Downton Abbey is well-known for its stunning costumes, particularly the flapper style dresses that appeared in later seasons when the world was moving into the Jazz Age. While the sparkly bandeau headbands and rising hemlines were thrilling to see, the show is also a sartorial showcase for the older generation of Crawley women, among them Maggie Smith's Violet Crawley, Dowager Countess of Grantham. Violet's costumes convey a completely different upbringing than that of her granddaughters, who came of age in a time of vast technological and social change.
Below are ten details about Violet's costumes you may not have noticed, offering more insight into the life of this popular character.
10 Her Style Never Changed
Downton Abbey followed the Crawley family for 15 years, from the sinking of the Titanic in 1912 to King George V and Queen Mary's visit to the estate in 1927. While most of the Crawleys gradually incorporated elements of Jazz Age fashion into their wardrobes during this time, Violet's costume remained firmly in the Edwardian era even as the women around her adopted higher hemlines and straighter fits to their gowns.
Violet's resistance to sartorial change can be seen in the high necklines, accentuated waist, and floor-length skirts of her costumes, which reflect her high regard for the traditions and propriety of a bygone era.
9 She Was About Ten Years Behind The Fashion Times
As a member of the aristocracy, Violet would have had her gowns custom made. Her elaborate dresses clashed tremendously with Isobel Crawley's practical tailored suits that were more suitable for her middle-class lifestyle.
However, there was no greater clash of costumes than when Cora's American mother, Martha Levinson, visited Downton Abbey in Season 3. Sitting together in the pews at Edith's ill-fated first wedding, the two were worlds apart sartorially, with Violet in her trademark Edwardian updo and Martha already sporting a sophisticated bobbed haircut and cloche hat despite being older than all of the Crawley girls. The difference in costuming spoke volumes about each woman's attitude towards the societal change sweeping both sides of the Atlantic.
8 She Always Wore A Corset, But Maggie Smith Didn't
Violet would have worn an S-bend corset, also known as a swan-line or straight-line corset, which pushed back the hips and accentuated the bust to achieve the popular silhouette of the time. The S-bend corset was popular from about 1900 to 1910 and was considered a healthier alternative to older corset types because it exerted less pressure on the abdomen (albeit at the expense of forcing the wearer's back into an unnatural position).
Violet maintained this silhouette even into the 1920s. However, Maggie Smith was able to get away with not wearing a corset at all on set. Instead, she sat "bolt upright" and maintained excellent posture in all of her scenes, creating the illusion of being corseted.
7 She Took Inspiration From Royalty
The costume designers compiled a "look book" for each character on the show, building up a series of images to use as a starting point and reference when designing. Violet took inspiration from Queen Alexandra, who was known for concealing a childhood scar on her neck with high necklines during the day and rows of choker necklaces at evening functions.
Another style inspiration was Queen Mary of Teck, who had a strong figure that served as a positive model for Violet's look. Both Queen Alexandra and Queen Mary would have been contemporaries of the Dowager Countess and trendsetters for the aristocratic women of their time.
6 She Was In Mourning In The First Episode
In the very first episode of Downton Abbey, we see Violet in a purple two-piece day dress as she is in half-mourning for her relatives lost aboard the Titanic. Mourning was still a prolonged affair in 1912, with much stricter rules for women than for men.
Widows dressed in full mourning for up to two years, during which they could only wear black and jewelry made from jet. Half mourning was permitted after a year and a half, whereupon the widow could begin wearing colors like purples, greys, and mauves to signal that she was once again participating in society.
5 She Wore Lighter Colors Later In The Series To Reflect Her Story
Violet was initially dressed almost entirely in darker colors, but, toward the end of the series, her wardrobe began to lighten up a bit. In a promotional poster for the Downton Abbey movie, Violet is wearing a pale blue dress in the Edwardian style with lace details to add interest.
Standing behind her, Michelle Dockery is in costume as Mary Crawley wearing a modern black and white sheath dress, a strong contrast to Violet's more subdued gown. The costumes work together as mirror images of each other, with Mary being the bold future of Downton and Violet the fading past.
4 Eventually, She Allowed For Some Updates
Despite her traditional outlook, Violet was relatively accepting of one of her granddaughters marrying the family's chauffeur, and another granddaughter having a child out of wedlock. It should be less of a surprise then that she also made some subtle updates to her wardrobe as the 1920s wore on.
Her costumes towards the end of the decade had a more relaxed fit that revealed her natural waistline. She also switched out the Art Nouveau textiles of her clothing for Art Deco patterns. Finally, while her decolletage remained completely covered, her necklines were a little lower than they had been at the start of the series, contributing to a softer look overall.
3 She Wore A Very Expensive Tiara For The Royal Visit
The British jewelers Bentley & Skinner, having supplied jewelry for the royal family since the end of Queen Victoria's reign, loaned three antique diamond tiaras to the Downton Abbey movie production for a ballroom scene. Violet is seen wearing a tiara from the mid-19th century boasting a crowning diamond weighing in at 2.25 carats. The other two tiaras were loaned to Laura Carmichael, who plays Edith Crawley, and Elizabeth McGovern, who plays Cora Crawley.
The etiquette of the time dictated that only married women could wear tiaras, and only on special occasions. The royal ball held in honor of King George V and Queen Mary would have been the perfect occasion for the family to bring out their best jewels!
2 Her Dresses Took The Longest To Make
Edwardian gowns were inherently more complex in their construction than the straight shift dresses that came into vogue in the 1920s. This was due in part to the popular silhouette being so unnatural for the human body, as well as the intricate beading and embroidery on coats and dresses that took weeks to produce.
It is because of this complexity that Violet's dresses, which adhered to the old Edwardian silhouette, were among the most difficult and time consuming to make, with one of her dresses in Season 6 having over 15 layers and trims according to Downton Abbey: A Celebration.
1 Her Cane Doubled As A Weapon On Set
Perhaps the least noticed part of Violet's costume is her cane, which she is holding in almost every scene. Though easily dismissed as little more than an unassuming prop, many fans did not know that it occasionally served as a weapon on set. Several of Maggie Smith's castmates recalled an incident during filming where she used the Dowager's cane to whack a producer who was encroaching on her space.
Although it is not clear if she was in character at the time, one could imagine that the Dowager Countess of Grantham would have more than witty one-liners in her arsenal.