“Downton Abbey” has been bringing viewers back to the 1920’s for five seasons now, but as the British period drama enters its final bow, challenges still arise when re-creating a past era — even though the differences are minor year-to-year.
“The fashions have changed enormously, whereas in terms of decoration and architecture, it wasn’t until 1926 when the word ‘art deco’ appeared that interior decoration changed,” production designer Donal Woods tells Variety, noting the costume designer Anna Robbins and her team had to dig deeper to achieve accuracy to portray the year 1924, compared the previous season, which was set just one year ahead in 1923.
Both Woods and Robbins are nominated for Creative Arts Emmys this year, being recognized for their work in production design and costuming — “Downtown” also received nods for casting, hair styling and sound mixing, not to mention major Primetime Emmy honors. Before the big awards, Woods and Robbins tell Variety how they successfully re-imagine the ’20s.
Although there have been no big time jumps between seasons, what are the challenges of re-creating the ’20s when it comes to production design and costumes?
Woods: It’s really been a restrained, but subtle changes, from when we first started.
Robbins: The scale of “Downton” has gotten bigger and bigger as we’ve gone through. We had various days we had over 200-crowd and our big ensemble cast where we made new costumes for the majority of them. Coming into Series [Season] 5, my goal was to make a lot more. Deadlines became harder and more challenging. You’re obviously moving through time and we’re trying to anchor the series in 1924, and then that spans 12 months, but you’re finding subtle changes and micro-trends within that year, but you’re also looking at a full circle of the season — you’re working through winter to summer and back to winter.
Did you have a favorite moment that you worked on during Season 5?
Woods: I think it was the decoration for the Christmas special. Really, we were the first drama of any type, movie or film, inside the castle. “Harry Potter” filmed there a number years ago, but they didn’t go inside. We were honored enough to go there with the Duke and Duchess letting us into their beautiful home.
Robbins: Usually when I’m making something, it’s my favorite because I’m so involved and so invested in it. The standout pieces for me, I loved the fashion show outfit that we did for Lady Mary. I felt at that point, I really hit on the century style I wanted to explore with her. And the riding outfit — the fit of that and the fact that we made her hat and her boots and everything. I have to say Lady Rose’s wedding dress was just a dream. Especially since I got to do two wedding outfits for her, I got to play twice as much. Both pieces, we did original 1920’s fabrics and embroidery and beading and things.
How long does it take to create an original dress?
Robbins: If our schedule is really tight, I could design a dress on Monday, buy fabric on Tuesday, have it cut Wednesday, and make it in a few days. You could have something on camera within five days really. Dresses like Violet’s are more complicated with layering.
How do you go about your research, even this far into the show?
Woods: We spend hours researching. Of course, the internet has made the research much easier. There are wonderful museums and libraries and London. It’s a marvelous resources for everything, even postage stamps. It’s a combination of everything. Season 4, I think we had the first electric mixer. We found that on the internet in California. It’s hard work and we always make it right. It’s always been accurate and true for the period.
Robbins: Meticulous research. I give about three months of research before we even start. I spent a lot of time reading books and looking at reference materials, fashion plates from the time, original garments, tailoring manuals from the ’20s, portraits from the National Portrait Gallery in London. The internet is a massive resource, as well. My knowledge of the 1920’s is really strong, but there are still areas I need to learn about when I get something new in a script.
Production on Season 6 has wrapped. Was there a piece that you really wanted to design or something you wanted to accomplish in the final round?
Robbins: Taking the characters all through their journeys, I’m getting to explore so much. With the women and with their careers and where that’s taking them and with the societal change, so much is happening. It’s a really interesting time in history. I could design 1920’s dresses for years to come and never get bored.
Is there any garment you plan to take away from the set?
Robbins: I think that they will all exist as a group and I’m sure they’ll go on to be exhibited, which is exciting for me because people will be able to go up close and personal and not just see them flashed across the screen.