When costume designer Anna Mary Scott Robbins was brought onto Downton Abbey in its fifth season, it was, she says, “To really bring it right into the ‘20s and epitomize that decade–just a new take on things.” Robbins is currently enjoying her second Emmy nom–one for each year she worked on Downton. By the time Robbins came on board, Downton’s popularity had soared into the worldwide stratosphere, with a particularly powerful spotlight on the stunning period wardrobe of its female leads. Robbins had quite the job on her hands, outfitting the entire above-and-below stairs cast with clothes that were both authentic and beautiful. She says, “I had to have an eye slightly on picking things that I knew would be covetable by a modern audience and a modern eye, that also sit really well within the decade.”
Robbins credits the show with changing her life, as she says, “There are opportunities being afforded to me that I never dreamt were possible.”
Robbins told AwardsLine about scouring Europe for the perfect opera coat and showing Kate Middleton, Duchess of Cambridge, around the Downton wardrobe department.
I imagine being on Downton is very immersive and involving, and it would probably feel like a family fairly quickly?
Yeah. Absolutely. When I joined in series five, everybody said it was like a family, and I mean, I believed them, but I didn’t really appreciate just how much it was, and it was the most incredible experience. We finished filming about a year ago now, actually, and at the time, you were on this high having completed such an amazing final series. Actually, now I’ve just had time to reflect and realize how glorious the whole thing was, really. So, yeah, it’s bittersweet, but the Emmys is going to be an absolutely amazing opportunity to have a bit of a reunion.
How do you approach sourcing authentic but still-wearable period costume?
I have a very specific idea about how I want it to look, so a lot of it ends up being bespoke so that I can achieve that, but also, because the 1920s is a period where original clothing is now quite rare and quite fragile. So my approach is that if I can use original pieces, I will, be that a dress that we can find in perfect condition, or if it’s not quite so perfect, to be able to restore it and give it a new lease on life, but it could even be a dress that’s fallen apart, and I can reuse some of the embroidery, or the beading, or the fabric itself, the lamé and the velvet that doesn’t exist in modern fabrics in the same way.
I’m always looking in vintage fairs and through traders, and I cast my net really wide. I shop in London, and there are some amazing monthly and biannual fairs that I visit, but I’ve also traveled to Paris to the market fair, and to Scotland, which is where I’m from, where there are some amazing places that a lot of London designers don’t know about.
Do you think Julian Fellowes brought you on because he realized the need for Downton to up its game fashion wise, especially for the 20s era?
I think that Julian Fellowes writes so brilliantly for the period, and just the fact that it’s so authentic to each specific year that we film in is largely down to his incredible writing. I suppose my job as a designer is to kind of bridge the gap between it having to be very, very accurate, but also covetable and fashionable. There are a few pieces that you could just lift out and wear it and style in a different way.
Is the ’20s a favorite era for you personally? Are you a vintage collector yourself?
I do collect vintage. I can’t help it really. I love it. I love 20th century fashion, and the ‘20s was a decade that I love and admire, but I fell in love with it during Downton because I was handling the pieces and finding such special pieces. So I’d say that it’s a love that grew during the two years I was on the show, definitely, and now I don’t know if I’ll ever shake it. It’s taken a while to drag myself out into another decade. I’m now working in the ‘40s. So it took me a while to change my mindset.
What are you working on right now?
I wrapped just last week on a drama called The Halcyon, which is set in 1940 in a five-star London hotel during the blitz. It’s been incredible actually, and very different from Downton in terms of the palette, but I mean, there’s similarities in that there’s glamor and just really beautiful clothing and a great spread of characters across the class system.
You gave Kate Middleton a tour of your department when she came on a set visit. What was that like?
It was a pleasure and a privilege, and she was very interested in the layering of costume and the meanings behind it all. So it was lovely to be able to talk to her about it on a certain level. It was really great. It was a very exciting day, a wonderful experience.
I’m sure the Downton costumes are kept by the show for display purposes in the future, but was there something you really loved that you wanted to take?
Yes. There was a couple of things. There was an opera coat that Lady Edith wore in the scene where she fist kisses Bertie. I bought that at the beginning of series five. I fell in love with it, and it just sort of stayed on a rail until the moment came where I was able to use it, and for me, the color, it’s completely original. It has a label, and it just says One Kensington, London. It’s the way this fur collar comes up and creates this perfect ‘20s silhouette. So that was a real find, but I mean, there are so many pieces that are so gorgeous.
And did the actors want to take clothes home too?
They wanted to. There’s a life after filming on Downton, which is lovely, because the costumes might be seen again in exhibitions potentially, and that means that people can see them up close, which is a lovely thing. But, yeah, the cast coveted a few pieces here and there. Michelle (Dockery) really liked a green paneled daywear coat. Then there was the Criterion dress that Lady Mary wears to see Henry Talbot–this sea green bias-cut silk with gold metallic lace that had this beautiful kind of halter neck.