‘Downton Abbey’: The Transformation of Lady Edith

New York Times News ServiceFebruary 19, 2014 

Poor, sad Lady Edith. Early on in “Downton Abbey,” the PBS “Masterpiece Classic” family saga, it seemed that the much-overlooked, undervalued middle sister of the Crawley clan had been dealt a rough hand. Her assertive nose, wan manner and decorously dowdy wardrobe had apparently rendered her marriage prospects slim to nil. Be kind to her, she has so few advantages, Lady Cora, her mother, urges Edith’s sister Mary. To which Mary peevishly replies that Edith has none at all.

That was then.

It turns out that Season 4 of “Downton Abbey,” now in progress, has introduced a major shift in plot: The freshly bereaved Lady Mary sheds her widow’s weeds to mind the estate and field a few suitors, and Edith whisks herself off to a new life in London – and a shift in style as well. As the time frame moves to the racier 1920s, that change is expressed nowhere as vividly as through Lady Edith, who casts off her puff-pastry fashion persona to emerge as a maverick with real flair.

As Edith is sharply aware, there can be an upside to having no advantages. You are free to invent a few of your own.

With no doting ladies’ maid hovering in the wings, Edith (played by the British actress Laura Carmichael) has embarked on a journey of self-creation, embracing the provocative styles of the day and discovering the liberating properties of diaphanous frocks, shoulder-baring necklines and wispy undies that free up her psyche as well as her frame.

A bit of rebellion

In a spate of interviews, Caroline McCall, the show’s costume designer, equated Edith’s progressive new look with the arc of her story. Her clothes, inspired by the billowy, groundbreaking designs of Paul Poiret and the illustrations of George Barbier, reflect not just the subversive feel of her era, but also the rebel long dormant in Edith herself. “She’s decided that she’s a new independent woman of the early ’20s, so her wardrobe has changed to reflect all that,” McCall told Style.com.

That wardrobe, along with her artfully marcelled hair and exotic jewelry, sets her apart as a fashion adventuress, her newfound daring riveting to viewers, especially members of the fashion flock.

“We love to watch an unconventional beauty strike out and find her fashion mojo, and Lady Edith has the potential to do just that,” said Simon Doonan, the Barneys executive who detailed the folkways of the contemporary fashionistas in his recent memoir, “The Asylum: A Collage of Couture Reminiscences … and Hysteria.” Her flirtation with Bloomsbury bohemianism “makes her more interesting,” Doonan added, “than somebody who is conventionally pretty.”

Stylist Penny Lovell has dressed Carmichael, Edith’s off-screen alter ego, for the red carpet. “It’s so interesting to see Edith become stronger and make some bolder wardrobe choices,” she said. “She’s a character who can will herself into being beautiful, and people will always find that interesting.”

A woman with gumption

As the plot becomes more densely layered, Mary hardens, coolly remote in lavender and black, and Edith warms, finding the moxie to crusade for the women’s vote; write a column for The Sketch, a society rag; and, more brazenly still, to embark on a love affair with its married publisher.

And it’s Edith who ditches her stays for a looser, more raffish look, emerging as she gains in confidence as a budding style savant who flirts brashly with the cutting edge. More colorful and softer than Lady Mary, “she is currently shifting,” Doonan noted, “from an Arts and Crafts-y intellectual look to something more alluring and feminine reflective of her emotional and sexual awakening.”

Her gumption, partly cloaked in seasons past behind a series of muted, shape-concealing frocks, became apparent early on. She was, after all, the first woman at Downton to get behind the wheel of a car, mustering the courage not long after to drive a tractor, one of many farm chores she gamely mastered.

Unconventional beauty

Her rare combination of breeding and brass surfaces in her choice this season of fluid, drop-waist frocks in vividly arresting tones of burnt orange and green. It emerges when she turns up for an intimate dinner at the Criterion, the London supper club, in a gold-embroidered viridian gown, her bare back on view as she leans in to give her lover a kiss.

Her daring is something she shares with latter-day fashion darlings like Isabella Blow, Anna Piaggi and Diana Vreeland, who made the most of features that were unconventional (not to say ungainly) by cultivating a memorably stylized look.

Small wonder, then, that dedicated “Downton” aficionados, a handful of designers among them, have conflated the character with the actress who brings her to life. “From looking at Edith on the show, you can visualize Laura in gown,” Lovell said. “Laura is being noticed more because of what’s going on the show.”

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