I admit: it took me a while to dress for this particular costume party. When everyone in England discovered Downton Abbey and started bragging about how it was the most successful drama in more than 30 years, I shrugged and went on a TV vacation. When the New York Times wrote about Downton Abbey dinner parties, I convinced myself that it was a social, not a fashion, phenomenon for sad Sex and the City types who had been bereft of TV-obsessions after that show’s demise. When it swept the Golden Globes, I thought: of course, the voters want to prove their cultural credentials. Truth is, period dramas have never been my thing; give me a medical show with rare diseases and blue scrubs over petticoats and corsetry any day.
But then Downton Abbey was named best TV show not just at the Globes but at the Elle UK style awards. Then, come New York fashion week, L’Wren Scott held a show featuring royal blue velvet coats trimmed in fur and Ralph Lauren did a show devoted to tweeds, men’s suiting and bias-cut velvets. A week later in Milan, gilded capelets were all over the Dolce & Gabbana catwalk; and a week after that – in March, and Paris – Bill Gaytten at John Galliano announced he had found inspiration in Aubrey Beardsley, the great late-Victorian illustrator, for his frilled blouses and sweeping beaded chiffons, and Marc Jacobs went all Belle Epoque toques and coats and gowns at Louis Vuitton.
Then jewellery designer Dominic Jones announced to great hoo-ha that he had booked Jessica Brown Findlay, aka Lady Sybil, to front his next ad campaign, and then even I had to acknowledge: this is not just a TV phenomenon; it’s a cross-border fashion phenomenon. And while it’s off TV screens until autumn, it’s about to be in store.
The question is why? After all, this sort of wholesale sartorial embrace of period is different from the continual cycling through decades and references that fashion engages in almost every season, cannibalising a little 1930s shoulder here, a 1950s shirtwaist there, and some 1970s flares to create what can then purport to be the look of the current season. This is more holistic, committed. And it’s also rooted in a time period that has never been part of fashion’s historical grab-bag.
And why this show and not one of the many other costume dramas that seem to be constantly on screens, big and small? Why not, for example, the wildly popular Game of Thrones, which has vaulted George Martin to bestseller-dom as opposed to cult status, and which features all sorts of fabulous leather and silk? Why aren’t we all suddenly taken with unspecified olden times? Or Roman, for that matter, courtesy of the also widely applauded Spartacus? There’s some chic gladiator sandal action there.
Likewise, why didn’t bodice-rippers like The Tudors have quite the same effect? Even Titanic (the James Cameron version), which made heart-throbs of Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet and featured many a Vogue-worthy outfit, did not trigger an equivalent demand for fitted frock coats of the sort Ms Scott and Junya Watanabe have made. (Admittedly, this could change thanks to Downton creator Julian Fellowes’s current mini-series Titanic.)
It’s true: the Downton dresses, or at least the dresses the Grantham ladies wear – long, chiffon, beaded, not too tight – are pretty. So are the face-framing furs. But we’ve had pretty before. We had it in the 2001 film Gosford Park, for which Mr Fellowes wrote the screenplay, featuring Kristin Scott Thomas and Camilla Rutherford in various lovely 1930s velvets and satins, which had nothing like the same broad sartorial repercussions. There have been some pretty soigné gowns from the 1940s and the golden age of Hollywood celebrated on-screen; some lovely floral frocks courtesy of the 1950s. Not to mention floaty 1970s dresses and Love Story knits. They come in, they go out; they don’t become the thread uniting brands from Manhattan to the Avenue Montaigne.
A friend suggested that the Downton effect was attributable to the mixture of soap opera and period, which means that the show gets the broadest possible audience. Another said she thought it had to do with the undiscovered nature of the time period; precisely because it has not been a classic part of the fashion scene, it is primed for re-discovery. And there’s always the commercial side of things: Downton Abbey gets 109m hits on Google, so associating those words with your brand can’t be bad marketing (although when PBS attempted to sell a line of jewellery inspired by the show, with pieces entitled, for example, “Lady Mary knotted pearl necklace and earring set”, the UK producers of the series, Carnival Films, demanded that they cease). Finally, a number of pop culture watchers have suggested that the class conflicts at the heart of the story are peculiarly relevant to this Occupy Wall Street age; dressing up in the clothing of the time is a way to work out some of the issues a little more obliquely.
All of which are plausible answers. And yet, I’m not convinced. Whatever the root of this phenomenon, it leads me to another conclusion: come next winter, when the third series airs in the UK and Lady Grantham and co enter the flapper era, timed just before the drum roll for the highly-anticipated-by-fashion remake of The Great Gatsby begins, designers everywhere will be thinking 1920s. And then, once again, a new old era will have dawned.
Vanessa Friedman is the FT’s fashion editor
More columns at www.ft.com/friedman