I recently just hopped on board the Downton Abbey train and am absolutely in love with the show. There’s the characters (Mary Crawley is so obviously me in a early 1900s reincarnation), the sprawling estate, the endless parade of devilishly handsome suitors with their glorious British accents and the clothes, THE CLOTHES. Even in mourning, everyone looks just stunning.
Be it Victorian or Edwardian, I have a long-term history of wishing that I could either:
a) Be cast in a period piece film or BBC America/HBO/PBS miniseries. I would give one of my kidneys for the opportunity to stare off into the moors with tears streaming down my face and my bonnet falling off of my head because I have to pick between the rich cad who wants to buy the family estate or the penniless farm hand who will never give me anything but kindness and actively encourages me to pursue the rich cad even though it kills him inside.
b) Get into a time machine and go back in time to the years of when men were men and would fawn over me while I sat on a fainting couch, yet I wouldn’t marry any because I was a “challenge” and no man had yet to spark my intrigue – until the one day I would meet a rogue businessman at an opera house whom my parents thought very poorly of. Scandal!
Growing up, I was enamored with these kinds of films. I remember watching Titanic repeatedly not for Leo DiCaprio but for Kate Winslet’s wardrobe, especially her big hat in her opening scene with all of the flowers on it. I adored Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Elizabeth, Marie Antoinette, Shakespeare in Love and most of all, Keira Knightley’s Georgian-laden resume. After I was done watching one of these films, I would usually act out afterwards, sometimes adopting a faux English accent, using some of the jargon to punctuate how I felt about dinner (heavens, this meatloaf is dreadful!) and really resenting the lack of hoop skirts available in my closet.
When I was in middle school, everyone in my grade was told to draw up a timeline of where they saw themselves in the future. My timeline was very elaborate. I wrote that wherever I was occupation wise, I needed to be donning petticoats, pinafores and carrying a parasol. My teacher returned my timeline to me with a note written on it in harsh red pen that basically told me I was being ridiculous for wanting to dress like that. It made me feel like running out of the classroom crying. In retrospect, I do realize that logically wanting to dress in a corset every single day to work may not be the best choice of undergarment I could make. I also realize that my teacher was out to get me – who disses a kid’s dreams and fashion sense on an assignment like that?
I’m 23 now and maybe I don’t have the petticoats on, but I still believe that period piece movies and TV series have a lot to teach us that we can carry into the modern world. It goes beyond just being the stereotypical “prim and proper” girl next manor door. There are mannerisms and behavior you can take away from these films as well as from Downton Abbey that will stick with you for a lifetime. Also, many fancy hats. Those are important.
Dress Beautifully, Yet Simply
I’m not saying you have to doll yourself up in diamonds or put your hair up so high in a pompadour that you suffer a headache after. The ladies of Downton all dress in lovely gowns that are slim-fitting (as it is, the series is only a few years shy of the 1920s flapper fashions) and save most of the truly elaborate clothing for riding horses and formal dinners. At home, the youngest daughter Sybil even plays around with fashion with a pair of harem pants that would make Princess Jasmine from Aladdin absolutely jelly. Dress beautifully, yet simply. Don’t overdo it on yards of fabric. Do wear simple accessories like elbow length gloves and loosen your corset (should you decide to wear one) from time to time. Pay attention to detailing on clothing – it’s the little things that will pop out like a sudden ruffle or wispy bit of lace. You don’t need hours to be elegant or a lot of money, the key is simply to purchase pieces of clothing you know are timeless and with minor tailoring can be carried well over the years.
When faced with troubling prospects within the family, the Crawley clan holds their heads up high, backs straight and carry themselves with such a dignified manner, I swear at times they do not walk anywhere – they float. Even Maggie Smith as the wonderfully aristocratic Dowager has a presence that commands the room to attention. These were times that men were known for holding a room captive, but in Downton and many period piece films, I’ve noticed the women do it much more and usually while dressed to the nines in full laced and corseted dresses. You could argue that these were wealthy individuals and therefore they’d be more likely to know the proper protocol for good behavior, but it does not matter where you stand on the caste system. If you are raised in an environment that teaches you to be respectful and treat others as well as yourself, you’ll reflect the good you’ve learned both inside and out.
News Travels Slow – Entertain Yourself in Other Ways
For all the romanticizing I do of these time periods, I know there were a lot of downsides. Two words: dental work. But for my millennial age, I know that pulling any one of us back into time and leaving us there without any way to tweet on Foursquare where we were or do an outfit post on Tumblr would be bad, very bad. At first, not so much as there would be horses to ride and hot guys to hold our gloved hands, but after that was over, the harsh reality would sink in. There is no air conditioning. Indoor plumbing looks doubtful, even in the wealthier households. No Diet Coke or online banking app to do a quick account balance check at. Oh, and depending on how far you went back in time, you probably wouldn’t have electricity and would have little to no education beyond being a housewife.
Downton Abbey world relies on the pony express for news. Communication then was of telegrams that would wire in news of the Titanic sinking and newspapers ironed to dry the ink faster. If you lived on an estate with a big piece of land, you were lucky if you had any neighbors nearby. Boredom, no matter what you did to stop it, would sink in to a stifling point – time to get creative! Card games, dressing up, going out to parties in a carriage, horseback riding and sewing were all activities for young, supervised ladies to partake in. Personally, I think the supervision thing alone would have killed me. For as much as I appreciate having someone help me out, my independence is very strong and I don’t like to be shadowed. Though I’ll never know just how much I would have liked being constantly surrounded by people had I been born during that time and knew nothing but that kind of life.
Hopefully I would never have to muse out loud, “What’s a weekend?” as Maggie Smith did. Living in a world without a weekend? That’s when I do the bulk of my period piece daydreaming.