Costumes and Dress Codes

I grew up and went to school in London. During weekends my sisters and I explored (sometimes under duress) the various museums that London has to offer. The one that I never needed to be persuaded to go to was the Victoria and Albert Museum in South Kensington. I would head straight towards any exhibition of fashion and costumes – they have an extraordinary collection depicting what we wore that spans at least four centuries. You could stare for ages at the tiny waists, beautiful, delicate lace, the velvets, dresses with enormous hoops, the shoes and the wonderful hats. Admittedly most of it belongs to women of a certain economic status since those were the garments that were most valuable and therefore carefully preserved.

However, they depict an extraordinarily different and much more constricted way of life from ours today, from running up and down stairs, to biking round the park and hurrying to yet another meeting. (The top photo is the 5th Countess’s Coronation robes from 1911, whilst below are staff liveries and uniforms from the same period.)


As such, the fashions of the past seem better described as “costumes” than clothes because you would, without doubt, have needed lots of help getting dressed. Corsets, hooks and eyes, tiny buttons, strings to pull and ribbons to tie: even the men’s fashion was far more intricate than today.  This appeal of dresses and fashion is still very much present today and the Downton Abbey costume display has enjoyed a roaring success as it tours America and Asia. (Below is an excerpt from Dodds the tailor who made the keepers’tweeds)


The Grantham ladies had some beautiful outfits which got steadily more lavish as the series became more successful but Anna and Daisy rarely changed, which was rather bad luck. Carson and the footmen looked very smart and, of course, looked with some disapprobation when Lord Grantham forwent wearing White Tie in evening. In contrast, I suspect the audience for these exhibitions will be mostly be in jeans or shorts: dressed for comfort.


A flight of stairs on the top floor of the Castle leads up to the “Robing Room”. Cedar cupboards hold treasures of the past worn by our predecessors here such as Lady Almina’s coronation robes. There is another cupboard on a lower floor which is rather like Dr Who’s Tardis in the way it stretches back where all the old Livery uniforms are kept. We have bought some shop dummies and thought we would dress them in the costumes for our September party. It is a weekend with fewer guests and therefore more space and time to share, so Sally from the gift shop is in charge and will disappear into an upstairs room with a gift shop elf to begin to carefully prepare and pin them.


I would also like to display a few Roman brooches and pins we have found around the Estate as well as possibly what is a Viking brooch we have found around the Estate. My dearest, Norwegian, friend Karine (Hagen) is utterly thrilled and we might have to go together and see what else we can find…. just small things dropped as a woman walked across a field back to her house perhaps.


46 Responses to “Costumes and Dress Codes”
  1. Donna Deal says:

    Thank you for your lovely article about the language of clothing. I especially enjoy the photo of staff in livery and uniforms (is that Mr. Bates in the back row?). I am intrigued by the Scandinavian relics, but we know how far the land was traveled by those cultures. Your blog is a breath of fresh air in these times of political exhaustion. Thank you so much!

    • Lady Carnarvon says:

      I am not sure of all the staff names – I recognise the gardener and Lord Carnarvon’s valet! Mrs Bridgeland the housekeeper has the collie dog..

      They clearly had to stand for ages being photographed!!! But it was about 1895

  2. Kathleen R. O'Neill Meaney says:

    All of your posts are wonderful…I look forward to each of them. This post was however
    intriguing to say the least. Thank you for giving us glimpses into your life & your home!

  3. Geoffrey Bounds says:

    I love your writing. I would imagine you appreciate every day you are blessed with the culture surrounding your family. Thank you for sharing your thoughts,

  4. Gae says:

    Costumes and dress evolving and reflect the age and the relationship of the humankind with the life and its nuances, achieving, desires.

  5. Lynn says:

    How very interesting! So happy you have vintage clothing on display at Highclere. I dream of visiting someday. Thank you!

    • Heather Freeman says:

      I never tire of clothes from the past and I love to reproduce them as well. We were so fortunate to see the display of Queen Elizabeth II’s wardrobe at Windsor Castle last September after your fabulous “dress-up” at Highclere’s Vintage Garden party. Sorry to miss it this year but we will enjoy the Dressing Downton costume tour meeting up with friends we made at Highclere that day, and we WON’T be in jeans or shorts, our sewing machines are humming!

    • Lady Carnarvon says:

      We will put some costumes out for this September weekend – the fabrics and detail not from today’s world. I am worrying about what to wear!!!

    • Denise Kantner says:

      As always, Lady Carnarvon, your blog posts are educational and entertaining (how often does that happen?). My husband, Perry, and I are the friends getting together with the Freemans at one of the Dressing Downton costume tours this coming October in the States (Heather is the dear who arranged this). We immediately clicked with the Freemans last September at Highclere and are thrilled to be with them again this fall. And Heather is right — both of our sewing machines are/will be humming (although Heather creates and I merely sew). You and Highclere continue to create magic … including new friendships!

  6. Cindy Hudson says:

    What a wonderful entry. I love learning about the clothes and customs of yesteryear. Thank you for sharing your writings as well as lovely photos from that time period. Looking forward to visiting some exhibits during my next visit to London.

  7. Dianne Wasgatt says:

    Thanks again for another insight into history. I too love clothes. My mothers advice to me growing up was, wear good corsets and take care of your teeth, my teeth are in good shape ..I was able to get tickets to Highclere for September 20 th will the clothes still be on display.? Looking forward to returning to Highclere .

  8. I agree…that the fashion of yesterday was fascinating and beautiful. Downton Abbey women were the epitome of Style and Fashion….all the details from
    hair/makeup to shoes and hats were all perfectly coiffed and groomed..Kudus!!

  9. Paul Mc Taggart says:

    Coming to work at Highclere Castle eveyday is like traveling back in time we have so much history here its breath taking , I have been in the Robing room to see all the livery uniforms & last years vintage garden party seeing them on display made them come to life. I have to say the staff of today castle have got of lightly with our polo shirt & fleeces that we all ware with the famous castle crest that we are proud to display. I work with Lady Carnarvon finding history beneath out feet around the grounds of this world famous castle. These little finds are just important as the livery uniforms that were worn by staff of the time, The Roman Brooch, shoe nails & Saxon buckle plate are all from past people who lived in & around the castle ground. The silver hammered coin with Queen Elizabeth 1st show what was the hight of fashion in 1601. Paul

    • Lady Carnarvon says:

      The brooches must have been so colourful with silver and garnets, yet the tools so hard to use to create such intricacy. They are amazing

  10. Lorraine Duszczynski says:

    Thank you for sharing. I have always been curious to see all the fineries of the past. My middle name is Victoria and all my adult life I have loved the Victorian customs and costumes. I have tried to set up my home in this manner. Please post some pictures of the clothing that you find for the forthcoming event. Once again Thank You.

  11. frank corso says:

    Wonderful article, Your Ladyship …..
    Thank you!

  12. Mary-Carolyn Lawson says:

    Dear Lady Carnarvon,

    What a lovely post! I enjoy these so. I suspect Queen Alexandra, herself, was outshone by Lady Almina in that luscious red velvet and lace gown. I look forward to seeing all of this.

    Best wishes to all.

  13. Chrissy says:

    I agree with Donna Deal – your blog IS a breath of fresh air in these trying times. Thanks for all the research and loved the costume piece. I love the room the Coronation gown is in!

    • Lady Carnarvon says:

      It is in the Drawing room and will re-apprear there on September 9th. Although it might be fun in the music room ..

  14. Paula says:

    Wonderful pictures! Thank you so much for sharing.
    I thoroughly enjoyed our visit to the Victoria and Albert Museum the last time we were in London. The vintage clothes were particularly interesting to me. Hoping to someday come to Highclere and experience your beautiful home, up close and personal!

  15. Michael Murray says:

    Always enjoy your blogs. I as well used to visit the galleries and museums in London as a child. It was deemed fit to educate us. Must say I look back with fond memoires

  16. Desiree creary says:

    Hello Lady Carnarvon, what a wonderful blog. I was able to also visit the Victoria and Albert museum when I was in London. And saw the vintage display. Just wonderful it put a lot more intrest, into the Downtown Abbey show. I THINK, THAT MORE PEOPLE should dress for the proper occasion today , instead of jeans for everything. Desiree C.

  17. Solveig Peck says:

    Thank you so much for your fascinating and beautifully written articles. I have always loved reading history and that was a particular appeal of the Downton series. The research was unparalleled, I believe, in all of television. As a child I was much taken with costuming. I still have a few books on the subject which I collected then. I loved dolls as well but used them primarily as costume models. Keep up the good work.

  18. Stacey Brown says:

    Dear Lady Carnarvon,

    What an intriguing and fashionable post!

    It is interesting to see dresses and accessories from other historic periods and marvel at the careful attention to detail. The fine fabrics and beautiful styles are absolutely enchanting. The ruby and gold coronation gown, in particular, is just spectacular. The Elizabeth coin, belt buckle and brooch are fascinating and incredible pieces. It is wonderful to see custom gowns and jewelry and imagine the tremendous sense of occasion as well as the practical purpose.

    Thank you for sharing. I hope you have a lovely day.

  19. Lady Carnarvon says:

    Thank you!

  20. Jacqueline says:

    Dear lady carnarvon,
    Thankyou for such a wonderful insight into costumes worn on the estate, the staff look so proud of there uniform, starched and pressed. And the coronation gown is stunning. I wish I could attend the september event to be able to see the costumes first hand. Fashion from the turn of the 20th century has always been fascinating and I must admit V & A museum has always been a favourite, with there stunning displays of jewels and costumes. I think there’s something so special in robes and gowns that have been handed down through generations.
    Thankyou once again for giving us this rare glimpse of something you vclearly hold dear .
    Kind regards always

  21. Anna Dean says:

    What in the world are shoe nails?

  22. Linda Olds says:

    I enjoy all of your posts, but I feel a bond with you on reading this one. I would have loved to see the costumes in the Victoria and Albert Museum. Perhaps I’ll still have an opportunity to do that.
    I enjoy looking up the clothing styles that people would be wearing when I read historical books. When I was younger, I even used to design clothes.
    You mentioned people wearing jeans to be comfortable, and I think that some people overdo that. A dress may even be more comfortable than jeans. Jeans may be psychologically comfortable–little thought has to be put into what to wear. I am in rebellion against dressing too casually; I hardly ever wear jeans.

  23. Stella says:

    Dear Lady Carnarvon, thank you for posting about your life and home. It seems like every turn or corner you turn shows some hidden treasure. I love your blog and you are a blessing to so many people.

  24. Dori Troutman says:

    Dear Lady Carnarvon,

    I subscribe to, and read occasionally, a large number of blogs. Yours, however, is one that I ALWAYS read!!! You always manage to make it such amazing reading. And here in the United States, we go crazy over things like Highclere Castle!! But your style of writing always draws me in and I love it!

    Thank you again… this was an awesome blog post!

    – Dori –

  25. Stevie Cooley says:

    Lady Carnarvon, perhaps both the very interesting period clothing and ancient relics found on the Estate grounds might each deserve a future book of their own?

  26. Lady Carnarvon says:

    Thank you very much – I enjoy writing and I enjoy your comments – writing books is less interactive in some ways as I wonder if someone or anyone likes a book!!! I hope ” At Home at Highclere ” might be a good Autumn book or Christmas book but I am always worrying about what I can do better. This blog and readers comments are here ..

    • Karen says:

      I would certainly recomend the book. The photography is stunning. The articles are intriguing. The recipes are delightful.

  27. Cynthia Thompson says:

    Such a wonderful piece of history and period! It intrigues and brings out the younger days of “dress up” . Thank you for once again giving us a glimpse and a chance to share in Highclere History.

  28. Cherie Gould says:

    What a wonderful video, “The Robing Room” ! Thank you for sharing not only the archetectural details of this magic space but the treasures that lay behind the cedar closet doors! It reminds me of “The Lion The Witch and The Wardrobe ” I can only imagine what games of hide and seek must have been played out over the years at Highclere… I also was given the most amazing surprise when my mother in law brought over from England last week, “At Home at Highclere” as a house gift! This is the most beautiful entertainment book I have ever read! Thank you for incorporating such an interesting variety of history, photos & recipes…. the Crab au gratin and Pea & Mint Risotto are delishious! I treasure this book!

    Che’rie Gould

    • Lady Carnarvon says:

      thank you and I am gong to create some cooking videos off this blog for the Autumn!

  29. Jean Sozio says:

    AWESOME!! What a fantasy room to play dress-up. Magnificent. Love your videos. Love the feeling of touching lives of the past.

  30. Ann C. Flood says:

    Dear Lady Carnarvon,

    I was enchanted with the topic and the lovely photos in this blog post. I was so in love with the costumes of Downton Abbey. The costumes and your home sometimes seriously distracted from the wonderful acting and splendid writing of Downton. When I was in London I sadly did not tour the Victoria and Albert Museum. As a fan of PBS Masterpiece’s wonderful series Victoria I would have been in awe of Queen Victoria’s clothing. I can’t help but wonder how the costumes of the series compare to the Queen’s real clothing. I was able to see the exhibit last year of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II’s clothing that was shown at Buckingham Palace last year in honor of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. The clothing reflected the Queen, it was lovely. I am fascinated with fashion and marvel along with you at the dramatic changes in clothing through the years. I am so happy times have changed as corsets and multiple button holes etc. have fallen out of favor! The clothing was so much harder to wear then to be sure, but weren’t they beautiful?

    Gloriana and Long Live the Queen and kind regards too,

    Ann Catherine Flood

  31. Karen says:

    As I watched the video, I was reminded of the infectious, endearing laugh that my husband and I heard when we were there a couple weeks ago as your guests. (PBS Masterpiece winners) I just wanted to thank you again for your charming hospitality. That was the most engaging and delightful experiences. You and Highclare will long be in our memories. Your new book, “At Home at Highclere” is interesting, deightful and beautiful! I highly recommend it to all your readers!

    • Lady Carnarvon says:

      Thank you very much ! I am going to try to give promote the book through the Autumn, I hope it will be a lovely Christmas present.

  32. Valerie Chan says:

    Thank you for your wonderful post! For my birthday, April 4th, I drove up to Los Angeles to visit the Downton Abbey costume exhibit. It was spectacular! I would totally recommend the exhibit to anyone who enjoyed the tv series and period clothing.

  33. Emmalisa says:

    THIS is amazing!!!!!!!! Why haven’t I come across this website BEFORE!!!!!! I have NOW subscribed!!!!! I love the costumes, and this post is just exceptional.

  34. Lady Carnarvon says:

    There are some great costumes..

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