Anna Robbins, Emmy-nominated twice for her costume design work on the later seasons of Downton Abbey, returns for Downton Abbey: A New Era, the second feature film following the Crawley family and their staff. The new film brings a new location—the south of France, and a slew of new charecters (movie stars at Downton!) for Robbins to dress. The result is a visual feast—fresh colors, exquisite tailoring, intricate fabrics delicate beading, paired with Robbins’ knowledge and impeccable eye for design.
Here in an interview with Awards Daily, Robbins details her return to Downton, her costume design process, and takes us behind-the-scenes of A New Era‘s signiture looks. Read more below:
Awards Daily: So much of the film takes place in the south of France, and there’s this dichotomy between what’s happening with the Crawleys at the villa, Lady Mary, and the film crew in England and Downton Abbey. How did you approach that in terms of costuming and showing that freshness and new perspective?
Anna Robbins: When I first read the stricatecript, there were all of these different worlds, [France] being one of them. It was really exciting to know that we were able to explore different pallets, different aesthetics, and different production design settings. It’s so clever how the script wove between the two places; we knew that we would always be jumping to the south of France and then popping back to Downton. So we were able to play really beautifully with a different palette and different light, that saturated sunlight that plays with color in a completely different way. I was looking to use these really Neapolitan tones, these sort of sorbet colors—fresh, light, and zesty colors paired beautifully with the pale linen of the men’s suiting. It was a complete transformation compared to the darker tweeds, the beautiful rich backdrops at Downtown Abbey, and the color blocking that we tend to see there. It was just a lovely contrast.
And we got to see contrast again with the film within the film and the fact that we had this whole other world to explore visually in that area as well. It was a fantastic script to get my hands on and get started with.
AD: I’ve always wondered how production design and costuming work together in the world of Downton Abbey. How do you ensure the costumes pair well with that rich backdrop without crashing or becoming too overwhelming? How do you thread that needle?
AR: Yeah, I think the aesthetic of Downton overall is a kind of beautiful cohesion. I always work really closely with Donal Woods, our production designer. And obviously, with Downton Abbey, we know it; I know the rooms inside out. I know the red sofa in the drawing room, the hall, and the dining room. So as soon as you know where the scene is taking place, you automatically know what’s going to work, and you’ve got a shorthand with how colors and textiles will behave in these spaces. And I think it’s about feeling authentic but cohesive. There is a kind of harmony to the palette and a richness to it.
You’ve got these dark maroons or even some dusky pinks. We softened Lady Mary quite a lot in this new film, so there were some pale aspects, but we still used simple color blocks for her. In contrast, we could go bolder in the south of France with our print and florals and the mixes of colors across the beaded dresses and do something completely different. But I think it’s still about having a beautiful filmic lens on the setting and the costumes. Things shouldn’t jump in an inordinate way. There should be little highlights and little accents according to who is the focus of the scene. But otherwise, there should be harmony amongst both groupings. So it was about balancing that with the very different aesthetic of [A New Era] as well.
AD: I just adore Downton Abbey; I’ve seen it probably five or six times all the way through. I love the costuming of Lady Edith. And one of the things that is so fascinating is the character development we see through the costume design and the contrast between Lady Edith and Lady Mary’s fashion and styling. Mary’s a little bit more traditional, very classic, whereas Edith embraces modernity in her fashion. How did that play out in [New Era]?
AR: Historically, I’ve usually designed them in tandem. They’re either complimenting each other or they’re combative, and they’re kind of contrasting with each other. And it’s lovely to be able to look at the dichotomy between the two of them as I’m designing. That was through the series, the first film, and this film as well.
I think Lady Mary is always cutting edge, but as you say, there’s a kind of classicism to her look. In this film, we were looking toward the 1930s and finding form again with waistlines and belts, cut fabrics and pushing her that way.
Whereas with Lady Edith, she’s also very modern woman and a working woman but has one foot in London and one foot in her country estate. I think it’s the London fashion that she embraces more, in a fashion-forward sense. We had the wonderful opportunity of putting her in trousers. The pajama set was all the rage in the Riviera, and it felt like the perfect opportunity, and that Lady Edith would have taken that step, that sartorial step forward, and embraced that really forward-thinking, liberal fashion stance. But then I was careful to kind of balance them, so we have Lady Mary in pajamas back in the Abbey so that they’re both abreast of that changing world as it were.
AD: The sheer number of costumes in A New Era is just incredible. How do you manage the volume of costuming and ensure there is variety, everything is unique, and even our background characters are delicately and deliberately dressed?
AR: Costume design is always challenging, but typically you don’t have over 20 lead actors. [New Era] is a real ensemble cast. And because of the setting in time, there are lots of changes. I think across this film there were about 24 story days. So, you multiply that and start getting an idea of the scale of the number of costumes we needed to create. It’s very prolific, relatively fast-paced, and therefore logistically challenging. It was made even more so by the fact that we were prepping and shooting during a global pandemic and a lockdown. So, our way of working has changed a lot. I came with a small baby. But we rose to that challenge because I had a fantastic team. I had a great co-designer on this film, Maja Meschede; she was great. I had a fantastic crowd supervisor with an incredible eye and brilliant organizational powers, which is what you need to wrangle that number of crowd and make sure their looks tie in perfectly with the principles. It is a huge feat, but I had a very talented workroom, one cutter and four or five full-time costume makers. We would bring in amazing dailies who would strengthen the workroom when we were busy there. Everybody just brought their a-game, really.
My approach on Downton is always to utilize vintage pieces as much as I can. I love giving these original pieces another lease of life. It’s harnessing the authenticity of the period when you’re bringing in original fabrics, original trims, and original buttons. I think that can’t be matched. I’d say probably about half of the women’s evening wear, it may be more than that actually, would be original, either restored, altered to fit, or reworked. A new make, but with an old fabric, it’s a bit harder to do. Day wear has to be made because it doesn’t exist as much. And especially men’s wear tends to be bespoke and tailored so that we get a perfect fit because we’ve changed shape and size over the last hundred years.
AD: And how often are you recycling outfits, if at all? Or using pieces from an old costume to create a new one?
AR: Once a costume has been created, that’s it, it’s left alone, but I have definitely used a couple of key little pieces from the series and from the last film to blend into this new wardrobe so that it feels authentic and like a working wardrobe. It should feel like these are the clothes that belong to a person. You know, you don’t wear something once and never again. So, I’m always really careful to design new for key moments or moments where I need a specific color or textile to work within the scene’s composition. But for other scenes, I might be able to reuse something that was hardly seen in the first film. Something that weeks of work went into it and, actually, the scene was much smaller in reality, and you get a chance to see it again. So, there’s recycling in that way, but once a costume’s been completed, it tends to be preserved and archived.
AD: We have a wedding in this film, and Downtown weddings are always so special and an event. How did you approach this one and that incredible wedding dress we see on Lucy (Tuppence Middleton)?
AR: Oh yes, I think this is definitely one of my favorite wedding dresses that I’ve designed on the show. It’s the opening scene, and we wanted it to have a real impact. It’s also the first time we’ve seen Lucy in her new life, and her circumstances have completely changed.
In terms of character arcs, Lucy’s was a really fantastic journey in this film because we were able to really express her personality through her clothing for the first time, more so than we could when she was a lady’s maid, and we only saw her in a handful of costumes. This time we had a huge array of colors and beautiful originals to play with for Tuppence.
For her wedding dress, it needed to feel quintessentially who she was—young, beautiful, fashion-forward, but free and down to earth. I wanted to have the sense that she could gather up her skirts and have a real dance at her reception. The dress needed to feel really light and free. I wanted to use silk twill and have this sort of frothy, asymmetric-hemmed, gathered soft skirt that makes for a great silhouette and adds a bit of drama. I found a silver-embroidered train from probably the 1910s, and we overlaid that over satin to create the bodice with this boat neck and deep-v at the back and beautiful chiffon sleeves.
It was about bringing together textiles that looked like all the photos I’ve poured over for years, these black and white photographs, these sepia photographs of brides, and it was about pulling together that feeling. The look was completed by this incredible veil, which was an exact replica of an early 20th-century original that was too fragile to be used, but this was an incredible hand-embroidered, original, and quite decorative, which was a lovely contrast with the other brides we’ve had across the series. Accented with a beautiful tiara and Van Cleef broach that we were loaned very kindly by jewelers in London called Bentley & Skinner.
It was just a beautiful costume that kind of came together incrementally through lots of vintage finds, playing on the stand, and doing lots of fittings to create the perfect silhouette and shape.
AD: And speaking of the jewelry, did you use costume jewelry, or were you able to incorporate some diamonds and gems into the looks we see in A New Era?
AR: We are very fortunate in that we’re able to work with Bentley & Skinner, who provided a few pieces across the film—Edith, Mary, and Lucy all wear real diamonds. I work with an incredible jeweler called Sophie Millard who I’ve worked with for years. Some of the pieces will be original 1920s, 1910s Victorian pieces, and other bits will be recreated where she’ll piece it together or she’ll make something new. I might find an original that works, or I might have to be specific about the bead color that needs to work with the dress. Or I’ll need it to be long because I want to drape it around Lady Mary’s neck three times. Or I’ll specify exactly how long I want a pearl necklace to be so it sits at the right point on a blouse. So, it’s a combination of using originals and then bespoke pieces to a design specification.
AD: And how did you approach designing the costumes for the silent film plotline?
AR: We were able to look at films in the twenties, but setting something in the 19th century—Gone With The Wind, films filmed in a completely different era and trying to work out what it means. This was filmed in 1928, and it was a kind of a mashup of the two periods. An 1870s silhouette with twenties fabrics and twenties jewelry and working really closely with the hair and makeup designer with these incredible wigs and makeups that just blended the two eras together. So, it was creatively really challenging, rewarding, and wonderful. And obviously, we had the opportunity to dress the downstairs cast, which was a dream scenario. I think we’ve all been itching to turn the tables at some point and see them in their finery. It was lovely to be able to look at their characters and reflect that through these beautifully flamboyant, over-the-top costumes.
AD: As I mentioned, I’m a bit obsessed with Downton Abbey. I love it. I have a couple of beaded dresses that I bought because they remind me of the show. I call them my “Downton dresses.” The show has certainly influenced the way I dress or the way I want to dress. Do you find that having spent so much time in these worlds has influenced your style? Whether it be in your personal life, other projects, or anything of that nature?
AR: I think Downton’s definitely influenced my life in a couple of ways. I loved the 20s when I came on board, but I think that love is now bordering on obsession. Now, I think it’s part of my DNA. Even when I’m not working on the show, I still collect 1920s photos and pieces when I find them because I’m so aware of how precious it is, how rare it is, and more and more so. And my love of it becomes deeper and deeper. I collect lace and trims and ribbons and opera coats. I suppose I’ll always have these characters that I will love forever in the back of my mind, but I think it’s more about collecting pieces from the past that I love so much. I love the textiles from the early half of the 20th century.
And I think as a designer, I’ve definitely been impacted by the process of designing something that is so authentic where there’s a lot of time and energy put in across all departments. It’s not that it’s 100% historically accurate, but there’s an authenticity to it. And an attention to detail that I think has followed me. And I’ve taken that into jobs even where I do not need to be entirely true to a period, but my attention to detail and how fastidious I am in the construction of things and the way that I approach textiles, I think probably has been massively affected by my time with Downton.
AD: What can you tell me about other costume design elements in A New Era?
AR: In this film, it was very moving and essential to get the dowager’s story arc right, in that we’ve always seen her in a certain way, properly dressed, with high collars, long sleeves, and there was a sort of dismantling of her character through clothing as we went along
And it was really important to do that sensitively. But I also used it as an opportunity to slightly pass the torch over to Lady Mary. It was lovely to be able to do that. We moved some really significant jewelry over to Lady Mary. We also mirrored the classic infill shape of a dress onto Lady Mary’s dresses in a kind of transference of that signature look.
AD: I got the opportunity to talk to Downton Abbey composer John Lunn, and I said, ‘If there’s more Downton, would you want to come back?’ And he said, ‘This is my baby. I’m not letting anyone touch it.’ Do you feel the same way?
AR: [Laughs]. Oh, I do. I absolutely feel the same way. It’s my baby. It’s my family. And it’s the most wonderful reunion coming back to work with such talented people, in front of and behind the camera. It’s a real privilege to design something so beautiful and work with such a great team. It was joyous!
Downton Abbey: A New Era is out now on 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray and DVD and is available on all digital platforms.