How the ‘Downton Abbey’ Movie Illustrates Engagements, Courtships and Events in the 1920s

downton abbey movieMichelle Dockery stars as Lady Mary Talbot and Matthew Goode as Henry Talbot in DOWNTON ABBEY, a Focus Features release. Credit: Jaap Buitendijk / Focus Features

Spoiler alert: The Downton Abbey movie doesn’t feature a wedding (at least this time around), but there’s much to absorb about romance and relationships representative of that time period. “The process of it all is much more formal,” says director Michael Engler, who notes that weddings have previously been showcased on the beloved PBS series. “There’s no plan for a sequel or anything, but who knows. Never say never,” he tells The Knot. “I directed [Lady] Edith’s wedding and that was exciting and beautiful.”

The movie, rather, focuses on an important visit from the royals–an honor and a burden to those prepping as hosts. In true Downton storytelling manner, the film illustrates the upstairs, downstairs dichotomy through a string of interwoven events. The topics range from intricate relationships between couples to the sexual orientation of others, along with the plights and triumphs as encountered respectively by servants and nobility. (The royals, even, deal with their own set of tribulations.) Here’s what The Knot discovered about romance and weddings during that time period.

downton abbey

Elizabeth McGovern stars as Lady Grantham and Hugh Bonneville as Lord Grantham and in DOWNTON ABBEY, a Focus Features release.
Credit: Jaap Buitendijk / © 2019 Focus Features, LLC

A Royal Dinner Is Basically a Wedding

The day-of schedule for weddings today is comparable to the precision seen in executing a grand dinner hosted by nobility during that time period. And if members of the royal family were invited to this said dinner, well, forget about it. It’s the equivalent of a luxe celeb wedding held at the Rainbow Room.

The prep work for the visit alone is somewhat as grand of a scale in terms of event planning as a modern-day, 21st-century wedding weekend. “Even planning the royal banquet, the big dinner [is mega in] figuring out what would that be, how would that be done, how would they decorate,” Engler muses. “First of all, there are flowers everywhere. They love having flowers everywhere—little flowers and big flowers. In that period, very often on a big royal table.”

He admits that the crew had to make a few adjustments accordingly to allow for a discussion between members of the dining table. “Very often in that period, on a big table like that, the decorations were so big that you mostly spoke to the people next to you. You didn’t have access to the people across the table,” Engler explains. “So we tried to find ways that were correct to the period. The flowers were made low, the candles were high and all that… and we filled the table with these beautiful things at the level of head height [tp adjust accordingly].”

The show’s historical consultant provided insight about the type of etiquette appropriate to that time period. “That’s all very carefully researched down to the types of foods they were eating in those days,” he explains, adding that the timed portion of the meal also factored into the film. “Given the story, are they at the end of the meal or the beginning fo the meal? We look at all those things and the consultant can say, ‘If it’s at the end, these [bites] are very beautiful,’” he notes.


Actors Hugh Bonneville and Michelle Dockery on the set of DOWNTON ABBEY, a Focus Features release.
Credit: Jaap Buitendijk / Focus Features

Seating Arrangements Were Crucial Between Couples

While seating charts are still very much an important part of wedding planning—let’s hope Cousin Chad gets along with your colleague’s boyfriend—intimate dinner parties were curated to entirely ensure engaging conversation between attendees.

“The process of it all is much more formal… Part of it was creating a process for people to be introduced as a couple,” Engler says. “For instance, at all those luncheons and dinners, married people are never placed next to each other. But if you are engaged, you are [seated directly beside each other]. If you’re engaged, you sit next to each other all the time, because there’s just very little chance for people to spend time alone talking. They wanted everyone at the table to see you as a couple.”

If you’re married, however, a different seating arrangement typically emerged. “The minute you get married, you get separated, and you eat sitting next to others. The idea is to circulate more, to break up couples, and to talk to as many other people as possible.”

One of the Most Important Wedding Gifts Was…

While the wedding registry takes center stage today, another gift concept particularly played a standout role back then. “Part of the wedding gifts women would get from the groom’s family would be wedding jewelry,” Engler explains. “It would be a big part of how you dressed up.”

In the movie, many of the upstairs personas are seen sporting elaborate jewelry and headpieces during the dinner. “You don’t wear a tiara until you’re married. What I loved about the film, Cora [Crawley]’s tiara is from the 1870s, while Edith and Mary’s pieces are very present day. Edith wore a modern one with the stars. That will always be her tiara, because that’s her wedding tiara from the period she was married,” he says. “There’s something interesting about that, which is the things that are part of your wedding jewelry, those are yours forever.”

Michelle Dockery stars as Lady Mary Talbot, Elizabeth McGovern as Lady Grantham and Laura Carmichael as Lady Hexham in DOWNTON ABBEY, a Focus Features release.
Credit: Jason Bell / © 2019 Focus Features, LLC

Long-Distance Relationships Were a Given for Many

One couple deals with a pain point of having to reconcile their sense of duty with a big life event. “When Bertie Pelham [Harry Haden-Patton] gets offered to travel with the prince, that’s a great honor,” explains the director. “That, to me, and the way they all are—various duties may take them apart—they still take the long view about it… They accept there will be times apart.”

Despite the difficulty in the distance, says Engler, “that was just built in as something that may happen.” The level of commitment, therefore, transcended distance and patience played a role in many relationships. This was also seen with Lady Mary, who is overseeing the preparation for the royal visit without the physical support of her husband. (Spoiler alert: He makes his way home just in time for the big ball.)

Michelle Dockery stars as Lady Mary Talbot in DOWNTON ABBEY, a Focus Features release.
Credit: Jaap Buitendijk / © 2019 Focus Features, LLC

Ultimately, however, Engler notes he has a favorite couple and with good reason, and it has very little to do with duty. “I love the [romance between] Tom and Lucy,” he says. “There’s something about two people who are raised in this world and are not part of it. Yet they both accidentally find their way into the upper level of it and they feel like fish out of water. They have to find a way to be comfortable in it and to find themselves.”

Downton Abbey is now out in theaters nationwide.

About the Author

Esther Lee
Esther Lee
Esther is the Senior News Editor at The Knot. A self-proclaimed pop culture enthusiast, she appreciates a good celebrity interview just as much as she adores Nancy Meyers movies. You can find her kicking off her mornings with barre and a green juice, traveling and exploring new cultures, and rapidly scrolling her feed for the latest and greatest news. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter at @theestherlee.