The contribution of costumes to the stories of Downton Abbey and The Gilded Age
LUXURY CLASS: Both in the world of Downton Abbey (above, Downton Abbey: A New Era) and in Golden age, designer Julian Fellowes revels in the beauty – and artifice – of material wealth. (Photo by Ben Blackall / © 2022 Focus Features)
Best part of recent movie Downton Abbey: A New Era is when Hollywood comes to Downton. The aristocratic family agrees to rent out their mansion as a film set to raise money to fix their leaky roof. The arrival of “movie people” is meant to mean a clash of cultures – the glitzy, faux glamor of a movie set meets the heavy but decidedly real glamor of old-world aristocracy. But looking at these rooms, familiar to Downtown viewers since 2010 transformed into movie sets remind us that we have always watched a fantasy version of history. When servants carry the movie star’s copious wardrobe up the stairs, we’re meant to laugh at her vanity. But that’s a flippant joke given that dressing up in various outfits throughout the day has always been the main pastime of the occupants of Downton.
At the plot level, Downtown has always been a soap opera disguised as a historical drama. The show opened the first of its six critically acclaimed seasons on the sinking of the Titanic, and the latter film ends on the eve of World War II; the 1918 flu pandemic, World War I and the specter of socialism loom around the edges. But the drama was playing out solidly inside the house. Thomas, the closeted gay footman turned butler, was always plotting against someone; Bates the valet has been charged with murder. The Dowager Countess could have had Russian and French lovers. A Turkish lover died in Lady Mary’s bed. Later, her husband miraculously recovered from a crippling war wound only to die tragically.
The convoluted storylines tangle and blur in my head, but the costumes stand out clearly. The dazzling white sundresses the Crawley sisters wear in the first season finale signify an innocent ease contrasted with the complex stew of emotions brewing in their hearts. When Cora Crawley flirts with temptation, she dons a vibrant orange jacket that contrasts her usually muted greys, browns, blues and lavender. When Edith applies for a career as a journalist, she wears modern draped coats in soft colors. Each of Lady Mary’s heavily beaded, body-conscious evening gowns is meant to signal her delightful desirability and inaccessibility. And, of course, Lady Sybil’s radical “Egyptian” style trouser suit marks her as the rebellious sister who will soon run away with the chauffeur for love.
Costumes, color combinations and material objects are never mere props for Downtown creator Julian Fellowes; they are often the main attraction. His new drama for HBO, Golden age, set in late 19th century New York City, is even more steeped in luxurious things. And, as in Downtown, Fellowes is interested in class dynamics, especially as they combine with materiality. The drama in Golden age stands between old money – the last remnants of the European aristocracy who, indeed, believe they occupy a divine right to wealth and power – and new money in the form of the Russells, a fictional substitute titans of industrial wealth like the Vanderbilts or the Rockefellers.
The Russells know how to spend their money on beautiful things: silks so rich you could bathe in them, plush rugs, gold tableware and enough cut flowers to keep a dozen gardeners busy for months. Old money might scoff at their decadence, but they can’t help but be a little in awe of the total wealth environment the Russells are building from scratch. The result is morally ambiguous: the more the Russells are snubbed, the more they are cheered. But the Russells are, after all, the harbingers of a new era of massive wealth inequality, and their tactics for crushing economic competition under their newly shod heels and forcing their way into New York’s finest ballrooms. can only be described as ruthless.
Yet I appreciate the moral conflict generated in Golden age. In the early seasons of Downtown, we might have felt a bit disgusted, if not downright shocked, seeing the extraordinary work of so many people needed to maintain the illusion of leisure and luxury for the often petty and self-centered few. But at the end of the show, the Downtown Dynasty had become sugary in its class relations and almost tearful as its characters espoused anachronistic contemporary progressive values around gender, race, and sexuality. In the most recent film, servants and masters are buddies on a road trip through France, making it increasingly difficult to understand why they continue to eat in separate rooms, except for their stubborn sense that natural law requires it.
Fellowes seems to know that the luxurious worlds that intrigue him most depend on political realities that many modern viewers will find distasteful. But he still wants those beautiful objects to appear in all the glittering hyperreality the film offers, and he wants to immerse us in a world where it’s right and good for someone to have them. Perhaps that’s why he turned to the beautiful fictions of film and acts as a plot device and character arc himself.
In one of the last scenes of Golden age, Bertha Russell (Carrie Coon) descends her magnificent double staircase in a black and white dress that takes the breath away of everyone in the room. She, more than anyone, understands that it’s a costume she put on to play a role; if she plays it well enough, she can upset the whole social order. Similarly, the actors using Downton as a backdrop for their film highlight how aristocracy, at least in the 20th century, is an elaborate stage play with dwindling audiences.
And that seems to be what Fellowes wants most in his own work: to transport us to an imaginary world where we get the beautiful objects without brutality or inequality. It may not be good politics, but it’s lovely. I stopped watching the plot a long time ago, but I can’t turn away from these dresses.
A version of this article appears in the print edition under the title “Beautiful things”.