The question central to so many women’s lives is “what to wear”? Tinamay, a longstanding girlfriend of mine, explained to me that really it should never be a problem – we have been selecting our outfits and getting dressed since we were three or four years old and are well practiced. However, it never seems to me quite that straightforward. Costumes, fashion, what to wear and how to wear it are never out of the news these days. Image and presentation dominate every moment with instant contact through phones and the screens of people we have never met.
Perhaps one of the reasons it is hard to decide and easy to get wrong is that there are fewer rules to follow these days. In the era in which Downton Abbey was set, you either met the Dowager Lady Grantham in person or perhaps admired a portrait of her. Depending on the social occasion, her dress code was rigidly proscribed by the social mores of the time and even more so perhaps when sitting for a portrait.
At Highclere you can see portraits of my husband’s earlier ancestors. Often they chose to be dressed in their parliamentary robes. These have changed little since the descriptions by the antiquary and barrister John Selden, published in 1614 in his helpful book ‘Titles of Honour’. Such robes are simply handed down through the generations and the portraits speak a rather different language to so many pictures today. Words such as respect, duty and honour. Apart from parliamentary robes, the aristocracy would also own carefully stored coronation robes. These are made of crimson silk velvet, extending to the feet, whilst the rank of the peer is indicated by rows of “ermine tails” on the miniver cape: 4 for a duke, 3½ for a marquess, 3 for an earl, 2½ for a viscount and 2 for a baron.
We still have, here at Highclere, the coronation robe owned by the fifth countess, Almina, comprising a crimson velvet “kirtle” which is really a long train of matching crimson velvet, edged with miniver, over a full evening dress; Again the length of the train matters – a Countess had a 1½ yard train, no more and no less.
It is currently being restored by the Royal School of Needlework so that it can go on display later on in the year at our Costumes and Cocktails weekend in September where it will form part of a small exhibition of “Highclere” clothes from that era. I hope it might give enjoyment as it is always so interesting to see the quality of beading and fabrics in vintage clothes even if, after 100 years, they are not quite so pristine as they once were.
The 5th Earl and Countess attended both the coronation of King Edward VII on August 9th 1902 and that of King George V on June 22nd 1911. To many fans’ delight, the Downton Abbey film trailer has been released and depicts a visit from the King and Queen. The Dowager is suitably dry, everyone practices their curtsies and battle is apparently joined between the faithful Downton Abbey servants and those of the Royal Household.
In reality, Highclere too has been most fortunate and welcomed royalty over the centuries. Queen Caroline’s bedroom is so named after the wife of King George II when she stayed here some 250 years ago and of course Edward VII came for a shooting party.
Rather more by luck than foresight, I combined the title of our September weekend of costumes with the word cocktails. It is most fortunate as, of course, we have just now produced and bottled our own gin. George V (whose signature is above as well as making an appearance in the Downton film) gave another gin brand a royal warrant in 1925 so I am happily presuming that he rather enjoyed the odd gin and tonic and that this is all a rather marvellous coming together of a theme.