Designing costumes for film is no easy feat. No matter what genre you’re working in – science-fiction, romance, action – costumes can make or break a production, being one of the first things audiences notice about an on-screen story. That case is even more true for period pieces, where characters’ clothes not only need to tell a story, but also evoke a certain point in history, when fashion was vastly different from what it is today.
Ticking all those boxes was the challenge for Anna Robbinsthe costume designer behind Downton Abbey: A New Era. The second film spin-off from the beloved Masterpiece series, A New Era not only presented Robbins with the task of designing for beloved characters as they enter a new decade, but also for brand new characters, as Hollywood comes to Downton and members of the household travel to the south of France to discover why the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith) has inherited a villa from a mysterious stranger.
Ahead of the film’s release on DVD and Blu-ray on July 5, Collider had the opportunity to fly to England and interview Robbins at the Church of St. Mary’s in Belchamp Walter, the filming location for Tom (Allen Leech) and Lucy’s (Tuppence Middleton) wedding at the beginning of the film. Over the course of the interview, which you can watch above as well as read a transcript of below, Robbins discussed the process of designing for such a prestigious franchise, working with real, vintage 1920s textiles to create the perfect look, and how she combines aesthetic with historical accuracy to make her stars look absolutely perfect.
COLLIDER: So, Downton Abbey: A New Era is obviously set in a very specific time in British history, and I know you worked with a lot of vintage textiles for this project. Can you explain that process a little bit? Was that any more difficult than working with sort of modern fabrics?
ANNA ROBBINS: Yes. It’s infinitely harder, harder to find, especially during COVID. Our way of working during that time was really challenging, and then harder to maintain. They require a lot of restoration and sort of bringing them up to scratch so that they are camera ready. And then you’re working with these really delicate pieces to either incorporate them into a new make or just restore them as they are. So, I mean, we’re surrounded by vintage textiles just within this small selection here.
COLLIDER: And they’re beautiful, absolutely beautiful. But I was curious in terms of a film that’s set in a time like this, how do you combine historical accuracy with creating an aesthetic? Because obviously you want a cohesive look for these pieces – how much are you willing to sort of sacrifice absolute historical accuracy for a good look?
ANNA ROBBINS: That’s a very good question, and I think Downton is famed and really prides itself on its authenticity and its historical accuracy. But I think those two things are slightly different. And whilst we’re striving for full authenticity, it is not always entirely historically accurate, it can not be. My way of thinking about it is that I’m curating it with a modern viewpoint. So I am looking at the construction and the way the costumes are put together and using textiles that would only have existed at that time. But some of the textiles are modern, so that’s not… it can not be one hundred percent, but it’s about always striving for it to feel as authentic as I can.
And I think by using vintage materials, accessories, jewelry, beading, even a button, that anchors it to that time and makes it feel more authentic. And you’re viewing it through a contemporary lens, so it’s like, it’s our take on what, as an audience, we would find the most covetable from that time and putting that together.
COLLIDER: Did you have any sort of style icons that you looked to for reference, maybe Hollywood stars, for Myrna Dalgleish and things like that?
ANNA ROBBINS: Yes, absolutely. We looked to all the Hollywood greats. We were looking at Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo, Myrna Loy. Yeah, all of the superstars of that era, and looking at what was different about Hollywood glamor, this sort of high octane beauty sitting alongside the kind of classical beauty of the ladies of Downton. So it was a lovely sort of juxtaposition of two very different aesthetics.
COLLIDER: Yeah, I was going to ask: you’ve got the costumes for the trip to the south of France, you’ve got the Hollywood costumes, you’ve got the regular Downton costumes. That must have been a challenge to come up with so many sort of different looks for very different sets of people. Right?
ANNA ROBBINS: Definitely. But it was lovely. I mean, I think when I first got the script, every page I turned, it was like, “Oh, hurray,” This whole… .a new challenge, a new chapter, a new look. And being able to explore completely different palettes was really refreshing, and being able to contrast it with the palette that we know and love so much from the Abbey itself. So it was a glorious challenge.
It was a very prolific film in terms of costumes. So there were a great number of them, but they were all equally wonderful to find and define that way.
COLLIDER: In designing, in terms of emotional journeys with characters, did that play into design at all? Or was it more sort of the era and the aesthetic that you were looking for?
ANNA ROBBINS: I think it’s always a balance of those two things. And I think Downton is very well established and we know the characters, but that does not mean that they’re static. They’re always moving through time and there’s always things happening to them and they’re inhabiting a world. So we’re always looking to tease out what those story arcs are, but some people more than others.
So for example, Lucy is completely different in this film to how we saw her in the last film. And her circumstances have completely changed. So it gave us the opportunity to really express her through clothing and have fun and show a kind of blossoming of her style because she, all of a sudden, had the ability to publicly wear whatever she wanted to wear.
Downton Abbey: A New Eraalso starring Hugh Bonneville, Michelle Dockery, Jim Carter, Raquel Cassidy, Imelda Stauntonand Elizabeth McGovernis streaming now on Peacock, and arrives on Blu-ray and DVD on July 5.