Julian Fellowes, the writer and creator of Downton Abbey, has described costume designer Susannah Buxton as a “sculptress-in-cloth.” During the show’s first season, set from 1912 until 1914, Buxton dreamed up dazzling Edwardian frocks — replete with corsets and elbow-length gloves — for the aristocratic Crawley family, and simpler dresses and aprons for their many maids. During the second season, which spans the horrors of World War I and ends in 1918, she demonstrated how the upper classes made austerity look elegant. Buxton recently spoke with TIME about the hit drama, why it’s easier to create flattering costumes for a scullery maid than for a countess, and the perils of working with vintage clothing.
Does a good costume have to stand out on screen?
No. Costumes are not always designed to be seen. They’re designed sometimes to be a complete part of that character, so you’re accepting what they’re wearing without thinking. I don’t want everyone looking at the frock. That’s the hardest thing. Some of the costumes I’m most proud of are the ones you wouldn’t necessarily think about because the clothes naturally belong to the character. They don’t look like actors in costumes. They look like real people.
What’s an example of that?
I’m very proud of the tweed suit Lady Mary wears during a hunting party during the Christmas Special. People would happily wear it now. It looks good, but it also fits comfortably in the era where it’s supposed to sit.
What percentage of costumes do you make from scratch?
About a third of the costumes are made entirely from new. I often try to use vintage beading and try to restore an original dress. The only completely original dress, which I bought from a collection, is the one that Daisy the scullery maid wears in the second series. It’s an original Edwardian dress. It had never been worn. It was just so right somehow that I bought it for the show. No production could ever afford to make all the costumes. Many are hired [rented] from different costume houses and then re-trimmed or re-dyed. For the first series I went to costume houses in Madrid as well as London. In the second series I went to Paris just to find some different looks and some particular hats.
Do real life people ever inspire costumes for the on-screen characters?
Yes, they do. You’ve got so much photographic evidence from the period. I use photographic archives, costume history books, paintings, museum collections, and inevitably certain faces, particularly in the second series. Coco Chanel was one of the people I used. I didn’t use any specific look of Chanel for Michelle Dockery (Lady Mary), but the simplicity of Chanel’s designs helped me with the direction for her. And Queen Mary for Maggie Smith (Violet Crawley, the Dowager Countess of Grantham). I build up a series of images for each character, which become my starting point and reference.
Why did Queen Mary come to mind for Maggie Smith’s acerbic character Violet Crawley?
Her shape. That queen always had a certain look and it was right because we wanted a really strong, positive look for Maggie Smith. She’s the dominant character in the series. You want to costume to help emphasize the character, to be part of who that person is. It’s almost totally different from fashion. Fashion is all about the clothes but not about the person. It’s about making them look thin and beautiful, whereas a costume is about helping that character develop.
Do your costumes help distinguish between the three sisters Lady Mary, Lady Sybil and Lady Edith?
I really tried to get the difference between the three girls. For Lady Sybil I tried to show she is more of a free spirit — slightly bohemian for her time, and not so interested in high-end fashion. Her style is slightly more individualist. Lady Mary is very much high-end fashion. The Crawley family has got money, so they go to London, which already has big department stores. And since her mother, the Countess of Grantham, is American, I tried to show both of them as very keen on the latest fashions.
As for Lady Edith, she tends to not get it quite right because she’s the more awkward girl. I didn’t want to make her frumpy, because that would be predicting her character. She wasn’t supposed to be frumpy, just the less beautiful girl. I tried to avoid cliché. Sometimes she looks stunning, but sometimes odd, so that Mary can make scathing remarks. They’ve got quite a bitchy relationship on-screen. I should say they’re best mates off-screen.
The first season takes place from 1912 until 1914, when World War I breaks out. The second season spans the war, and concludes in 1918 with the outbreak of the Spanish Flu. Did your designs change from one season to the next?
They did change because of the passage of time and the huge impact of the war. Fashion virtually came to a standstill. The skirts before the war for the fashionable women were quite restricting. All the clothes started to relax a bit. A lot of women had to help in war work, and Julian [Fellowes] emphasized that in the script. I think there was less focus on expensive fabrics and more on the silhouette. The shape changes slightly. It’s subtle. In the evening they’re still wearing their grand evening dresses because they would have lasted. They would have two or three and repeat in real life. It would have been very bad taste to be dressed up during the day. Colors were more somber. I had to try and reflect all that.
The costumes worn by the servants look much simpler than those worn by the aristocrats. Do the servants’ clothes present any challenges of their own?
I think the challenge is it needs to reflect the period and the status of each person. It couldn’t reflect the fashion of the masses. You have to select them in their time. But at the same time make each character look good in her uniform. For the women, each costume is made for them. You can do a lot of adjusting for a maid that you can’t do for a person upstairs. To make her neck more beautiful you can cut the neck of her dress slightly lower. There are lots of things you can do to make it look as good as possible.
What about the clothes for the Crawley family?
I think the difficulty for the upper classes was finding the weight of fabric that they would have used in those days, and the lusciousness and embroidery and beadings. Often my problem was that an evening dress — for Elizabeth McGovern, it was one that was heavily beaded with a silk panel that was original the dress — would deteriorate. We then had to take the panel and make another dress around it. That’s the problem of using vintage pieces.
Do you make the men’s clothes as well?
Most of the men’s clothes, apart from those worn by the principles Hugh Bonneville (the Earl of Grantham) and Dan Stevens (Matthew Crawley) are rented and altered. It’s so expensive to make dinner jackets. Very few film or television budgets could afford to put that much money into a dinner jacket that no one would realize is made for the part. We had a dinner suit made for Hugh on Saville Row [which is famous for its men’s bespoke tailoring]. They were very keen to use their old patterns and to get the publicity. They reduced their price from £4,000 ($6,300) to £2,700 ($4,200). That shows what you’re dealing with. The patterns from Downton’s period never get used, and the tailors are not used to working in that way.
How far in advance of production do you read the scripts?
I probably read the script four or five times in advance because I have to break it down for what each character will require before the series. Every character has a wardrobe for morning, afternoon and night. We started filming in February, and I started working about eight weeks before. Although a lot of the groundwork will be done when the filming starts, you’re constantly making new costumes as new characters are introduced, and new situations arise. We’ll need new costumes as it moves from winter to spring and back to winter again.
Does anything ever go wrong on set?
Most of the time you’ve got at least five upper class women on the set as characters. There is a lot that could go wrong. If Lady Mary is in a deep red, I have to be careful not to put beige next to that. I want the colors to compliment. The most scary thing that I can remember is that I designed a harem dress — with Turkish trousers — for Lady Sybil. That was considered very shocking at the time because no women wore trousers then. I used a panel of embroidery for the bodice that was very old and very beautiful. She came down for the first scene and after the third take the whole panel started to split at the back. Fortunately we did have another piece of it, but watching a dress part from itself in front of your eyes on camera is pretty scary. People’s heels are always going through the back of their evening dresses. You hear a rending sound and think “Oh no.”