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Gentle Readers: Amanda Millay on New Noblewoman has found modern fashions inspired by Downton Abbey. She has graciously allowed me to reproduce her article for this blog. It will lead you to her blog, The New Noblewoman, which features all things fashion.

Downton Abbey is not just successful as good entertainment. Women everywhere are clamoring for clothing inspired by the show, and finding that modern-day retail wear is not even as pretty as the show’s most simple dresses.

The longing for Downton Abbey-inspired fashions, and the very few options available at the retail level, indicate that a change is needed in women’s fashion. Most women can’t afford a $1,000 dress, and designers and manufacturers will continue to make cheap, ugly, throwaway clothing until people stop buying it. But there is one option remaining for turning the fashion tide: Making or buying only top-quality, beautiful clothes, and making do with a limited wardrobe . . . like most people did for centuries. We should bring the emphasis in fashion back to having a few quality items, rather than amassing a huge quantity of synthetic items that we grow weary of or that go out of style after a few months. Women are already realizing this, and have started searching out homemade clothing (and making their own) in the quest to bring some true style back into fashion.

So can women today find anything that’s comparable to Downton Abbey fashion (without making it, or wearing an evening gown during the day)? I’ve scoured online women’s boutiques and department stores, and after looking through thousands of dresses, here are the best options I’ve found for Downton Abbey-inspired style. There are some great dresses at exorbitant prices, but in this list, everything is less than $200.

(If you’re looking for authentic vintage style, check out the Ladies Emporium,Recollections, Etsy, or this list of retailers from Sense & Sensibility Patterns.)

Long Dresses for a Look That’s Casual or Elegant

The ladies of Downton Abbey are usually dressed to impress. But it’s possible to find empire-waist dresses and long dresses in a variety of styles that have a bit of pre-World War I British flair. Click here for the rest of the article on New Noblewoman.

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Last night PBS showcased the Christmas special of Downton Abbey. Did you find the finale of Season 2 satisfying? Too cliched? Did you encounter unexpected twists? Or did you guess just about every plot point as my neighbor did? Warning to those who have not seen the Christmas special: This post contains nothing but plot spoilers!

Julian Fellowes with Dan Stevens and Elizabeth McGovern.

Julian Fellowes with Dan Stevens and Elizabeth McGovern. Credit courtesy Carnival Film & Television Limited 2011 for MASTERPIECE

I found the details of how the Crawleys treated the servants at Christmas quite interesting, giving them gifts and allowing them a free day.  Sir Richard’s response to the Crawleys’ generosity towards the servants told much about him and foreshadowed the difficulties he would encounter with Mary. They are constantly at loggerheads and his jealousy towards her real feelings for Matthew bubbled over.Sir Richard’s jealousy of Matthew bubbles over. He and Mary are constantly at loggerheads. While he seemed a harsh man, in the end it turns out that he truly cared for the eldest Crawley sister. Even as they make googoo eyes at each other, an upright and uptight Matthew informs Lady Mary that they can never be together because of his guilt trip over Lavinia’s death. Her reply, “Didn’t they teach you never to make promises?” This story line, ending in their engagement, finally gives the viewer a happy ending

With Mr. Bates in prison, the viewer is beginning to wonder if things will ever go right for him and Anna.  I am beginning not to care. The trial was over the top and melodramatic, but it did showcase O’Brien’s attempts to say and do the right thing. As for Anna’s reaction to hubby’s impending life/death sentence in prison – violin strings please.

This viewer sorely missed seeing Sybil and Tom. Their absence created a glaring hole in the story line, although their good news about her pregnancy meant joy for Cora and a Fenian grandchild for the skeptical earl.

It was a delight to see Edith boldly cast her hook and line at Sir Anthony Strallan, one of the few able bodied single men left standing after the war, albeit a little long in the tooth.

In order to be thought a hero,Thomas absconded with the earl’s dog, Isis, a most foul deed that backfired. With this act he entered the pantheon of  the ten most dastardly villains in entertainment history. Isis escapes from the shack

The story of Mr. Mason, William’s father, and Daisy provided a sweet sub plot. Daisy talks to William via the ouija board and Mrs. Patmore.

Many plot points were tied up during the finale, which redeemed Season 2. I do hope that Sybil and Branson will return, for I felt their absence keenly. As for Bates and Anna, their down-in-the-luck story line is getting a little old. While a happy couple makes for boring fiction, the relentless bad luck that this couple experiences has entered the realm of the absurd. It is also time that Edith enjoys her moment in the spotlight. She’s changed this year. While she still gives Mary a couple of good digs, she has become a more rounded character. What did you think of the last episode? Alas we will have to wait 11 months before Season 3 airs. Can we even stand it?

Today I conclude this year’s coverage of Downton Abbey. Future posts will return to the Georgian and Regency eras, where this blog ideally resides. Thank you, readers, for your patience as my Downton Abbey fever ran its course.

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Season Two of Downton Abbey is winding down on PBS tonight with the Christmas Special. Americans can watch previous episodes online through March 6, 2012. All I can say is – it’s about time. I don’t know about you, but this season seems a bit long and dragged out. I don’t think the one-hour airings between 2-hour book-ended shows helped. Several of us talked over the water cooler at work and felt that the one-hour airings were too short and ended abruptly. Plus some of the plot lines were a bit predictable. Be that as it may, I still prefer this series heads and shoulders above almost anything shown on cable these days.

To assuage your Downton Abbey cravings before Season 3 airs (Yesss!), an excellent artist named Kyle Hilton has created a series of paper dolls for you to download and play with. (The concept was by Willa Paskin. Vulture commissioned the four sets of paper dolls.) Perhaps you could even create your own story lines. Matthew and Mary come with a surprise, and Violet’s been given a range of expressions! Or not.

The paper dolls that are missing whose story line I would like to change are those for Mr. Bates and Anna. Perhaps Kyle is studying up on prison uniforms of the time, or figuring out how to place those two dolls in their marital bed. I also miss having the earl and his countess.

I quibble, however. These are such fun! Click on the links below to print out the paper dolls. You will have to cut them out the old-fashioned way – with scissors.

Meanwhile, I shall be on tenterhooks all night long waiting for the Christmas finale. See you there and at the twitter party with moi and one of your favorite Janeite friends, Laurel Ann Natress, editor of the anthology, Jane Austen Made Me Do It. Hash tag: #DowntonPBS

Paper dolls courtesy of Kyle Hilton

Links:

Kyle writes about his paper dolls and why they are free:
Personally, I think artists selling artwork that is largely someone else’s intellectual property is wrong.  It may not be a clear, black and white illegal issue, but the selling designs of t-shirts, posters, or even something like these paper dolls that are based off something someone else created (like tv shows, movies, etc) is to me, a cheap and easy way to make money.  There are a ton of shirts and posters out there that get around the issue by not directly showing a character or a logo, but in my opinion are still depending on the intellectual property of someone else’s creation.  I know not every illustrator sees it the same way, but for me, I’d rather make these dolls because I love doing it, share them for free at the highest resolution Tumblr allows and not get involved in trying to make money that for the most part belongs to people like Vince Gilligan, Mitch Hurwitz and Tim and Eric.  Plus, how often is stuff free? Not getting money for these means I’m free to make terrible, terrible mistakes!

All ads are placed here by WordPress. I make no money from my blog.

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My regular Jane Austen readers have been patient as I succumbed to Downton Abbey fever and began to cover events 100 years after Jane Austen’s death. Customs changed during that intervening century. Take the matter of dress. While proper Regency ladies changed their outfits from morning gowns to walking gowns when they went out, and changed into dinner dress when dining, by Victorian and Edwardian times the custom of a lady changing her clothes throughout the day had turned into a fine art.  One could get by with no less than 4-5 changes per day. A woman who packed to visit a country estate was sure not to be seen in the same outfit twice. This meant that for a 4-day visit she would need at the very minimum to have her maid pack 16 changes of outfits. One can only imagine the work of a lady’s maid to keep all the clothes and unmentionables in perfect (and clean) condition. Such attention to detail required quite a bit of organization.

Morning dress, 1815. Ackermann plate. While she looked proper in her at home attire, this morning dress looks stodgy compared to the Edwardian teagown.

Corsets were worn all through the 19th century and into the early part of the 20th century. Women were constricted into these garments for most of their waking day, but there were times when they were free from these tight-laced garments.  During the early 19th century, upper class women at home would wear comfortable (but beautiful) morning gowns. Dressing gowns were also worn. Such gowns were meant to be seen by the family and close relatives only. The moment a woman expected to be seen, she would change into more proper dress.

Cora, the Countess of Grantham, lived during a time when teagowns were all the rage. These beautiful ornate gowns had the advantage of being simply cut and worn without a corset. It was possible that for just a few hours she could relax comfortably before dinner.

They were generally loose-fitting and elaborately trimmed, and gave full vent to the dressmaker’s or couturier’s skill and taste for theatricality. Tea-gowns were influenced by historical styles from eighteenth century Watteau-pleats, to renaissance hanging sleeves and empire waistlines and quite often, all of them at the same time. Never has so much love and art been invested in such an arguably unnecessary garment. All kinds of informal garments including tea jackets, peignoirs, dressing gowns, combing sacques, morning robes and dressing jackets also had their place in the leisured Edwardian lady’s wardrobe, all of them beautifully decorated and almost all of them now obsolete. 1900-1919: The Last Age of Elegance 

American dancer and actress Irene Castle wearing a teagown, 1913

It had long been the custom for a lady to entertain both male and female visitors in her boudoir. (Read my article on this topic.) During the Regency era, dressing gowns were quite plain and simple compared to teagowns.

1810-23 dresssing gown. Image @Met Museum

At times the teagown gave rise to temptation, for a woman could entertain in private and not need the services of her maid:

Worn between five and seven oclock,  gave rise to the French phrase ‘cinq à sept‘. This referred to the hours when lovers were received, the only time of day when a maid wouldn’t need to be there to help you undress and therefore discover your secret. – “Style”, The World of Downton Abbey, Jessica Fellowes

Early 19th century dressing gown. Image @Met Museum

Attired in her tea-gown, a soft flowing robe of filmy chiffon or fine silk, trimmed with an abundance of lace and often free of corsetry, the hostess must have been a tempting prospect for many men. Such loose gowns afforded women great comfort, ease of access and a tremendous sense of femininity. Little wonder then that whilst hemlines rose and fell the tea-gown, which had appeared in England as early as 1875 lingered on until the 1920s. – Edwardian tea gowns, fashion era

This Lingerie-style dress embellished with Irish crochet, c.1905 (below) can be seen in more detail on Vintage Texiles. Made of sheer cotton decorated with lace and ruffles, this sheer dress required a slip.

Edwardian teagown, 1905. Image @Vintage Textile

More on the topic:

Read more on the topic: Tea Gowns, Edwardian Promenade

Image of an early 19th century dressing gown at the Met Museum

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We’re well into Season 2 of Downton Abbey and some obvious patterns in coupling are beginning to emerge in this historical or historic melodrama. Let’s examine how some of our favorite characters are getting on, shall we? (Caution: there will be spoilers for those who have not kept up with the series. Some might also be offended by the language in parts.)

Bates and Anna: The Daisy Saw Chain of Desire

Yes, we will, no we won’t Yes we will, no we can’t. Yes we hope, darn she’s back!

It’s hard to remain on Team Bates when all this couple is allowed to do is react to circumstances beyond their control. We want to root for them, don’t we? The lovely maid Anna and stoic Bates have won our hearts from the start. After becoming sweethearts against his will (for he is married, after all, a minor matter), they give each other romantic looks and sighs, and confess their modest dream of starting their own inn and family.

Bates and Anna. Image courtesy of © Carnival Film & Television Limited 2011 for MASTERPIECE

Then a nasty surprise in the shape of the very inconvenient Mrs. Bates arrives to dampen their plans (but not their ardor).

The wickedly delicious Vera Bates lights up the small screen with her foul plans to destroy the couple and the Grantham family because of her intense hatred for her husband. Bates turns into such a milquetoast when she spouts her venom that you just want to kick his butt to force him into action and whack her one. Alas, he remains a milquetoast.

It is up to Sir Richard to use his nouveau riche power and slap the woman down. Vera more than meets her match in Sir Richard, and frankly, these two spark more fire in their short scenes together than Anna and Mr. Bates ever could.

Poor Bored Lord Grantham

Being the head of a landed estate and master of a multitude of subordinates just isn’t enough to keep him busy, thus poor Lord Grantham is shown reading the newspaper in half his scenes in Series 2. His disappointment at not being given an active commission and sent to the front, where he would stand a 50-50 chance of being killed or maimed, sends him sulking to his small corner of the library.

To make matters worse, now that Cora has won her war of wills over Isobel, she has more important matters on her mind than to keep his lordship entertained. The soldiers must be taken care of: Lists made, sheets folded, accommodations planned, meals ordered, and the day in general organized.

Poor pitiful Lord Grantham is starting to feel neglected and lonely. Rather than working with his steward to reorganize his farms to grow vegetables for the army, and mobilizing his workers to do all they can for the cause, the earl behaves like a spoiled two-year old and attends to matters that are best left to others – namely that of hiring a comely war widow as the new maid. To be fair, Carson consulted him first, but shouldn’t this be Mrs. Hughes’ decision, plain and simple?

The Mary-Matthew-Lavinia Triangle

First Mary didn’t want Matthew. Then she wanted him. Then she changed her mind. Then she changed her mind again, which is when he left her, suspecting that she only wanted him for his eventual title not his humble self. Their parting in Season One gave satisfaction to noone but Mary’s sister Edith.

So Mary had to search in other quarters to snag herself a man. He’s not as pretty or accommodating as Matthew, but boy-oh-boy does her new rough-around-the-edges, no-nonsense and ruthless tycoon promise an exciting romp in bed. In the high stakes game that is the marriage mart, love played absolutely no role in Mary’s decision to bind herself to Sir Richard.

Woebetide Mary.

After rejecting his one true love, Matthew hied away from Downton Abbey, only to return two years later with a fiancee named Lavinia. His choice for a wife is as exciting as a crumpled piece of paper. On their first meeting, Mary sidles up to Lavinia with a polite but fixed stare and welcomes her to the Abbey. Lavinia, in awe of her surroundings and the fact that she will one day rule as supreme mistress of the premises, fails to notice the electric looks of longing and passion that pass between Matthew and Mary.

Masochistic Mary, who’s stiff upper lip is firmly planted in front of her clenched teeth, actually tries to be supportive of Lavinia while pretending to be a mere friend to Matthew.

C’mon, Mary! Fess up! One word from Matthew and you’ll drop Sir Richard like a hot potato and jump into Matthew’s sack. Mary experiences a hiccup in that desire when she discovers that Matthew’s unfortunate paralysis has resulted in his inability to perform those rites of passage that turn a blushing young bride into a woman of the world. But then she consoles herself with the thought that, thanks to Pamuk’s manly charms, she has already crossed that heavenly threshold.

Upon seeing Matthew lying prostrate in bed and learning that his prostate is of no use whatsoever, Miss Swire, who still hasn’t figured out that bees come from bees and birds from birds, cries her virginal heart out. She senses that whatever Matthew is trying to tell her must not bode well for their marital relations (whatever that means!).

As for Matthew’s steadfast love for Lavinia: I scoff. I laugh. I guffaw. Honestly, if both women competed in The Dating Game, Lavinia wouldn’t even come in third.

Upstairs Downstairs Love

First he drove her, now he wants to ride her. Branson’s a brash young Irishman who knows his worth. It’s a new age, and social unrest and the war have turned the world topsy turvy. It’s not unusual for a healthy young servant buck to turn his lascivious eyes on the master’s nubile daughter, but to act on his emotions and dare to declare his love? Now that’s awfully balsy of him…n’est pas?

Branson’s object of desire, Lady Sybil, is no namby pamby miss. She was all for the suffragette movement before the war, and actively supported Gwen’s right to improve her life with a typewriter. Sybil’s become a VAD, or volunteer nurse, and washed men’s bloody stumps and tended to their most intimate ablutions. She’s even seen their parts! (Our lovely Sybil has come of age in more ways than one.)

Still, her attraction to Branson, and his to her, is a social taboo that defies the world order as Lord Grantham and his mama know it. Will they find out? Will our hapless couple overcome all obstacles on their path to true love? Or will they part in sweet sorrow? Stay tuned as their world churns.

Lady Edith and Uh, Uh, Uhm ….

Lady Edith on her fine piece of equipment. Image courtesy of © Carnival Film & Television Limited 2011 for MASTERPIECE

Poor Lady Edith. As if it weren’t bad enough to be caught in the middle of two dynamic and beautiful sisters, she was born with neither personality nor looks. It was Sybil who advised Edith to find her special talents. Well, we know all about one of them – to make Mary’s life hell. But then the war interrupted her favorite sport of baiting her sister. What to do? Drive a tractor, of course, and make sport with the farmer’s wife’s husband after digging deep furrows in his fertile ground. A discreet romp on top of the hay (with all their clothes on) and a joining of moist lips was all it took for the farmer’s wife to aim her proverbial pitchfork at Edith and order her off her man and the land she was plowing.

Poor Edith. Now what? She starts wandering around the house like her papa, with wide vacant eyes, making me wonder if Season 2 is turning into Downton Abbey and Zombies. Then, all of a sudden, Edith discovers the joy of letter writing and transcribing the thoughts of injured soldiers. She plumps up their pillows, fetches their newspapers and books, and takes lessons from the family dog to learn how to become a loyal and useful shadow.

Edith’s good deeds garner her accolades and she blushes from the unexpected glory. Can Edith be saved? Will she turn into an interesting character? So far she’s fooling everyone except Lady Mary, who turning bug-eyed keeping her eyes on both Matthew and her back-stabbing sister.

Yo Mama Wuz Right and U Wuz Wronged

We kind of liked Ethel from the moment we met her, didn’t we? Cheeky and uppity, a bit selfish, too assured, and totally clueless. She’s going to move up in the world and nothing, not even a maid’s position, is going to stop her. When O’Brien plays her tricks on Ethel we laugh,while feeling sorry for her. It’s our first glimpse of the young maid’s vulnerability. She’s all bravado and not too smart.

Caught by Mrs. Hughes in bed with an opportunistic snake, Ethel is cast out of Downton’s downstairs with nothing but the clothes on her back and a growing surprise in her belly. Alas and alack, Ethel’s story arc reflects events that actually happened in the past.

While the Lothario walks away with impunity, the seduced young woman must pay a steep price and become a social pariah.

This Marriage Makes Kim Kardashian’s Seem Eternal

William loves Daisy. Mrs. Patmore loves William like a son. Daisy adores Thomas, but he’s, like, TOTALLY unavailable.

Good old Mrs. Patmore, feeling sad about her nephew’s death, pushes an unwilling Daisy into William’s arm. “C’mon, luv”, she urges the young scullery maid, “It can’t hurt being nice to him – the poor sod is going off to war! What harm can it do?” So a reluctant Daisy goes along with the well-meaning cook and hands William her photo, which is akin to Britspeak for “engaged to be married.” Armed with her image, William knows that he can face a fearless death, which he does, for he returns from Amiens with shattered lungs and takes to his death bed.

Daisy is cattle prodded by the well-meaning staff to marry poor William, who is stoic with the thought that although he is unable to deflower her in his pathetic condition, he can keep her in flour (and butter and tea) for the rest of her life by bestowing her with his name and pension.

The Right Honourable Violet Crawley, Countess of Grantham, and Everyone Else

Whenever Violet encounters anyone, the two immediately become a couple, with Violet gaining the upper hand within a milli-second. Take Violet’s scene with the reluctant minister, for example. With a firm grip on her walking stick, a cemented half smile, and an implacable attitude, she twists his aging co hones by sheer force of her will until he succumbs and marries poor Daisy and the near-dead William, whose face has turned blue. Had Violet been born in another time and social strata, she would have become a dominatrix par excellence!

One other couple must be mentioned: Thomas and O’Brien. As thick as thieves, these two villains cannot get enough of each other and their machinations. Of all the couplings in Downton Abbey, surely this one is meant to last.

And now we can all settle in for the next installment of Season 2 and the goings on at the Abbey. From what I understand, Season 3 is guaranteed. Which coupling shall last? Which shall be fruitful and multiply? And which shall wither on the vine and remain barren? Stay tuned.

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