Anna Robbins joined Downton Abbey as costume designer on its fifth season. Her work for the series earned her two Emmy nominations. Anna is also the fashion curator for Downton Abbey: The Exhibition, and continues her work for Downton Abbey in the new movie now being filmed. However, before the world of Downton, Anna already enjoyed a successful and extensive career in costume design. We spoke with Anna from her office in London and discussed her career, the inspiration for her work, and her advice to those seeking to enter the field of costume design.
– Anna, can you tell us about your career background and how you entered the field of costume design?
“Ironically, I graduated from Edinburgh Law School in Scotland. However, I didn’t work in law as I had a change of heart. I thought I would first get something more creative out of my system before perhaps going back to the law. I discovered costume design as a career path and realized that was where my future laid. I studied an art degree where I took an honor subject in performance costume design and graduated from Edinburgh college of art in 2005. Quite a long time ago! From there, I fell into the world of film, which I love, and have been working on it ever since graduating.”
– During that transition, how did your friends and family react to it? Were they surprised by such a career change? Were they supportive or did you face discouragement?
“My friends and family were very supportive of what was considered an unusual move – to walk away from something as respected and academic as the law. I didn’t find resistance there, but it was a difficult financial decision to make. I had to work very hard to make that transition. However, that didn’t put me off off because it felt right. It felt very much like I had found what I was meant to be doing.
“When I discovered costume design, I realized that there was a world that existed between that very academic cerebral side of things, where you are reading literature and researching a period of history, alongside a very creative aspect, where you are designing clothes and working with textiles, and prints, and putting those two things together in an industry that has a real dynamism to it. It just clicked.
“Talking about challenges with this transition, my art degree was infinitely more difficult than my law degree. An art degree is more personal as you’re putting your heart and soul in it. You’re being judged on who you are rather than the information that you are processing. I think that that was definitely the most challenging thing, but I didn’t face much discouragement. The industry is quite tough, and you’ve got to have certain skills and traits that will stand you in good stead. I have had my fair share of negative experiences, but I don’t remember them because I only remember the fantastic, positive experiences along this journey.”
– Was there a moment after you started your career that you thought to yourself: “I am making it”?
“Yes, there has definitely been a few moments. When I found my first film, it was really low budget, but I had my first costume truck. Knowing that I had designed every costume in that film, that was a proud moment. But, then you have bigger moments! For example, being brought on board for Downtown Abbey, something you have watched and loved as a viewer, that people love because of its costumes, and is on such an international stage. To be given that responsibility and to feel that you are the right person to take it on for the final two years, that was probably the biggest moment of thinking that I had definitely made it. It was a dream that became a reality.”
– What is a day like for you on the set of Downtown Abbey?
My days while filming are really varied. Downton is very prolific in terms of costumes because there is a big cast with lots of changes, and you have to process them quickly for filming. My prep is the biggest part of my job and when we’re filming, we prep in advance. I constantly go between sets and workroom, and the fabric shops in London, sourcing originals from vintage markets, to being at my desk, drawing, putting pen to paper. I like to pop up on set to see the costumes that are being filmed and look at them on the cast to make sure I am happy with how everything is set. I also travel a lot while filming. The energy of filming is great, and the long hours keep you going because you are working on quick deadlines.”
– Can you tell us about your inspiration when designing and the creative process to bring those designs into reality?
“That starts very early on with a lot of research. I tend to visit the Portrait Gallery in London, photography exhibitions, and I also have a pretty big library of historical costumes research after being in the industry for as long as I have. A lot of the inspiration comes from the pieces that I find. Even printed velvet in the twenties is different from velvet now, so we find an original piece and work it into a new design so that it feels anchored to the past, and its original craftsmanship. It feels very real, and I think that’s inspiring.”
– Who, as a person, inspires you?
“Trisha Biggar is a fantastic Scottish costume designer and just a brilliant person. A brilliant boss. I started my career working under Trisha. She was incredibly encouraging about me becoming a designer in my own right. She has enormous integrity, and I admire that greatly. I hopefully have taken that in as a designer, because as a designer, you are also head of a department. The way Trisha worked with the people in her team was wonderful. She is so dedicated and creative in the way that she approaches design, and that definitely had the most influence on my career.”
– Which of the costumes curated for Downton Abbey: The Exhibition would you say is your favorite?
“In the exhibition, we display the work of three costume designers: Susannah Buxton who started the show, Caroline McCall who took it on to the middle episodes, and then my work, as I finished the show. I am really proud of the costumes we managed to curate and fit in the exhibition. For example, Susannah Buxton’s costume for Lady Sybil with the harem pants, we spent a long time restoring it and making it strong enough to exhibit. There is such beautiful and original fabric in there, and it was really important to me to bring it into the exhibition and give it the space it deserves. It’s so iconic and such a wonderful design.
“From my work, I will say that Lady Edith’s wedding dress for the finale was a real labor of love. I found a stunning dress that was Brussels lace, and I gathered more original lace to match it. I shopped for about nine months, with the process constantly in my mind because I knew that this is where the show was going to end. However, every single dress in there has had its own challenges and triumphs.”
– When it comes to the characters in Downton Abbey, who do you personally identify with, or which was your favorite character to costume?
“I have an awful lot of favorites, but I identify with Lady Edith the most. I’m from Scotland, from a more rural environment, and I had to come down to London and work in this big, exciting industry which was quite foreign to me growing up. Lady Edith found a career that liberated her and gave her a real sense of herself. In that way, we were able to explore a new palette for her, where we were freshing things up – bringing her into “Spring” where she had otherwise been “Autumnal” throughout the series until I took over. We were able to make her blossom. She had a sense of style that was an evolution of where she came from. Because she was working in the bohemian and artistic environment with the magazine, we created a separate wardrobe for her working environment different to her home life. It broadened her horizons, and it was fun to do.
“All of the women within the series have been fantastic to costume because of the social changes that were taking place. Lady Mary was brilliant to do as she was also embarking on a career, but it was a career closer to home as she is the future of the Abbey. However, she was also working in a man’s world, so we were still trying to create strength and direction through her costumes to reflect that in an opposite way to that of Edith.”
– Thinking of your entire line of work, what do you feel has been your greatest accomplishment so far and your proudest moment?
“My biggest accomplishment is the Downton Abbey series because of the scale. I have also done a lot of other amazing jobs from which I have gotten lots of proud moments. For example, when an actor of a show compliments me on the costume that I have created for them by saying that it helped them to get into character, that kind of compliment makes me realize that I’m doing my job well.”
– Can you think of a piece of advice that you received early in your career and that has continued to influence you to this day?
“Yes, to enjoy what you do and not forget that you love it. I absolutely love what I do. However, at times, it can be a stressful environment, and sometimes you let the stress get on top of you. I put so much pressure on myself to deliver because I know the standard I want for my work. Sometimes, I’ve had to step back to remind myself that I’ve got one of the best jobs in the world and it should be enjoyable. I’ve gotten into the practice of looking at all the things we have achieved, and the good things that we have done, and go to bed smiling thinking of the great days I have had. Even if there are things that go wrong, you move forward.”
– In the future, how would you like to be remembered?
“In life, I would like to be remembered as a wonderful friend, sister, daughter, and mother. In terms of my career, I would like for people to think that I navigated my career carefully and cleverly; that I was able to portray lots of different genres and periods of times successfully, while finding and delivering the essence of the characters, as history was something that I could immerse myself in over and over again.”
– What advice would you offer to someone wanting to start a career in costume design?
“I would pass the same advice given to me, and say that you have to love it, enjoy it and be joyful about it. Have a positive attitude so you can take it a long way. It takes a lot of dedication and a strong work ethic, but the rewards are untold. Go for it and make it happen!”– GM