Digging into the Past with Downton

I recently watched the “final episode of the final season” of Downton Abbey. Aside from the fact that I will miss the drama of the Crawley clan, their staff, and estate, I wondered how many Americans, living today, have any real experience of all the formality and protocol that governed the people of Downton in the early 1900s. Most of the people who lived in that era have gone to their great reward, but there are still those of us who have encountered similar social conventions in our own lifetimes.

All the “M’Lord” and “M’Lady” hierarchical language felt strangely familiar to me. When I was a child, and was speaking to (or about) an older person, I always had to use the terms “Mister” or “Missus,” and was never allowed to use a first name. There were adult cousins and friends I was instructed to call “Uncle” and “Aunt,” in conjunction with their first names. In many cases this left me very confused about my blood relationships. At age 13 or 14 I asked my mom, “What aunts and uncles are TRULY brothers and sisters to you and Dad?” At the same time, I asked her, “Why am I allowed to refer to “Wujek Lapczynski” and “Wujek Wojtkowski” by their first names?” She laughed and informed me that the two men were my father’s uncles, “Wujek” was just the Polish word for “Uncle!” Their actual names were Leo and Frank, but according to Polish custom, even my dad was not allowed to use their first names!

Though it is difficult for me to understand why aristocratic women of the time were expected to change outfits five times per day, I can understand the notion of changing clothing to fit the activity. When I was a girl I had “school,” “play” and “Sunday” clothes. I also understand quite well the dress code that was required of Anna, Mrs. Patmore, Daisy and others. I had only two school “uniforms” and five or six uniform blouses. When I came home from school, I changed out of the uniform into clothes suitable for play. On the weekend, everyone dressed for church in our “Sunday best,” which often included matching hat, gloves, and purse.

Speaking of hats, any Downton fan knows about the wonderful hats that are worn by the ladies on the show. Since I have a real appreciation for hats, I had to fight the greedy desire to obtain any (and all) of them. When I could overcome that guilty passion, my attention would turn to all the hats worn by the men of the abbey. They reminded me of Dad, he always wore a fedora, even when he was working on some household project. On Sundays at church, I remember him hanging his hat in the little clip, assigned for that purpose, on the back of every pew bench. While I was growing up, he was a salesman and always wore cuffed pants and “Florsheim” dress shoes. His “suit pants,” when they became a bit threadbare, were downgraded to “work pants.” When the shoemaker could no longer replace the soles or heels of his shoes, they would be put aside to use when painting or “bleeding” the radiators.

It’s interesting to me that the chores of the estate often triggered fond memories. Whenever I saw Bates or Molesley shining shoes, in their aprons and sleeve protectors, it brought me back to my days in eighth grade. Good students were rewarded with the “honor” of being asked to help the sisters clean the church or the convent on Saturday mornings. We felt particularly privileged when we were invited into the convent. The sisters’ vow of poverty allowed them three changes of clothing (called habits). Their best habit was for Sundays, the slightly older habit was for classroom use, and the oldest was worn while doing household chores.  The sisters always wore their “cleaning habits” on Saturdays.  Like servants of an earlier time, they also used aprons and sleeve covers to extend the life of even that oldest habit.

As the saying goes, there is a time and a season for all things, and it is time to say “Farewell to Downton!” I will miss my Sunday evenings with the Family Crawley. I must also admit that sometimes, though not often, like Mr. Carson, I find value in structure and the orderly rules of hierarchy. However, most days I agree with Mrs. Hughes. (Or should I have said Mrs. Carson?) I much prefer the warmth, relaxation, and friendliness of current social interactions. Like Lady Isobel Turnbull-Crawley-Grey, Baroness Merton, I am looking to the future, because there are rumors of a Downton Abbey movie! Wouldn’t it be amazing if, in that movie, we could hear the Dowager Countess tell George, Sybie, Marigold, (and Lady Mary’s baby-to-be), “Great-Grandma’s door is always open and you are always welcome!”

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