The Crawley ladies of Downton Abbey are “Fashion Transformed ~ La Belle Époque to Moderne ~ 1900 to 1920.” Violet, Dowager Countess of Grantham, is dressed in the exaggerated Edwardian / La Belle époque style of a corseted “S”- shape (a straight-fronted corset creating a full-figured “S-bend” shape, by forcing the upper body forward and the derrière out), high necklines and almost always appears with gloves. Her daughter-in-law Cora, Countess of Grantham, wears Edwardian fashion in transition to moderne. Cora’s daughters, Lady Mary, Lady Edith and Lady Sybil, wear the radical new silhouette of a high empire waist and a slim column-like skirt that was pioneered by the French designer Paul Poiret. Stylistically, it makes perfect sense for the Dowager Countess to cling to her past fashion, as well as to her privileged, class-defined way of life, and for her grand-daughters to adopt what is new.
Paul Poiret, who was called “Le Magnifique,” advocated fashions cut along straight lines and constructed of rectangles. He shifted the design emphasis away from tailoring to draping. By 1920, Poiret’s innovations led to clothing that hung from the shoulders. And how elegantly does this clothing fall from the shoulders of Michelle Dockery who plays Lady Mary!
Paul Poiret employed orientalism to dramatize and romanticize the exotic possibilities of clothing. He coordinated vivid colors with exotic feathers, crystal beads and tassels for his enigmatic silhouettes. His work included his iconic “lampshade” draped tunic and even Ballets Russes-Schéhérazade-inspired harem pants, along with turbans and exotic headpieces.
Among the sisters, Lady Sybil is the most adventuresome in fashion as well as in life, going to forbidden suffragette/union rallies, supporting the housemaid Gwen’s ambition to become a secretary, reading political tracts and finally moving to Ireland to marry Tom Branson, the Crawley’s chauffeur. In the show’s first season, Lady Sybil raised her family’s eyebrows at a formal Downton dinner by defiantly wearing Poiret-like harem pants and an exotic headpiece.
Lavinia Swire, Lady Mary’s rival for Matthew, is also seen in one scene wearing a Poiret-like exotic beaded headpiece. On the other hand, Lady Mary did not seem to actively embrace the orientalism of The Arabian Nights-Schéhérazade. Perhaps this was because she did not wish to remember her one Arabian Night indiscretion with Kemal Pamuk, the dashing exotic Turkish attaché, who not only occupied her bed, but had the most egregious manners to die there.