A specter of change has roamed the halls of Downton Abbey as long as we’ve known it, sometimes in ways easily overlooked.
Over the course of the series, which started in 1912 and ends this season on New Year’s 1926, the world surrounding the Abbey has changed dramatically. And the show’s creators have taken pains to make sure the broader cultural shifts of the time are reflected in costumes, props and dialogue.
Most obviously, we watched everyone chip in to help the war effort, but other changes have been subtle enough to go practically unnoticed.And Season 6, which debuted on PBS Jan. 3, reveals even more elements of contemporary life bubbling to the surface of English society.
“There’s more of a sense of this world coming to an end and giving way to our own modern age,” creator Julian Fellowes told his niece Jessica Fellowes, who penned the retrospective Downton Abbey: A Celebration.
Taken from that title, here are some of the changes you may or may not have noticed in the lives of the family and its servants throughout the series.
1. Women’s hemlines rose several inches as fashions relaxed
The Edwardian fashions of 1912 were full of heavy fabrics adorned with beading and embroidery. Dresses emphasized a relatively flat bust and a slightly thicker waistline for a less-than-voluptuous look.
During the war, fashion wasn’t a priority, but afterward, looks started evolving more quickly. In 1925, hemlines for younger women might hit at mid-calf, and fashionable dresses featured an exaggerated dropped waist to create a boxy silhouette. Tiaras went in and out of fashion, while bobbed hair was a stylish and practical choice for women like Lady Mary. Lady Edith, meanwhile, began sporting bohemian-inspired colors and prints popular in London.
2. Dinner etiquette relaxed, too, from white tie to black tie
In 1912, Fellowes wrote, dinners at Downton were regularly white-tie affairs. Those required high trousers and long waistcoats for men, and floor-length evening gowns for women.
By 1925, dinner had become black-tie — tuxedos for men and evening gowns for women — except perhaps when Violet was visiting. The kitchen still served five courses during a normal meal and seven for a special occasion. Afterwards, the men might stay behind for port while the women took coffee in the drawing room.
For Violet, however, dinner formalities never ceased — she continued to change into an evening dress to eat at her dining table even in 1925. Meanwhile, her cousin Isobel had long stopped that practice, sometimes choosing to simply eat off a tray in her drawing room.
3. Car travel continued to push horse riding out of favor
In 1912, the family had early model cars that Tom Branson, the rebellious chauffeur, had been hired to drive and maintain. They rode horses for pleasure, not necessity, Fellowes explained, noting that ladies mounted side-saddle.
By 1925, though, the Crawley family had even less time for their horses, busy as they were with their respective jobs, and rode even less. (Mary, however, can be spotted riding astride like the men.) And although it was still difficult to imagine, people had started chatting about commercial flight.
4. Upper-class women took on ever more job responsibilities
In 1912, Lady Cora’s daughters Sybil, Edith and Mary would have been expected to follow in their mother’s footsteps: to marry, have children and be involved in society life until they died. The war, however, required everyone — men and women alike — to pitch in, and soon the family got used to the added workload.
By 1925, Lady Sybil had worked as a nurse, Lady Edith was running a women’s magazine, while Lady Mary almost single-handedly took care of the estate. Even Lady Cora would find something to occupy herself in the hospital.
In their downtime, Fellowes notes, some ladies had taken to gardening; in part because there were fewer men to do it, and in part because it was pleasant.
5. The Crawley’s estate proved increasingly difficult to financially support
Great houses, Fellowes explained, operated autonomously for centuries. Tenants paid to live on the land and farm it, providing food for the house and town, while servants worked for low wages. But by 1925, wages had increased threefold. Taxation, death duties and an agricultural depression put additional stress on great homes, and so many families had begun selling their estates. Maintaining a place like Downton requiredsome creative thinking to avoid selling off its land bit by bit.
(To be clear, Downton is incomprehensibly massive. The fictional estate is many-thousand acres wide, containing a park, a home farm, all the tenant farms, cottages, woods, shooting drives, lakes, gardens and the house. Highclere Castle, which it’s based on, has 50 bedrooms.)
6. The staff was cut, and some moved out, to save on wages and housing while technological innovations crept downstairs
By 1925, Mrs. Patmore could use the refrigerator to keep perishables fresh longer. The servants’ quarters added electric lighting, too, in Season 2.
But despite those modern conveniences, life downstairs wasn’t exactly made easier over the years, especially after Lord Grantham reduced the staff. (There was still, in theory, the same amount of work to be done.) And whereas housemaids in 1912 lived in the house, by 1925 they were living away in the village. Ladies’ maids and valets were already far less common across the upper class, although Downton isn’t prepared to part with those just yet.
As people moved on from service in great homes, they sought other occupations that allowed them more time for themselves.
7. The rules guiding dating and romantic relationships relaxed
In 1912, Fellowes wrote, many women were “caught out by the ferocity of a sudden sexual attraction, having not been taught at all how to deal with it.”
The years between Seasons 1 and 6, however, saw characters dance at jazz clubs with strangers and sleep in hotel rooms together, unmarried, as a sexual try-out. Divorce had been legal for decades, but not until 1923 did women earn the right to ask for it under the same circumstances as men. (That’s assuming they could find someone to marry, anyway — after WWI, there were nearly two million more women in Great Britain than men.)
Unfortunately for Thomas, however, homosexuality would still be illegal for over 40 more years.
8. Mass media increasingly reached the Abbey, but old methods of communication still remained popular
Despite new technology, letters still acted as the primary mode of communication in 1925 due to their inherent privacy.The mail was delivered twice daily in the countryside, so Downton residents could receive a letter and respond to it before the day was over.
Telegrams and telephones — introduced at Downton in Season 1 — were quicker than letters, but the former contained less information, and the conversations with the latter were slightly more public.
But as more magazines became available and radio flourished — to Lady Rose’s delight, the family purchased one in Season 5 — mass media had begun to infiltrate Downton more completely.
9. The Crawley family paid to renovate their cottages while living conditions in the village improved overall
Instead of buying goods the shopkeeper had purchased in bulk and split up — possibly diluting, say, flour with chalk — villagers near Downton would be able to buy prepackaged goods in the ’20s.
The war had revealed, to the upper classes, how poorly other people lived. As the national government was introducing welfare programs to improve low-class living, Lord Grantham announced in Season 5 that he would pay to renovate some homes in the village nearby. In addition, calls to consolidate the village hospital with the facility in York, which offered new treatments, intensified.
10. And many, like Daisy, could cheer for a political party that represented the working class
The nation’s political climate was already changing in Season 1, when Lady Sybil argued passionately for women’s suffrage and socialism, attending rallies with the help of Branson.
After the war, however, Britain managed to elect a Prime Minister from the newly organized Labour Party. Although his term only lasted a short nine months, it was the first time someone holding that office represented the working class.
As for the future, the Depression would wipe out the last real remnants of the Crawleys’ grand way of life, but they have a few more years to adjust before then. By the series’ end, both upstairs and downstairs would come to accept — or almost accept — a world of change.