According to Vanity Fair, now that Downton Abbey is a bona fide hit in the United States, the show’s creators are planning a major licensing campaign that will include Downton-branded housewares, beauty products, wallpaper and furniture, and clothes. Normally, I mostly look to product deals as an indicator of what’s resonating in American culture more broadly, whether it’s Mad Men‘s relatively high-end fashion deal with Banana Republic, the way Girls cut deals with everything from SoulCycle classes (a favorite of series creator Lena Dunham) to nail polish lines, or the branding power of Sons of Anarchy, which goes largely unacknowledged in the press because it doesn’t involve fashion or beauty. But while it’s not particularly surprising to me that Downton would get franchised like this, these announced plans actually raise a question that’s important for something other than aesthetics and brand power: what are the clothes going to look like?
Part of what makes Downton Abbey visually entertaining to watch is precisely how different the fashions on the show are from contemporary styles—and how they treat women’s bodies differently. Clearly, we’ve lost nothing by moving away from standards of full corsetry and other restricting clothing for women. But as Downton’s timeline has moved forward, the stylish Crawley sisters have liberated themselves from their stays started wearing styles that have dropped waists and that deemphasize their bustlines. Lady Mary’s wedding dress was a perfect example of these kinds of simplified lines:
Lady Sybil’s pants ensemble may have been daring for the time—and may look funny now—but the cut of the pants, at least, is one we’ve seen come back into contemporary styling in recent years, mostly as part of revivals of the eighties:
Mad Men‘s been so influential on commercial fashion in particular (I distinguish this from designer clothing which, in part because it caters to a narrower market, can afford to have a wider range of influences and experiments) because it’s set in one of the eras that we’ve recycled multiple times since the nineties, and because the beauty standards for women at the time, though they allowed for women to weigh more than norms do now, still emphasized the kinds of busts and curves that are still considered desirable, if in adjusted proportions. Downton Abbey, if the clothes licensed from it bear any real resemblance to the things the Crawley sisters wear on the show, would have much longer skirts, men’s-wear-influenced styles that have high necks, and more amorphous silhouettes than a lot of what we’re seeing in mass market fashion. If the show is powerful enough to bend the curve on those kinds of elements, and on the presentation of women’s bodies, that would be a powerful sign of influence indeed.