The Genteel
January 21, 2021


Jessica Brown Findlay, Laura Carmichael and Michelle Dockery photographed for Vogue UK. Source:
Ralph Lauren's A/W 2012 collection.

For all the Downton Abbey fans itching for the premiere of the show's third season, don't despair. Ralph Lauren is taking you there for Fall 2012, complete with tours through the closets of Ladies Mary, Edith and Sybil.

If your pulse quickened when the familiar notes of the show's theme swelled at the opening of the designer's New York Fashion Week show in February, you weren't alone. Within moments, tweets from the Lincoln Centre filled the twitterverse. "The theme song of Downton Abbey heralded the start of the Ralph Lauren show and my heart swooned," from fashion writer Derek Blasberg. "A little mortified by how excited I got hearing Downton Abbey theme song at Ralph Lauren," posted's Meenal Mistry.

What about Downton Abbey has become so appealing to our cultural imagination? The addictive British drama has attracted a cult following at a time when much of its audience is suffering financially and enthralled by the notion of class. The series' stars and style have leaked into fashion everywhere from fall collections to the pages of Harper's Bazaar and Vogue UK. There are still months to go before the Crawley sisters don their evening gloves again, but Ralph Lauren's collection has capitalised on the show's massive appeal by giving us the chance to envision slipping into them ourselves.

Downton Abbey's Jessica Brown Findlay in
a Vogue UK photoshoot. Source:

And tapping into our cultural fascination has clearly proved to be a marketable success. With the buzz his A/W 2012 collection is generating, Ralph may be giving costume designer Susannah Buxton the kind of competition worthy only of the Dowager Countess and Cousin Isobel. The New York Times, Daily Telegraph and Vogue all hailed the collection and Bloomberg has predicted that Ralph Lauren's sales will jump 20 per cent in 2012. Fashion blogs and websites glowingly praised the cloche hats, smoking jackets and plaid skinny trousers that sashayed their way down Lauren's runway.

Alexander McQueen reportedly once told Women's Wear Daily: "In times of recession, I think fashion is escapism." Perhaps, then, our fascination with the sumptuous drama and its picture-perfect wardrobe stems back to class divisions and financial peril in our own society. Does the illusion of luxury in entertainment and fashion provide us with a form of escapism from global economic turmoil?

In 2001, the term "lipstick index" was coined by Estee Lauder chairman Leonard Lauder. People spend more on small luxuries during times of recession, Lauder proposed, as a way of incorporating designer goods into their lifestyle when mink coats and crystal glasses are simply out of reach. In recent years, nail polish sales, in particular, have become measures of economic health. TIME Business reported in September 2011 that nail polish sales were up 65% since the first half of 2008. This, Lauder suggests, has everything to do with finding budget-friendly ways to access the lavishness of a designer brand while in the midst of a recession. Not only is nail polish an affordable luxury, but one that comes in an unlimited array of shades.

During a time of economic upheaval in our own lives, Downton Abbey offers stability and order, all the while adorned in beautifully glittering clothes.

Economic turmoil has also inspired renewed interest in the class system, a fundamental theme that structures many plotlines of Downton Abbey. A century after the events depicted in the British drama, many modern societies remain highly class-stratified. Much attention has been paid to economic inequality lately, from the Occupy movement to Obama's call to tax the rich. In his book Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2012, political scientist Charles Murray argues that a new upper and lower class are emerging in contemporary society. He defines the new upper class as the top 5% of successful adults. These people are fabulously rich and clever. Their children are sent to top schools, where they intermarry and transfer the privilege they inherited on to their own children. This small group, he asserts, is rapidly losing touch with mainstream values as they retreat into enclaves of privilege.

Murray postulates some controversial theses, but is not alone in recognising the sharp class divisions that are strengthening as the world steadies its footing in the 21st century. A January column in The Economist's Lexington blog compared the current economic downturn to the scramble for lifeboats on the Titanic. The relationship between the first and second classes within current society, it states, is illustrated by their interactions during the sinking 100 years ago. The survival rate of first class male passengers was 33%; for their second class counterparts, a mere 8%. What does this mean for our current slumping economy? The article suggests that those who have fought their way to the top are likely to maximise their disproportionate share of limited resources in order to stay there. It seems that not much has changed in terms of class relations since the maritime disaster that triggered Lord Grantham's search for a new heir on the show's pilot.

Jessica Brown Findlay, Michelle Dockery
and Laura Carmichael photographed for
American Vogue. Source:

Though half a world and a full century away from Wall Street, the residents of Downton Abbey - both upstairs and down - are no strangers to economic inequality. Perhaps we identify with characters that fight to save what property they have and earn more. Just as we are able to sympathise with the Crawley's and their staff, we are able to turn to them for an escape from a crumbling economy and the mortgages and bills that it come along with it. During a time of economic upheaval in our lives, Downton Abbey offers stability and order, all the while adorned in beautifully glittering clothes. The fantasy of such luxury holds an undeniable appeal in a time of uncertainty, so much so that it has begun to bleed out into other areas of our culture.

And thus we find the lovely ladies of Downton venturing out of their sprawling Yorkshire manor and onto the runways and magazine pages that we so eagerly devour. We feverishly eat up Vogue's suggestions on how to "Dress the Part" in an attempt to adopt one small aspect of their lavish identities. Because really, who wouldn't like to wear those award-winning costumes while explaining the concept of a "weekend" to the Dowager Countess over dinner?

But for those who argue the case for Dame Maggie Smith's delightfully cheeky and vicious quips, perhaps a simpler reason for the Downton fuss can be summed up best by the matriarch herself: "You'll find there is never a dull moment in this house."



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