generation the man was born in. Then we go to evening wear, and we’ve seen a lot in Downton – of black tie, and with the royal visit, it escalates to another level of court dress aspect. Rather than wearing black wool trousers, there are black breeches. There are black stockings and black pumps, and there was just something lovely about being able to elevate the costumes to another level.
The livery footmen are in white breeches and white silk stockings with this beautiful tailcoat. It was a chance to make and showcase this livery that gets brought out for the men’s visit.
You also have the accessories made up of tiaras and necklaces.
The dresses themselves can be lovely, but they become really beautiful when you complete them through styling. The jewelry, the hats, the shoes and the bags tend to be layered up after I’ve designed the garment initially might be sourced or made from scratch. With the jewelry, it might be something that I sourced or found. I’ll speak to my jeweler and it might be made for me if I don’t have it. It’s the icing on the cake.
There are a lot of diamonds and tiaras. All of the women are now married, so I was able to put on more tiaras. I could look at the different styles and the different ways that they’re worn. We’ve got Edith wearing it in a fashion-forward 1920s way – she’s wearing it quite low and on the hairline.
Did you have a favorite costume out of all you created?
I have lots of favorites. I really do. They’re favorites for different reasons. You talked about sourcing materials so that for me would be the Queen’s ballgown because it was such a beautiful combination of original fabrics that I found from all over the place. It came together and looked like it belonged in one dress. The skirt part of her dress is silver lame that belonged to Queen Mary and that blew my mind. To be able to put that into her dress felt like a real and massive privilege. It’s a real high point. I felt like a very successful realization of the images that I’d collected and gathered of Queen Mary in her evening dresses, the sense of structure and level of embellishment, the way the jewelry came together and we commissioned jewelry specifically to go with that. It was recreating a set of royal jewels that you’ll recognize on our Queen today. I think the combination of everything coming together on that costume and then being worn by Geraldine was an absolute highpoint in the film for me.