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 bad 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, 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 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.
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 new-found daring riveting to viewers, especially members of the fashion flock.
Hers is a Cinderella story, “and we all love that,” said stylist Penny Lovell, who 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.”
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. Her gumption 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.
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.
Small wonder 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 a gown,” Lovell said. “Laura is being noticed more because of what’s going on the show.”
Carmichael was sheathed in a silvery Vionnet gown for the Screen Actors Guild awards. And Victor & Rolf confected the slender graphically bicolor evening column she wore at the Golden Globes.
Her deco-inflected look was compelling enough that Vogue.com saw fit to document her pre-Globes metamorphosis on its website last month.
In a series of photographs, a pale and interesting Carmichael is shown slipping into her starkly black-and-white dress in her hotel room, and finally making a dash for the car outside, waiting to whisk her, like a proper Cinderella, to her rightful place at the ball.