Below is a reprint of my article published in the spring issue of SEASON magazine. I didn't want you to miss it since the gorgeous period fashions on the Downton Abbey television series inspired the popularity of “all things vintage” for modern weddings. (Scroll to page 60 if you want to see the original layout.) Enjoy!
...with love from Cornelia
The Wedding Season on Downton Abbey
To the delight of Downton Abbey fans everywhere, we were invited to two family weddings this season. And since the splendidly sumptuous costumes are the stars of this British period drama on Masterpiece Theatre—the bridal gowns didn’t disappoint (even if one potential bridegroom did!)
It’s post-war 1920 and the three aristocratic Crawley sisters dress in the stylish fashion of the budding “modern woman.” The restrictive corsets are gone as are waistlines, high-necks and sweeping hemlines. “It is unthinkable,” declared the era’s innovative fashion designer Paul Poiret, “for the breasts to be sealed up in solitary confinement in a fortress like the corset!”
So as a woman’s figure was freed (with hair cut and crimped for the most daring), lighter and more diaphanous fabrics became popular for a delicately draped silhouette. Since this is before the Jazz Age flapper girl, the Downton Abbey wedding fashion is softly feminine and romantic, floaty and full-length, even goddess-like. And it followed Vogue’s directives of the time: “No matter what hour the wedding is held, there must be no exaggerated décolletage.” Both Ladies Mary and Edith’s elegant bridal gowns—modest, yes, but oozing femininity—“offer a wealth of inspiration for modern brides hoping to channel a hint of vintage glamour,” writes Elle UK magazine.
The “Will they?/Won’t they?” relationship of “distant cousins” Lady Mary Crawley and Matthew Crawley tugged at us through a dozen episodes, so their wedding to begin the third season was the cat’s meow! Costume designer Caroline McCall had Downton Abbey’s grand staircase in mind when creating Lady Mary’s column-shaped wedding dress—gossamer layers of ivory-tinted silk and the most expensive costume ever made for the show! She etched the gown’s lace overlay with tiny Swarovski crystals and rice pearls to create a shimmeringly mythical moment as the bride pauses on the sun-lit staircase just as her father (and Carson, the devoted family butler) look up to see her. “I wanted her to twinkle in the morning light, so I also infused the lace with a delicate silver thread to create a subtle iridescence. My goal was to make her look really ethereal and romantic”…and to soften the hard edges of Mary’s stern character.
The actress playing Lady Mary, Michelle Dockery, said that she’d never been nor had ever portrayed a bride before so she loved all the attention, even feeling a bit like royalty. The royal vibe could have been from all the guarded secrecy around her gown; or how it was reminiscent of the slender, silver lamé trimmed bridal dress worn by Prince William’s great-grandmother in 1923; or while filming the wedding scene at Oxfordshire’s village church, she stepped from her carriage to cheering crowds, just like Kate!
Then there was second-daughter Lady Edith’s Grecian-inspired wedding dress, a softly draped asymmetrical confection in silk slipper-satin and chiffon. (My favorite, although historically, a design a little ahead of its time.) Appliquéing vintage petal shapes of intricate silver embroidery and crystals across her shoulders and swirled at one hip, the costume designer wanted the more “awkward sister” to shimmer in her own bridal spotlight—but the magic was not to last.
The two sisters—instead of wearing the usual wedding choice of the period, a wreath or crown of wax orange blossoms—shared a stunning 45-carat, old-cut diamond Georgian tiara in a romantic floral motif (on loan to Masterpiece from “royal jewellers” Bentley & Skinner.) And that long silk tulle veil worn by both brides, so memorable in each sister’s wedding story, was another “pretend” family heirloom. Since “Downton Abbey” is actually Highclere Castle, all the Crawley heritage we see on the fictional program is “pretend,” but it doesn’t keep us from feeling part of the family somehow—whether our place is “upstairs or downstairs”! ~