Watching But Not Enjoying: Downton Abbey & Mercy Street

I’m still watching one of these shows because of the costumes; I stopped watching the other because of the costumes. Prepare for nits to be picked.

Dinner party, Jan. 1924 Delneator.

Informal dinner party, Jan. 1924, Delineator. We know it’s informal, because the men are wearing tuxedos — aka “black tie.”

I’ve mentioned before that I watch Downton Abbey more from a sense of duty than with enthusiasm. There are many fine actors, and some beautiful clothes. But the more recent scripts make me empathize with the TV critic who said he’d watch the final season only to be sure they nailed the coffin shut.

Illustration by Dynevor Rhys, Feb. 1932. Delineator. Dinner.

Illustration by Dynevor Rhys, Feb. 1932. Delineator. Dining in emeralds.

I even watched a “making of” program in which the actors mentioned the instruction they get about period manners, posture, etc. — including the instruction that ladies wore opera-length gloves while eating dinner. I found that hard to swallow.

Dinner party, Woman's Home Companion, Nov. 1936.

Formal dinner party, Woman’s Home Companion, Nov. 1936. White tie on male guests, black vest on the butler.

Imagine my delight when I read “Miss Manners” in the SF Chronicle on Monday, January 25! (The article first appeared in the Washington Post in 2013.)
After explaining the proper use of British titles as applied to Diana, Princess of Wales (incorrectly called “Princess Diana,”) Miss Manners went on to explain that the daughters of the Earl of Grantham, on Downton Abbey, are given the courtesy title of “Lady,” but they are commoners and “could, if the series lasts long enough, stand for election to the House of Commons.”  Miss Manners added:

“No, that is not a spoiler. Miss Manners has no idea what is happening to these characters. She tuned out when she saw them wearing their gloves to dinner in their own house.”

Hostess with maids, Dec. 1937, Woman's Home Companion.

Hostess with maids, Dec. 1937, Woman’s Home Companion. The dinner is formal; the hostess is in evening dress and the young man is wearing white tie and tails.

If you don’t read Miss Manners, author of many delightful etiquette  books, I should explain that she won my heart decades ago, when a reader inquired, “What do you say when introduced to a gay couple?” Miss Manners replied that [as with all introductions] you say “How do you do?”

There’s a long interview with Miss Manners (the pen name of Judith Martin) at It’s worth putting up with all the ads to see her response to claims of rudeness in Washington, D.C.

“I was born in Washington, and I’m not rude. You’re talking about people that you sent here. You’re talking about people you voted for and you sent to Washington. So if you have complaints, and when people do, they often say to me, well what can we do about it? I said the answer there is something called an election. That’s something you can do about it.”

Why Mercy Street Is Not My Cup of Costume Tea

Young ladies in a fashion plate from the Casey Collection, dated 1862.

Young women in a fashion plate from the Casey Collection, dated 1862. Frilly or simple, the clothes are supposed to fit like this. (Costumers often insert a gusset under the arms so a modern actor can do whatever the director asks….)

I stopped watching mid-way through episode two of Mercy Street. There was only one character I cared about, and the writing seemed almost as formulaic as Downton Abbey’s. But I might have stuck with it, if the women’s costumes fit better. I found them really distracting. [Notes in brackets like this mean I’m trying to be more reasonable….]

Mercy Street women's costumes, from an article in Alexandria Times.

Mercy Street women’s costumes, from an article in Alexandria Times.

I seriously wondered if the actress playing the nurse from the north (left, above) was a last-minute cast replacement, because some of her clothes were so obviously too big for her. (The solid grayish bodice she wears about 1 minute into this clip distracted me every time it came on screen.) Her real vintage jacket was baggy in back, too. I searched a bit online, and found the costume designer saying that her best source of research was a book of Civil War era photographs that had been colorized. Colorized? Ahem: why turn a primary source  into a secondary source? [Thinking that over, I realize it may have been the photo collection itself — which one could try to imagine without the color — that was the attraction. I hope.]

I also found an interview with a woman who had been hired to make a corset for the series — the original plan was for a spoon-busk corset, so it’s a good thing she noticed that an 1870’s corset would not be quite “the thing” for the early 1860’s.

Considering the really good, carefully researched corset patterns — and built corsets — that have been available for a very long time and are now easy to find online, what were the TV people thinking?

An elegant young woman in a dress that is very tight over the corset.

An elegant young woman in a dress that is very tight over the corset and bust. The shoulders and neckline fit perfectly. (Sorry: I can’t find the link to this photo marked Sharlot Hall Museum Archives.)

I am not a Civil War era historian or specialist, but I’ve seen enough period photographs (like Joan Severa’s books ) and real dresses to know that they were more often too tight than too loose.   This woman’s dress fits. Most of her bodice wrinkles are at the armscye. True, many poorer people were forced to wear second-hand clothing, which would excuse a poor fit, as would going without a corset [or food] or wearing the wrong corset, but the Mercy Street characters whose dresses wrinkled in the wrong places were middle class. (Unless, of course, that widowed baroness has a very interesting backstory of poverty which will be slowly revealed….)

I do like the suggestion of a soldier’s hashmarks on this authoritative woman’s dress [good design choice!], but the dress doesn’t quite fit the actress. [Perhaps it means the character has lost weight, which would be reasonable. I am trying to be sympathetic.]

Too loose in back (the dress), too low in front (the corseted bust, not the dress. Mercy Street. Photo fron Alexandria Times

The dress is too loose in back; the bust is too low in front. A British nurse on Mercy Street. Photo from Alexandria Times.

Here’s the thing about bust darts: in general, they are not supposed to continue up over the point of the bust. (Princess seams excepted.) These costumes look poorly fitted to me. Click here to get an enlarged view. I admit that some dresses on mannequins at the Metropolitan Museum do seem to have very long, over the bust, darts. Click here.

[EDIT added 2/2/16: I admit I was working from memory, because I long ago de-accessioned my copies of Norah Waugh and Janet Arnold, et al. I have seen more photos of 1860’s bodices with very long bust darts this week –but the bodices still fit smoothly over the bust.]

1863 dress in collection of Metropolitan Museum.

1863 dress in collection of Metropolitan Museum. It appears that some of the trim has been lost.

It may have something to do with the mannequin’s bust not bulging high above a corset as a woman’s bust often does. The shoulders and neck of this particular mannequin are not the same as those of the original wearer, either. Some wrinkles would have been hidden by her detachable lace collar, now lost.

As a costumer, I really do know what it’s like to struggle with an inadequate budget, and time constraints. I, too, have been forced to use a stiff, poly-blend modern fabric because we couldn’t afford real handkerchief linen or cotton lawn or pure wool or silk. But good cutting and some adjustment of your design can minimize the disaster. I’m thinking of the way-too-puffy yoke on this cream-colored costume. [OK, I do acknowledge the “Good? Fast? Cheap?” problem we always have.]

I realize I’m being hyper-critical; was I constantly thinking about how to make the dresses fit better because the script didn’t hold my interest? Or did I really get so distracted by the fit of costumes on important characters that I couldn’t “lose myself” in the show? Maybe someone who has extensively researched the 1860’s, and built more civil war era dresses than I have, can change my mind. I do love links to research. [This “whine train” has pulled into the station and I’m stepping off. Will go back to watching the 1971 Elizabeth I TV series starring Glenda Jackson to refresh my palate. ]


Filed under 1860s -1870s fashions, Corsets, Costumes for the 19th century, Musings, Tricks of the Costumer's Trade, Underthings, Hosiery, Corsets, etc, Uniforms and Work Clothes

16 responses to “Watching But Not Enjoying: Downton Abbey & Mercy Street

  1. I couldn’t even get started on “Mercy Street” because the costume fit bugged me so much. (I do think there are some difficulties with modern bodies, which don’t have the tiny shoulders and ribcages of the period, but I’ve seen other shows that manage to deal with that.) The costumer has worked on other films (that I haven’t seen) that have good reputations for accuracy (not the anachronistic “Bram Stoker’s ‘Dracula,'” though!). I wonder what happened?

  2. I think its really important that the costumes in costume dramas hold interest. Of course, you have the view of an expert–not the common view–but I for one read your blog for your expert opinion!

  3. Oh, l-o-v-e your quotes from Miss Manners; have enjoyed her no nonsense answers for years [so appropriate, ahem]. Thank you for including! Have the same feeling for Downton that you do, but didn’t make it through even the first episode of “that other.” Wildly inaccurate speech patterns are my downfall, as well as story line. Such a situation was impossible anywhere south of Alexandria [a stone’s throw across the Potomac from the White House].

    • I had the same problem with language the first time I saw an episode of Deadwood — I grew up around my father’s construction crews and they didn’t swear in the “Deadwood” way (I mean, they swore, but with a very different vocabulary.) However, I have now watched Deadwood three times and appreciate its excellence in exploring the theme of “how much civilization do we need?” And, of course, 19th century writers could not put accurate street language into print, so the historical record is skewed.
      On the other hand, I never tire of pointing out that the same woman (Katherine Jane Bryant) designed the costumes for Deadwood and Mad Men. Now, that’s a great costume designer.

  4. Michele

    I couldn’t agree more! I have only watched episides of Downton Abbey at the houses of lovely people who would be very hurt if I pointed out discrepancies in language, behaviour, and etiquette. I would love to see some of the later fashions, but I too am so distracted by being yanked out of the period that I think I will just look at stills.
    I had the great luck to take a master class in 18th century costuming with Jean Hunisett (costume maker on Elizabeth R and later principal cutter at the Glyndebourne Opera) – what a wonderful person and a pioneer in actually examining the period clothing for an understanding of both construction and how the shaping affects movement. It does make a difference.

    • How lucky you were to study with her. Seeing those Elizabeth R costumes (were they really the first to be historically corseted?) was a revelation to my generation. I started watching it 45 years later partly to see if the passage of time would betray the usual distortion caused by the fashions of the costumer’s period, but the Elizabeth R shapes still look wonderful to me. They’re a demonstration that a character doesn’t need to look “pretty” by contemporary standards to be absolutely riveting.

      • Michele

        Exactly! I don’t know which of the amazing historical tv series of the early 1970s was the first to be that accurate, but I do remember being absolutely stunned by the slightly earlier Six Wives of Henry VIII (also Jean Hunisett). It actually changed the direction my life took… I did watch it again many years later, and was surprised that it really seemed more like filmed theatre than what we think of as realistic television now, but it was still wonderful and owes much to the groundbreaking work of people like Jean Hunisett, Janet Arnold, Norah Waugh, and Nancy Bradfield.
        I love your blog – your detailed posts are so interesting and well researched – more fascinating insight into how clothes both fit into and also shape day-to-day life in all eras!

      • Thank you so much. I saw an exhibit of the Six Wives costumes at Castle Howard in 1978 — Janet Arnold was the curator — and was stunned by how “theatrical” — i.e., made using inexpensive materials that looked expensive on video tape — they were. Some of the “brocades” were actually lace layered over another fabric; most of the fur was artificial, and seriously, some of the jewels were set on washers! BUT — big but — they were meticulously researched and cut. They looked utterly convincing on TV. As I later learned, the diffusion on cathode ray TV sets meant that the images were more blurry than we realized while watching them on our 14″ screens. I knew woman who had worked on some wide screen movies who was almost fired because her boss overheard her say, of a stitching job, “It’s good enough for television.” She wasn’t being snobbish about television; she was being factual. You could justify the expense of hand sewing on period costumes that will be seen twenty feet high in Cinemascope, but not on TV costumes, before HD screens.

  5. Christina

    Elbow length opera gloves made out of kid-skin leather or satin with three or more buttons were worn at dinner by women. The gloves were unbuttoned so the hand could come out and the glove rolled back to the wrist. As you know those gloves usually require glove stretchers. They were very tight to get on initially so the etiquette was to remove them part-way.

    • I remember the rolled-back hand on opera gloves — lumpy and awkward. I also remember shopping for gloves, back when we wore them frequently; in addition to stretchers, the glove salesperson had talcum to sprinkle in the gloves — which came in several sizes — as did stockings. Heavens, I feel old today!

  6. I definitely have the problem of going into “work-mode” whenever a script and characters aren’t interesting enough to hold my attention. And if the costumes are distracting in the first place, the acting and characters had better be that much more amazing to keep me watching!

    I suffered through the first season of “Murdoch Mysteries” and the low budget and cringe-worthy costumes (and makeup!) simply because I really liked the characters, the humor, and the mysteries (thankfully, the budget improved and season 2 and on are so much easier to look at). But I didn’t make it more than 5 episodes into “Mad Men” because I didn’t like any of the characters enough. I recently discovered the tv show “Reign” on Netflix, and despite the laughable costuming geared at modern day teenagers (it’s supposed to be 1550s but they have elements of everything from medieval to 1770s to almost 21st century prom dresses!) and the extremely loose basis in historical facts, the scripts are written in such a way that I am just fascinated by the characters.

    I truly believe you can get away will all kinds of things in terms of bad production, but if a script stinks, nothing can really save it. I think I’ll skip Mercy Street – I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t make it past episode one without “working” and driving myself crazy.

    • I didn’t have any desire to watch The Tudors after seeing the previews, but I did read an interview which explained that the actor playing Henry VIII simply refused to look fat as the character aged. So much for iconic images.

      • Actors can be so funny about body image. I watched 2 or 3 episodes of “The Tudors” and just didn’t get into it. It was pretty similar to my disinterest in “Mad Men” – I just didn’t like any of the characters enough to care.

  7. Nancy N

    Yeah those ads for Mercy Street really left me cold. such flat script writing, despite the fine acting talents of Donna Murphy! I still watch Downton, and love the trajectory of Maggie Smiths costumes and wigs. Which is why I refer to those shows as my costume porn.
    Thanks for the reviews. I love your take on this stuff and the importance of getting is right, as long as it doesn’t detract from the delivery of a great story!
    Nancy N

    • You’re right about the importance of a great story and characters. I find it odd that “Masterpiece Theater” became a term of derision in the entertainment industry, since, if PBS shows got ratings like other TV stations, Masterpiece Theater would have shown both high ratings and a very desirable demographic for advertisers. I continue to hope that a good story will draw people in, even if the characters are not wearing modern dress.

  8. I’m a dedicated Downton watcher, mainly because for the first three seasons my sister and I spent a great deal of time after each program laughing at the storylines and making jokes. She loved the show so much (in an ironic sort of way) that I have continued on watching it to honor her memory. She was not a fashion person, so I’d point out the clothing mistakes, and she’d analyze the anachronisms in their speech. I’m really going to miss it.

    I decided not to even start with Mercy Street. Civil War dramas are just too painful.

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