Over the past 6 years, Downton Abbey has given its international audience a glimpse into a time that seems so far from our current day. When in fact, the turn of the century shares many parallels with the present. Nations at war, a widening income and class gap, and the promise of ending prohibition – then on alcohol, today on the hemp plant. The era was one of new beginnings and forthcoming change. As the use of the telephone became accessible and the world began to communicate, we find ourselves currently at the cusp of practically unlimited information access and a completely automated, technological world. It’s clear, the times were and are, a-changing.
Among those changes, was a revolution in fashion. The most stylish women of the day were forced into impossibly tight corsets and elaborate hoop skirts that, while very beautiful, melded women into an upside-down chalice of conformity. Elaborate, heavy gowns were standard for events large and small, and what was expected was done. As the tides began to turn in the art world, from impressionism to the abstract, so was the desire to alter the expectations tied to a woman’s wardrobe.
A young Spanish artist found new inspiration in the world of fashion design. Never satisfied with the conventional, he had a plan to push boundaries by doing what no other designers of the day were willing to try. As always, the bravest are always the remembered. Instead of looking to the fashion of his current day, Mariano Fortuny began to search far back into historical, even ancient archives. Years, centuries, and millennia took him all the way back to ancient Greece. He was not interested in inspiring himself with the princess or duchess of this country or that, he wanted to make women look more significant, how he saw them — as goddesses. He believed they should be in control of their own destiny and unshackled by the conventions of the time — beautiful, strong, liberated. He found his muse in the ancient statues of the daughters of the gods. Unlike the contemporary dresses of the day, which were meant to accentuate certain bodily proportions while diminishing others, these long, flowing, pleated, single-piece sheaths flowed over the feminine physique, almost adhering to the actual body, not creating a shape, but rather complimenting the one that was already true.
At the drawing board, Fortuny’s sketches began in raw form. He started by envisioning these goddesses floating from from the sky and into his mind. How would the dress go from mere cloth to clothes? How would it be worn? And most importantly, how would such an ancient concept – one fit for a deity, be met by a populous who wanted bulky Elizabethan hoops and bustiers rather than form-fitting elegance?
Like all great designers, he begins with the most basic element: the material. For years, many fabrics were woven and brought in from The East to be dyed, seamed, and tailored for the cloaks and gowns of royalty. Fabric has a way of expressing an emotion, much like paint on canvas or clay in the hands of the sculptor. But if Mariano was to be dressing goddesses, what is the fabric they would choose? He quickly realized there was only one material that could truly meet all his needs. It would have to be light enough to accentuate the figure, without overwhelming it. It would need to flow with a queen’s grace, and as with all great works of fashion, bring itself to a point of unison between form and fabric. The answer was in the most luxurious textile of all. The most precious commodity the Far East offered the world, that could be appreciated by all who laid hands on it…silk.
Instantly, Fortuny is met with challenges. While beautiful to the touch and if dyed correctly, mind-glowingly colorful, silk was temperamental and delicate. Cut as a fitted dress, it might flow, but wouldn’t convey what he was after – the expression of a celestial being. The design was simple. A low, but not too low, bow neckline, bringing attention to the subject’s collar bone and posture. A top portion that bled over a belted, full length skirt dabbling onto the floor as drips of paint might, from a brush freshly pulled off the palette. While hitting all the notes on structure, he wasn’t finding the element that would separate his dress from all other silk gowns. The one step that would take his piece from beautiful to timeless, iconic, and desired forever. He needed to create a texture that would help the dress cling to form, without stretching a tight cloth over it. Something to bring the silk closer to itself and subsequently, to her.
The pleating process was complex. Ten or fifteen pleats would be attractive but lacked drama. He decided to go for the labor intensive route. Dozens, and eventually hundreds of pleats later he had something new and magical. The touch of silk, the structure of the ancient greek goddess, heart racing color, and the expression of a new era in fashion and design. Before long, the dresses were regarded as a pivotal change in the history of fashion, works of fine art, and one of the most desirable garments in the world. Eventually, these one of a kind masterpieces would be housed in museums, art collections, and lining the closets of the most stylish women in history.
Fast forward about a hundred years and we find ourselves on the grounds of Highclere Castle in Newbury, England. The culmination of one of the most talked about and critically acclaimed television shows of the last two decades approaches, and its Emmy nominated wardrobe master Anna Robbins is unraveling six original pieces of the very dress in question, The Fortuny Delphos Gown. Along with her devoted team, Robbins has meticulously designed and produced all the garments seen on Downton Abbey since she joined the show in it’s fifth season.
Crammed into her stuffed trailer on the castle grounds, Anna seems at home in her surroundings, working against the clock on the final season’s looks. “My primary interest has always been this passion for historical costume. It’s what drives me.” And driven she is. As you scan the workroom’s accouterments you are immediately struck with her penchant for meticulous historic detail. “You have to raise your game when you come onto a set like Downton Abbey’s. The writing, the production design, everything is elevated.”
Dripping with charm and unwavering style, Anna conveys how much her ability to take risks and run with new ideas helped set her vision in motion. “I’ve been given a great deal of creative freedom on this show. It made me feel like this job was meant for me, so it came very naturally. I knew we needed that kind of flexibility to craft the show’s appearance upstairs and downstairs, alike.”
The show, which follows turn of the century aristocratic families and their servant counterparts, features dozens of characters in every episode, often changing looks throughout the unfolding story. Seasonal, age-appropriate, and era changing fashion can be seen woven through the entire series, presenting a bounty of challenges for Anna and her team. “Proportions are also a concern. A girl in 2015 is simply a different shape, and tends to be taller than the girls from the 1920s.” Now filming the sixth and final season which brings the story to the mid-1920s, fashion was in a major transition as well, and Robbins was ready for it. “Julian [Fellows] has a factual timeline that we all have to work on. So you have to account for how that plays into the fashion, the change of the eras, and the details associated with them.”
Robbins, who reads the scripts long before they’re put on screen, also has to track the journeys of these very complex characters, a feat that is just as taxing as it sounds. “I’ve tried to create an arc in the clothing design that covers the characters and their emotions. As you read the scripts, you’re designing and illustrating, and before long, you start to know them. For instance, you can use red on any of the women, but the bold vibrant reds that we place on Mary (played by Michelle Dockery) speak to her nature, versus the more autonomous, salmony reds on Edith (Laura Carmichael), or the soft, sweet blushes you’d see on Rose (Lilly James). It was important to bring out that spectrum of color which helps convey the character’s personality and experience.”
Regarded as a wardrobe designer’s dream, including Fortuny in their repertoire is extremely rare, as the original pieces are few and far between. With many lost in the demise of estates throughout the century, finding one was hard enough, let alone trying to get it loaned out. After an informal connection with Fortuny creative director Mickey Riad, Anna thought there was no better time to showcase Mariano’s game-changing pieces than now. “I felt it was such an obvious choice for Mary to be in Fortuny this year. With her stature, her sense of style, and what it represents at this stage in her life.” Anna goes on to share how Fortuny’s design was not only cutting edge stylistically, it also served as part of the narrative, helping tell the story. “In this season you see this period of liberation and emancipation for these women, where they’re finding their own voice. An identity beyond simply who they’re married to, and you see that same transformation in Fortuny’s dress design. He was essentially the first artist of his time who set out to find the woman’s form and celebrate it, rather than hide it. It’s exactly what we needed, the perfect statement piece.”
A handful of Fortuny designed pieces will be featured, including an original Delphos gown that will adorn Lady Mary (Dockery) near the end of the season and the series finale. This marks the first ever, long overdue, global television appearance of his iconic dress design, leaving fans of the show along with the fashion world’s eyes peeled. “It’s fitting.” Says Robbins, “A timeless design, finding the body and soul within.”
The final episode of Downton Abbey airs this Sunday on PBS at 9PM EST.