Fashion discussions about Downton Abbey tend to revolve around the younger upstairs characters, namely the Crawley sisters and their cousin Rose. While the stunning sheath dresses of the flapper generation were the real stars of the show, Downton Abbey is also a sartorial showcase for the older Crawley women, including Elizabeth McGovern's Cora, Countess of Grantham. As the only member of the family from America, her clothes conveyed an openness to change and new ideas even if they weren't the most trendy.
Below are ten hidden details about Cora's costumes you probably didn't notice, highlighting her unique background and elegant tastes.
10 She starts out wearing classic 1910s fashion
Cora's style was classic Edwardian when Downton Abbey began in the mid-1910s. Like her mother-in-law, the Dowager Countess, she wore dresses with a high neck and skirt that touched the floor, and her silhouette conformed to the S-bend corset that pushed the chest out and hips back to accentuate the waist. Her hats also featured a wide brim decorated with flowers, as was the fashion at the time.
Cora was a big fan of long, tailored jackets that she layered over the rest of her ensemble, creating a look that was both structured and soft with a variety of textures.
9 She got to skip one clothes change
Life for the Crawley family revolved around multiple changes of clothes to meet the dress code for every occasion, from breakfast to shooting to a grand ball. Being married meant that Cora was allowed to have breakfast in bed and mercifully skipped over the first change of clothes in the morning.
We see this in the very first episode of Downton Abbey, when the Crawley sisters hear about the sinking of the Titanic at the breakfast table fully dressed in their casual morning outfits. Meanwhile, Cora learns about the tragedy while reading the newspaper in her nightgown.
8 She adapted to changing times
Cora's American background made her more adaptable to the societal changes that swept England after the First World War, including the breakdown of the stratified class system. This adaptability is present in her clothes; while she didn't keep up with the latest trends like her daughters and niece, she also embraced the looser silhouette of the 1920s, unlike her mother in law, the eternally corseted Lady Violet.
By 1927, she had transitioned entirely away from the Edwardian shape and was wearing the simpler sheath dresses typical of the 1920s, though she remained more conservative than her daughters.
7 Her costumes showcased elegance
According to the Downton Abbey costume designers, the process of designing for Lady Grantham was the most organic out of all the characters, as the primary inspiration was Elizabeth McGovern herself. Anna Robbins found particular inspiration in the way McGovern carried herself with a quiet elegance and translated this into costumes featuring soft, draping fabrics that accentuated her figure while creating a fluid look.
Because of McGovern's influence on her character, Cora also became known for her elegance among the show's fans, who admired her ensembles for being age-appropriate but still stylish - and in many cases, absolutely stunning.
6 Her favorite colors were purple and blue
Cora most often appeared in mauve and cornflower blue, colors that are strongly associated with her youngest daughter, Sybil. Both mother and daughter had storylines that evoked similar themes of being the peacemaker among conflicting personalities and interests. In Cora's case, she served as the emotional core of the family, while Sybil played a similar role among her sisters.
Because Cora briefly stepped out of her usual role with a flirtation in Season 5, Anna Robbins dressed her in an uncharacteristically bright orange coat for a walk with art historian Simon Bricker.
5 Many of her clothes had an exotic influence
An American heiress, Cora married into English aristocracy and entailed her considerable fortune to Downton, saving the estate. While she married Robert Crawley for pragmatic reasons, exchanging her dowry for a title, she eventually fell in love and lived a happy life as Lady Grantham, chatelaine of Downton.
Nevertheless, she remains American at heart, and this comes through in her receptiveness to social change, her less stringent take on tradition, and even in her costumes. Many elements of Cora's clothing, such as the draping and embroidery, are reminiscent of far-flung places to convey that Cora was an outsider, "an exotic being in a Yorkshire estate."
4 She shopped at the House of Worth
According to Jessica Fellowes, Charles Worth was a British designer who had a tremendous influence on women's fashion at the turn of the century. His clothes were beautiful, intricate, and very expensive, costing as much as $20,000 for a season's wardrobe plus the cost of transatlantic shipping if the woman lived in America.
Worth had the monopoly on Americans for wedding dresses and fashionable mourning and pregnancy clothes, and Martha would have certainly brought Cora to his shop for her first season in London. Worth and American heiresses had a reciprocal relationship, with Worth favoring the Americans as much as they favored him.
3 She usually matched her daughters
Abbey is noted for its thoughtful costume design and intentional use of color. In scenes where there were multiple upstairs women, the costumes would often be configured to complement each other, highlighting each character's personality as well as her relationships with the others in the room.
Mary and Edith are a prime example of costumes playing against each other, as they have a lifelong antagonistic relationship, and their emotional arcs are often in direct opposition. In Cora's case, she almost always complements one or all her daughters when they are together in a scene, usually in a matching color or accessory.
2 Draping was a trademark
As mentioned above, many of Cora's costumes featured draping and fluidity. Cora preferred fabrics that gracefully moved when she walked but fell in a flattering way when standing still.
For the Downton Abbey movie, Anna Robbins added floating sleeves to an original vintage dress that she dyed to another one of Cora's costume trademarks, the color lilac. This design is also present in the silver evening gown with chiffon fabric hanging across her shoulders in Season 5 of the show, as well as a bright orange coat from the same season that she layered over a more structured teal dress with cream embroidery.
1 There was a focus on jewelry
Like her daughter Edith and mother-in-law Violet, Cora reached into the Grantham vault and brought out the family's best jewels for the King and Queen's visit to Downton. Her tiara dates back to the Edwardian period and featured floral motifs set with rose- and brilliant-cut diamonds estimated to weigh a total of eight carats.
As a rule, only married women were allowed to wear tiaras, and only on special occasions. Before her daughters were married, Cora could easily be identified as the lady of the house owing to the amount of jewelry she wore, including many a tiara at dinner.