A Chat With Anna Robbins, Downton Abbey Costume Designer

film reviews | movies | features | BRWC A Chat With Anna Robbins, Downton Abbey Costume Designer


Costume designer Anna Robbins is known for her work on the films Citadel, Your Highness and Sunshine on Leith and worked on Downton Abbey from 2014 onwards…

Q: Do you dress specific people or is an overall brief?

A: I am there to physically dress and set every new costume and to style it with the jewellery and to position the way everything sits. Then I hand it over to my assistants and they will look after it as a way of continuity. I don’t do much physical dressing on a day-to-day basis.

Q: With the final season set in 1925, what were you keen to introduce?

A: You are always embracing new trends and new micro-trends within a season, be it summer wear or winter wear and I am always exploring new looks. In terms of where they are in their storyline, it is interesting because you are able to embrace two different aspects of the women’s wardrobes and to find a difference between their civilian wear and their evening wear.

Q: How many costumes would one character get through during a series?

A: It very much depends on the character. If you look at Mary, Edith or Cora, they may have a hundred pieces in their wardrobes, whereas, if you come down to the servants they have much more restrictive wardrobes. And the gents, they do have various suits but it is still something you rotate around a lot more. We counted up the number of new makes we made this year and it is in excess of 250 and that’s not including all our purchases. So you could probably double that to be anywhere near the number of costumes for the top five or six women. We are quite prolific. Our workroom has been very busy this year.

Q: How long do you have to make the costumes?

A: When the schedule is really busy we can do quite a quick turnaround. You might have something on camera within a week of having designed it. You’ve shopped for the fabric the next day and then handed the designs over. If we have more time then, obviously, you can spread it out. It is a case of, ‘How long is a piece of string?’ It is nice to get fittings in but on Downton we quite often make things to completion without having fitted them and then fit them in the morning before the make up call. Then we have got a couple of hours to tweak it if we need to. But, by this stage, my workroom has been working with theses actors for two years so they know their bodies really well and the costumes tend to go on quite smoothly. Violet’s costume takes a lot more time because there are many more layers to it and it is much more involved as a design, so that takes about a week for a dress or a suit.

Q: Do you take advice on historical authenticity?

A: Yes, always, especially with specifics like hunting or shooting wear where there are a lot of technical aspects to it. My period knowledge is quite good but, obviously, we research really, really thoroughly. I love period costume. I collect it and I shop for it and when you actually have the garments, you can look to see how things are constructed. We always look to do it the same way. We maybe make things that are a little bit more robust so that they can withstand the rigours of filming, but there are certain things I won’t do. I won’t use over-locking because nothing was over-locked in the ’20s. They were all French-seamed things and hand-stitched finishes. Even if you can’t see it, the detail is there and you know it is there.

Q: How much detail do you put into the downstairs wardrobe because there it is not as obvious?

A: It is not as obvious but the detail is still there. It is just slightly subtler. You make choices on cuts, finish, and fabric on the upstairs. You do exactly the same thing for the downstairs. It is just that the choices are different. It is about answering different questions but it is just as challenging and just as interesting to try to find the little character traits that sum up the downstairs characters. You have just got to do it more succinctly. You have fewer outfits with which to tell the story. You have a much wider wardrobe to make these little character points with the upstairs. You have to be quite direct with the choice downstairs.

Q: When you shop, research and look for things, have there been any eureka moments when you have found something really rare?

A: When you find something that is completely immaculate, beautiful and sometimes in original boxes, that’s quite amazing and you tend to know exactly which character it might be for even though you might not have a moment to use it. You keep it, hold onto it, and then when you find a story or moment within a script you think, ‘I know what I’ve got there.’ It is difficult to shop specifically. I can’t think, ‘I am going to find a red dress,’ because you could shop forever and not find one. So you have got to be open-minded when you are looking for things. Then, when you find something, it might then inform the way you design that scene. If you find the perfect dress for Mary, for example, then everything else will have to work round it. You have got to be able to react to that. In terms of specifics, when I found Lady Rose’s wedding dress, that was just that a really, really special moment. It was amazing to find a dress that had never been worn! It was immaculate and perfect and it was just totally perfect for her, her size, her colouring, and the style of it. If I had designed something and had it made, that is what it would have been. And I found it in a box in an attic. The hairs on my arms stood up!

Q: So if you’d not found anything would you have made something?

A: I had already started collecting original trims and pieces for it [the wedding dress]. I did have an idea in my head and I was starting to collate textiles and then I found the dress and shelved the design process. I could not have improved upon it so then it became about working with the dress. We made the slip to go underneath it to complement the colour of the sequins. All the accessorizing then took my focus.

Q: Is there a hierarchy as to who needs to be sorted out first when it comes to big, lavish scenes?

A: If you have an ensemble cast then I design the whole thing so that it all works. I tend to create a highlight or create focus on the character that is important within the scene. So, if it were all about Edith, for example, I’d highlight her and make the rest of the characters’ colours complement that. Then, with the supporting artists in the back of a shot, I have a brief for my crowd supervisor so that she costumes things within a certain palette and a certain tone. Then, when we are on set, we’ll place them so you can create colour arcs around the focal point and push back the less interesting pieces.

Q: How impressive is Julian Fellowes’ knowledge of your world? I get the impression that he knows an awful lot about the fashion of the era…

A: Oh, he does. Especially menswear. He is well up on that so we talk quite closely when it comes to suiting the gents’ fabric choices and tweed choices. We send little fabric samples down to his office and get approval and then we can go ahead and make. But when it comes to convention and etiquette and all of that, he is the man.

Q: Has there been a particular moment in the final season that was especially challenging for you?

A: What I find quite challenging is taking women who are not in the youngest generation and working out where they sit as the 1920s move through. There were some quite dramatic changes when it came to the structure of clothing, the emancipation of women and how that affected their fashion. You know that Violet isn’t going to move past that Edwardian silhouette. But where do you pitch Isobel and Lady Shackleton and characters that come in and could be very forward thinking, the way that Isobel is? You have got to reflect her fashion that way. You can’t take it too far because then it looks as though she is not dressed correctly for her age. So, for example, with her we would take a ’20s shape but still have art nouveau detail in it so that it draws her back to the elegance of the Edwardian era. It is almost easier when you have got really, really fashion-forward, younger girls to give the epitome of the ’20s look.

Q: Do you ever have calamitous moments where actors spill stuff all over your lovely costumes?

A: All the time. All the time. Toothpaste. They brush their teeth when they have put their costumes on and turn up with this spray everywhere. It happens. The costumes are really delicate and you can’t scrub at an outfit the way you would get rid of a normal stain. Everything has got to be treated. The fabrics are almost 100 years old so the way you tackle disasters is different. The costumes are so fragile that they start disintegrating sometimes and you have to patch them up so that you can’t tell on camera.

Q: Are some actors more interested in what they’re wearing than others?

A: It varies. Some are really involved and you will talk to them about choices before they have even been made and you collaborate and look at where we might want to take things. Others are just involved within the fitting process. That is more about how it looks rather than about the design process, and how it feels, whether they feel in character and whether it is comfortable. The most involved are people like Michelle [Dockery], Laura [Carmichael] and Elizabeth [McGovern] — it’s the women more so. But then they are very interested in fashion in real life as well so it is going to have a bigger impact.

Q: What from the Downton era has crept into contemporary fashion?

A: Fashion in film has always been cyclical so one influences the other and then the other influences it back again. The 1920s have had a massive revival, probably as a result of Downton as a starting point, and then all the designers of that time are rediscovered and that spins off on a tangent — especially in terms of accessories and hairpieces and how embellished and yet elegant the 1920s are. That is something I have seen filter through. And then in menswear as well, there is suiting. There’s been a huge focus on beautifully cut three-pieces in tweed and that is definitely looking back to this era.

Q: As a collector yourself would you bring your own pieces in or are they behind glass cases at home?

A: They are not behind glass cases but I don’t know I would subject them to the rigours of filming for days on end. It is just because I love them so much that it would be difficult. I would probably put them on for a day’s filming and know that it would stay intact. I would pick the scenes wisely!

Q: And you had the royal visit in March?

A: Yes, I was there. It was great, a brilliant day. It was very exciting. She [Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge] is really interested in costume and she spent some time with us on the principle truck but then spent more time in the workroom. She asked loads of questions about the construction of the garments. Obviously, she has an amazing eye herself so it was nice to be able to talk to her on an equal level about costume as a broader concept but also on the detailing. It was lovely.


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Alton loves film. He is founder and Editor In Chief of BRWC.  Some of the films he loves are Rear Window, Superman 2, The Man With The Two Brains, Clockwise, Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, Trading Places, Stir Crazy and Punch-Drunk Love.


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