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Fashion, values and the human condition: Why Americans care about ‘Downton Abbey’

The new “Downton Abbey” film has arrived and with it a chance for viewers to assess not just the lives of the aristocratic Crawley family, but how modern relationships play out today.

Jim Carter stars as Charles Carson in “Downton Abbey,” a Focus Features release.
Jim Carter stars as Charles Carson in “Downton Abbey,” a Focus Features release.
Focus Features

A letter arrives. Widespread panic passes through the house. The news is grave: James Crawley, the presumed heir to the estate, and his son, Patrick, died on the RMS Titanic. Matthew, a distant third cousin, soon arrives and learns that he will inherit the manor.

And so begins “Downton Abbey” — with the sinking of the Titanic, and how that disrupts social order and restructures an entire family’s plans for the future.

It’s also a brief window into the magnitude of the show. Right off the bat, the show hits viewers with one of the most famous moments in modern history. And it’s an event Americans — an audience that has since become captivated with the British period drama — can easily relate to and understand.

There’s a good chance you’ve heard of “Downton Abbey” and seen its pristine estate. The show focuses on the ongoings of the Yorkshire country estate where the aristocratic Crawley family and their domestic servants live. It’s where the tea is spilt. It’s where wit and repartee are commonplace. It’s where a family witnesses the greatest moments of 20th-century Britain unfold around them — from the sinking of the Titanic and the outbreak of World War I to the Spanish influenza pandemic and the Irish War of Independence.

The show ran on PBS in America from Sept. 26, 2010, to Nov. 8, 2015, changing British television. And this weekend, the new “Downton Abbey” film released in theaters. The film will, once again, take place at Downton Abbey, the location, as King George V and Queen Mary plan a visit in 1927.

A movie of this magnitude only drops when there’s a fan base to support it. And “Downton Abbey” — despite being fundamentally about an aristocratic British family — has had a big impact on the United States. High ratings on PBS. Art exhibits around the clothing and set pieces toured through the United States. Afternoon tea and a costume contest at a Utah movie theater.

“Downton Abbey” is everywhere. And it’s a ratings machine in America. It is the most-watched drama in PBS history. The show averaged 13.3 million viewers at its peak in season 4, according to Forbes. The final season’s premiere drew 9.9 million viewers. The show was the top-rated 9 p.m. show, behind only the Super Bowl. It has broken social media records. Globally it reached 120 million people in 2013 alone, spanning 220 territories throughout the world. On social media, the show drew 190,000 total tweets for season 5, which led to 24 million total impressions. And, more recently, pre-release ticket sales for the “Downton Abbey” movie topped all other 2019 dramas. The film is expected to rise to the top of the American box office, too.

But why does America care so much about the film and its predecessor television series? What makes a story about the aristocracy of early 20th-century Britain so attractive?

The human condition

Americans want to live the lives we see on “Downton Abbey.” The Downton Abbey estate offers a window into the adoration for the show itself. In the real world, there’s an Airbnb listing that will allow you to stay in the 100,000-square-foot, 300-room estate all for the price of $187, for one night only. Reports of the Airbnb listing went viral across the internet.

It’s a glimpse at a world we want to embrace and it shines a light on the human condition — the haves and have-nots..

There’s a fascination in an old society and orderliness, according to Jennifer Nesbitt, an associate professor of English at Penn State York.

“It’s a show that professes a kind and gentle aristocracy for the most part. I think in America, where we have a free market emphasis and capitalism, the notion of noblesse oblige, of a wealthy class that takes care of the other classes and is required to do so, is also something that we like to imagine, as well,” Nesbitt said.

Michelle Dockery as Lady Mary and Joanne Froggatt as Anna Bates, her lady’s maid, during season 4 of “Downton Abbey.”
Michelle Dockery as Lady Mary and Joanne Froggatt as Anna Bates, her lady’s maid, during season 4 of “Downton Abbey.”
Nick Briggs, Carnival Films

We see this play out with Matthew and Tom working together to save the estate. They buy back the farms that weren’t being cared for by older tenants. They add sheep and expand. They take care of the estate in order to save the estate. There’s a positive energy surrounding the show where the family wants nothing more than to save the property, keep people employed and do well by the Crawley family and its history.

Americans are all about free market and dog-eat-dog mentality, Nesbitt said. But “Downton Abbey” takes a softer, less aggressive approach. And that’s something Americans want. They want to find solutions, which come in droves on “Downton Abbey.”

“I would say that it is escapism, but it’s also wish fulfillment in that when people are facing challenges. The system, unless you’re a bad person ... the social structure around the Downton Abbey community finds a solution for you.”

The new ‘Downton Abbey’ film has arrived and with it a chance for viewers to assess not just the lives of the aristocratic Crawley family, but how modern relationships play out today. Emily Wilson/Danita Delimont — stock.adobe.com

But the show — despite being about aristocrats living in 20th-century Britain — is also relatable, according to Maria Elena de las Carreras, lecturer at California State University, Northridge, and at UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television.

Through “classic Hollywood storytelling,” the show is an example of the “human experience,” she said. Sure, we’re not all heads of mansions with butlers and servers. But we all have relationships and social statuses.

“The show ... offers a nostalgic view or simplified view of social dynamics,” de las Carreras said.

“It’s not a hard take on how people in different stations in life relate to each other,” she said, adding, “It’s a human story with the social dynamics viewed through nostalgia.”

“Downton Abbey” puts you in unfamiliar place through a modern context. It’s not like a Charles Dickens novel or a Jane Austen book, where you’re dropped in another century and have to adapt to the environment. It shows you the world on the screen. The medium of television allows you to watch the show from your own modern lens.

The human moments — the snowy wedding proposals, the new puppies, the new jobs — appeal to us, even if they’re set in 20th century England. You can connect because you’re seeing it through the modern lens.

“It’s recognizability of the human experience in a setting that’s appealing,” de las Carreras said.

Nesbitt agreed.

“There’s the pure drama of it. Right?” Nesbitt said. “You know, the witticisms and the verbal knives. I mean, don’t we all wish that we could have such amusing repartee?”

The story embraces cliches. The Crawley sisters who are different from each other. An Irishman, Tom Branson, who is socialist and radical, according to de las Carreras. But these cliches show a variety of experiences that allow us to connect with the characters.

“It is the variety of the story that covers very decent people except for a few bad ones,” said de las Carreras. “It was, for me, the variety of the human experience concentrated in a small story environment.”

Beauty and prestige

Historically, the period drama fits at an interesting time. It’s after the sinking of the “Titanic,” but it’s before World War II. The world hadn’t changed. Experts said it’s the last time Britain had this aristocratic society, giving us a glimpse into a unique world.

“Well, it is the sort of the last gasp of the aristocratic classes as we knew them in the 19th century,” Nesbitt said. “It doesn’t last much longer. And certainly after World War II things changed significantly in terms of how people live and how people dress.”

And how people dress plays a role in the show’s attraction, too.

“Downton Abbey” is more than just a show about an estate, a family or the will-they-won’t-they romance of Mary and Matthew Crawley. It’s a fashion show, in a way. Corsets, dresses, tuxedos. The aristocratic wear jumps off the screen. Beautiful landscapes, settings and scenes are everywhere.

And it is adored on a national scale. “Downton Abbey: The Exhibition” went on a multi-city tour in 2017. But it wasn’t just the shows art. it included costumes, props, set designs and more.

Fashion plays a huge role in the show, experts said.

“It’s a pleasure to the eyes to see the costumes, how the table is set up,” de las Carreras said. It’s a lot of fun, I have to tell you.”

In fact, the show isn’t always pretty in terms of its storytelling. There is backstabbing. There is snide remarks and clap backs. So much tea (or, gossip) is spilled.

But the show is still a sight to see. It’s a beauty to watch from an aesthetic perspective.

“I mean, there are things that you see going on in the show that if you’re really thinking about it, are quite unpleasant, or completely fanciful, like things did not happen this way,” Nesbitt said. “But it’s also lovely to look at. It has some great romance in it.”

The fashion can be relatable, too. Anna Mary Scott Robbins, the costume designer, told The New York Times that she does bring a modern sensibility to the fashion in the upcoming film.

She said she started back in the 1920s but wanted to add her own lens to the fashion, too. “Downton Abbey” is a show, after all, that shows a different time through a modern sensibility.

“My starting point was the designers of the time,” Robbins said. “But this is the thing, what I’ve always said is that I love fashion and am very aware of fashion and the designers out there, and am digesting information as a designer in this modern age. So how I curate the costumes from the 1920s must to some extent be affected by my viewpoint as a contemporary woman.”

Fashion brings people into the show, giving them another reason to watch. It’s fashion that most Americans never got to wear. It’s fashion that doesn’t exist anymore.

Values

For de las Carreras, “Downton Abbey” teaches a lot about modern values.

For example, the show reveals how people from an upper class — like the Crawley family — interact with their butlers and people who work in the house. Or how someone from one class (like Sybil) will marry someone from another (the former chauffeur, Tom).

The show also — and this relates to an American value — celebrates the idea of being rewarded for success and riches if you’re a good person.

“I mean, that working class people can make changes in their lives, and change how their careers go,” Nesbitt said. “They don’t have to be stuck in a profession because we’re talking about a period of time when servants started to leave that area in droves after the war. So a lot of new opportunities open up.

“It teaches sympathy across class lines,” she added. “If you want to put a positive value on it, it teaches us that good people will be rewarded in the end with success and riches.”

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