Downton Abbey – Fabulous Award Winning Couture

We were so happy at UWM when invited to interview Caroline McCall, Head of Costume for Downton Abbey! This programme has captured the nation’s heart and imagination, making it one of the best loved and accredited TV dramas to hit our screens for years. Seems the UK, and the USA, really can’t get enough of this programme, making the cast international names. But it is not just the story lines written by highly acclaimed Julian Fellowes that enthrall us, it is the setting and the fashion. We ooh and aah at what the Downton Abbey Ladies are wearing, and this is a trend that is catching on, with more and more vintage influence over our current trends. Whether you are an avid Lady Mary, Lady Edith or Mrs Patmore fan, we hope you enjoy this insight into the world of vintage couture, and Caroline has wowed the audience, again and again.

We caught up with Caroline, to ask her a little about how she got involved in the programme, and where she gets her inspiration from.

Tina/UWM: How did you start your career in costume drama and is this something you always wanted to do? At the age of 12 I wanted to be an international show jumper!

Yes I first enquired about how to gain work in costume when I was 13 at a career convention, I was told I would have to go to Wimbledon School of Art. I studied Costume Design Interpretation there achieving first class honours. However I knew no one in the industry, at that time the BBC had a training award scheme which I won a place on. I was trainee for June Nevin on Randall and Hopkirk deceased, she gave me a brilliant training into how the costume department runs, she took me round the costume houses and showed me how she pulled outfits together after that the I was a junior on the film Snatch. Verity Hawkes the costume designer then took me onto her next job and I haven’t really stopped working ever since.

What path led you to Downton Abbey? Did you work on other period dramas for either stage or tv/film?

I’d assisted Susannah Buxton for 8 years when Series one of Downton abbey was offered to her, we’d worked together on other period dramas Fingersmith, Kenneth Brannagh’s ‘As You Like It’ set in 1880’s, ‘Japan’ and ‘Death Defying Acts’ staring Guy Pearce and Catherine Zeta Jones. I’d also assisted Barbara Kidd on ‘Little Dorrit’.

How did you do your research? As the style of this decade is very specific?

I collected lots of photographs from the period, looked at old news reel, original fashion magazines such as Vogue and Gazette Du Bon Ton and lots and lots of books.

Where did you source your fabrics from?

All over London and UK suppliers, Berwick Street, Shepherds Bush and Southall.

I regularly visit vintage fashion and craft fairs to pick up original fabrics and trim.

How big is the team you have supporting you?

I have 5 full time members of staff and then we have other people into help when we have large numbers of principles or crowds.

The female form today is very different to back then? Has it been difficult to accommodate our fuller figures into these slim fitting styled outfits?

I am very lucky that our cast have wonderful figures so that hasn’t been a problem.

The outfits for the staff are equally credible? Do you feel empathy for those that are downstairs in their somewhat dowdy outfits?

I definitely feel I would have been residing downstairs if I’d lived back then.

The iconic style of that era is incredibly well reflected in the fashion. Do you ever worry that some picky viewer will try and catch you out, and say a costume is wrong?

I hope that won’t happen, we try our very best to get it right but there’s always someone wants to catch you out, but it’s a drama not a documentary and we do all we can with the time and money available to make it authentic.

The recent wedding dresses were absolutely stunning. How long did it take to sketch, draw and make these?

Mary’s took about 6 weeks from her first fitting to it’s completion and Edith’s about 4.

Downton Abbey is a much loved programme, long may it stay, but how do you ensure that each episode is showcasing such stunning outfits? The recent ones worn by Dame Maggie Smith and Shirlie McClaine were beautiful!

Well it’s really more about the scripts, my job is about supplying clothes that are appropriate for the actors to play their parts, I don’t want the clothes to steal the limelight unless it’s called for in the script. Fortunately Julian’s writing allowed the occasions for the Violet and Martha to  try and outdo each other in the style stakes.

What is next for you? Are there any projects that you would love to work on?

If there is another series of Downton, I of course would love to come back!

Huge thanks to Caroline for taking some time out to answer our questions. As series 3 now comes to a close, we can’t wait for the Christmas Special!




For more information visit Downton Abbey on ITV1: