Downton Abbey's New Costume Designer Tells Us All About Season 5

Anna Robbins dishes on her vintage finds, what's behind Lady Mary's incredible outfits this season and on-set costume disasters.
By Cheryl Wischhover ,

Just look at that palette. Photo: PBS

This week I'm skipping my usual "Downton Abbey" fashion recap to bring you a mid-season interview with the show's costume designer, Anna Robbins. Robbins, who originally studied law and never looked back when she discovered costume design, joined "Downton" as costume designer for season five. If you've noticed that the costumes seem more, well, elevated this season, it's not your imagination. She's definitely put her creative stamp on the series. 

Robbins was gracious enough to hop on the phone with me from Scotland, and she humored all my questions about hats, beading, that amazing '20s fashion show and whether or not there's a pre-ordained color palette for each character. 

(There are spoilers here from past episodes, but I'll save insights she shared with me from the last few episodes of the season -- which haven't aired in the U.S. yet -- in my recaps over the next three weeks. )

Photo: PBS

Was it hard for you to come in and design for a show that's been around for four seasons? What kinds of things did you change?

It’s like a relay race. The baton’s got to be passed over really smoothly. So the audience shouldn’t be aware of anything jarring changing, but obviously every designer has their own signature, because it makes them the designer they are. I definitely had ideas about what what I wanted to do. Because the characters progress, and it’s written so well and their journey progresses so interestingly, it gives you room to move things forward. I had ways I wanted to take Mary to designers she would have started embracing by the mid-'20s. Rose was growing up and becoming a woman and I wanted to bring a sophistication, but still an element of fun and frivolity to her costumes. Every scene is a kind of painting. I treat every ensemble as needing a focal point.

Photo: PBS

Does each of the female lead characters have her own color palette?

You never want it to feel entirely contrived that they have a wardrobe that’s so constricted that they never wear red or they never wear pink. But the type of pink you’d put on Rose would be a powdery pale pink whereas you would but a peachier hue on Edith and if Mary wore pink it would be a bold magenta. The range of color changes depending on the character. Stylistically, I didn’t want Mary having busy patterns or any sort of florals. Florals on Mary starts looking a little bit too fussy so I draw on geometry and use bolder colors and color blocking. 

Screengrabs: PBS

I've noticed a lot more whimsical patterns this season. What's the historical significance?

I love pattern and different scales of pattern. The '20s was rife with it.  It’s totally key to get the patterns right. It tells you the story of the era. In the '20s, [many fabrics]  had really geometric, art deco motifs. There’s a lot of Egyptology, too,  in 1924/25 because of Tutankhamun's tomb being unearthed. 

Do you try to source vintage fabrics and garments for the show?

It’s a real combination. I buy a lot of authentic, original pieces when I can find them and if they suit the characters. [Vintage garments] tend to need a lot of restoration. We have a workroom where they are very skilled and very patient. For the beaded dresses, we tend to have to back them onto stronger fabric because they’re 100 years old and very fragile. Some are a bit too far gone, so we might use the beading and incorporate it into a new dress. Or we might use bits of trim or  embroidery or lace off the original garments so it still has that story behind it, but then put it on something that’s been freshly made in the workroom. 

Photo: PBS

Can you remember any specific garments from season five that were vintage?

Any of the beaded dresses you see will probably have been original that we’ve restored. Lady Mary at the fashion show sees a black and white beaded dress on the catwalk and then we see her wearing that a little bit down the line, so you’re sort of linking in the fact that what Lady Mary sees she gets. That dress was very fragile. There was probably 30 hours worth of re-beading done to that over the course of a few weeks. We put an ivory slip under it so the black and white monochrome pattern would come out more. 

Photo: PBS

What are examples of costumes you've designed from scratch? 

The dress you see Lady Mary wearing when she went to see the fashion show, that’s a from-scratch creation that I designed. I looked to fashion designers and illustrations and fashion plates from the 1920s to come up with it. It’s one of my favorites. It was very successful. I was really happy with that one! [Editor's note: Me too! Best outfit all season, for sure.] I really like making for Michelle [Dockery, who plays Lady Mary] because I often can’t find what’s in my mind for her.  It doesn’t exist so I have to make it from scratch. Whereas I love finding these authentic gyms for Edith and Rose. They probably have more authentic stuff because the authentic bits that I see sort of speak to me and suit them. Michelle ends up being more bespoke.

Screengrabs: PBS

So were dress shows like the one Mary went to common?

Fashion shows would tend to be on a more intimate scale, in a smaller setting with people gathered around the models as they walk through the room. When you see the fashion show take place, the models come down off the walkway and interact with the customers who can look and touch and gape at the model. From my point of view, I went to the location and there were these pale yellow walls and beautiful atrium light and I had the idea that I wanted the fashion to be monochromatic. So you’ve stripped away the color just to allow you to focus on the patterns and the shapes and it has a very strong conceptual look to it. That meant that it contrasted really well with the audience, who were all in '20s color. Hair and make up had to do these short shingle bobs so that the whole thing looked like it was fashion-forward. 

Photo: PBS

Where do all the fabulous hats come from? 

We use a combination of original hats and we make a lot of hats from scratch. I have a hat maker, Sean Barratt, whom we outsource to. It might be with an original trim I find or from an illustration that has an amazing color combination that I want to try. The cloche hat is becoming tighter around the face and is edgier. The wider brims you still see on the older generations and it’s quite an Edwardian look, like on Violet and Isabel. Isabel is moving forward  -- she’s quite a progressive woman -- but you’re working with the fact that her hair is still piled high and isn’t quite as 1920s as the younger girls. The shape of the hat has to work with the age of the character so that it’s realistic and believable. 

Photo: PBS

Speaking of age, I feel like Cora's really been shining this season. What are you thinking of when you dress her?

I had fun with her. She’s somebody you can drape things on and she has this sort of frame that just holds these really loose, beautiful flowing fabrics well. I just think that things were happening in the series for her with the attention she’s getting from Bricker. She’s sometimes overlooked and she’s beautiful and I wanted to make statements with clothing that she’s constantly in frame and visible and shimmering. 

Photo: PBS

It’s almost jarring to see the downstairs staff on their day off when they're not in uniforms. Are the actors so happy when they get to wear something different?

Definitely! The uniforms change a bit depending on the time of day and where they’re working in the house -- upstairs or downstairs, day or evening. But yes, as soon as you get to dress them in civilian clothes, it’s a lovely challenge because you get to add that extra layer to their personality. You’re able to add detailing that gives them that extra dimension. And for the cast, it’s fun to be able to play that and take them away from their working environment.  I just wish we could swap places with them all for a day and have all the downstairs staff upstairs and see them in their finery! That would be great fun.

Do you ever have any on-set disasters with the costumes?

Oh, all the time! Every job has one. I’ve never gone to a job where everything has run smoothly. This industry is unpredictable, and things change and it’s very time-pressured. With 'Downton,' it’s a massive cast and we film a lot of story days and there are a lot of costumes we need to do, so if a schedule changes, for us the ramifications can be huge. We [Ed note: there is a 12-person costume department] sometimes have some very late nights. Our workroom has worked through the night to turn costumes around. 

The other thing is the beads. You’ll have a silent moment when the camera’s rolling and you’ll just hear the smattering of beads. I have this amazing team that will sew things back together so quickly. You’re constantly looking after the costumes.  My team stands by on set. They have amazing costume and fabric knowledge now because they’ve been looking after these 100-year-old garments. 

Photo: PBS

Is there any one character you have the most fun with?

That’s a tough one. Whenever I’m costuming somebody, the costume I’m designing at that point is my favorite costume while I'm doing it. It’s quite difficult for me to pick favorites. They’re all great to dress and I’m really lucky because our women are all beautiful and they’re clotheshorses from the period and everything fits so well on them. It makes my job really easy and it means I can think about the tiny details because I know that the basics just work so well.

This interview has been edited and condensed. 

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