Civil-Saavy Sybil

I realized today that I’ve not yet created a modest fashion-related post at my new blog.  I enjoyed writing about such topics at Beauty from Inside, so I plan to do so here, too!

I will start with a look at some of the outfits of Sybil, a character in Masterpiece Classic’s new series, Downton Abbey.  Some notes about the show and Sybil’s character appear below as well.  Enjoy! 🙂

Downton Abbey is the newest Masterpiece Classic mini-series.  It premiered on January 9, 16, 23 and 30, 2011, at 9pm on PBS, as well as online at the Masterpiece Classic website.  It is a 4-episode series, and the second season is currently in production.

I would give this particular series a PG-13 rating.  Warning: Episode 2 contains the majority of any of the negative content in the series.  For the full synopsis of Episode 2, see here: scroll down and click “Read Full Synopsis”.  Please note that most of the negative content of the series is limited to Episode 2, which you can easily skip through if you watch the series online.

I enjoyed watching Downton Abbey.  The series is about a turn of the century family and neighborhood grappling with change while trying to retain all that is traditional.  It is as much a story about the overall social structure and progression of history in England as the internal conflicts and triumphs of the Crawley family and their friends, as individuals and in how they relate to each other.  The only thing that I didn’t care for in this series was when the producers would occasionally insert their own modern perspectives, which were anachronous in the story.  Yes, it’s fiction, but still.  This was most clear in Episode 2, but there were a few blips of anchronism throughout other Episodes as well.

My favourite character in the series definitely has to be Lady Sybil Crawley, played by Jessica Brown-Findlay.  The character Sybil is interested in women’s civil liberties, and is the most “forward-thinking” of all the characters.  Downton Abbey took a risk foraying into the cliche of featuring a female character that goes against the historical tide and is more concerned about women’s rights and activism than a young woman of her time probably would have been (such women were the exception, not the rule); yet the risk paid off.  The writers, as well as Jessica’s performance, gave Sybil a cheerful disposition and interdependent, look-out-for-others streak unlike many traditional “civil-minded woman”-archetype characters.  This made the character seem more realistic than she might have been otherwise.  I think that one reason for this is that her character is not so much politically as morally-centred.  She has a heart, and we believe she’s really trying to do the right thing because she believes it’s the right thing, and not to “be a rebel” like many female characters that have gone before her in film history.  You can actually imagine her making a difference.

Of course, there are more reasons to like Sybil’s character- her wardrobe!  Here are some beautiful examples of the clothing, jewelry, hats and hairstyles of Lady Sybil Crawley of Downton Abbey.

At center: Sybil in a blue, harem pants-style outfit.

If you are on the home page of Joyful Idealist, click the link below to continue reading this article.  If you’re not on the home page, ignore this sentence. 🙂

A closer look at Sybil’s headwear.

A close-up of Sybil’s jewelry and hair.

Sybil wearing a face-framing hat in her trademark colour of blue.

Another of Sybil’s stunning hats.

Sybil with her sisters, donning a hat with a swooping brim.

Sybil in a lovely purple frock.

Sybil’s purple frock in the film.

Sybil in a traditional, elegant Edwardian gown.

Sybil in a softly pleated pink blouse.

Sybil wearing black lace and a dramatic hairstyle.

What we can learn from Sybil’s style sense:

– Wear face-framing hats.

– If you have a fair to lightly tanned skin tone, embrace feminine colours such as blue, purple, white and pink, as well as appropriate tans and light browns.  More dramatic colours such as black can be elegant for evening wear.

– Embrace length in skirts and dresses.

– Find the right kind of collar style or shape for your body style.  Sybil’s necklines are often rounded or something close to an oval-shape.

– The sheen and drape of a fabric often helps to define how elegant an outfit will look.

– You do not need a lot of jewelry or makeup to look your best.  Minimal jewelry and makeup looks natural as well as elegantly feminine and lovely.

– Drop-style earrings are a beautiful accent to an outfit.

– Hairstyles that are off the face, whether parted or unparted, can help bring out the beauty in a young face.  Many of Sybil’s hairstyles are practical for the hat-lover, and are frequently “half-up”, ideal for showing just a bit of hair from beneath a hat, as well as both practical and elegant uncovered.

– Plain heels, especially in white, can make an outfit look even more feminine and beautiful.

What do you think of Sybil’s sense of style?  Do you have any suggestions for Sybil inspired attire?

For more about Jessica Brown Findlay, the actress who plays Sybil, read here at the Enchanted Serenity of Period Films blog.

Photo credits: Jessica Brown Findlay’s promotional gallery, and Enchanted Serenity of Period Films blog.  Photo #4 credit is unknown.

Note: Due to the popularity of this character among my friends and the interest I have in costume fashion, I have decided that there will probably be a part 2 to this post!  Look for it in the near future, with some stills of Sybil’s wardrobe that you probably have not yet seen outside of the film. 🙂


  1. I really liked your exposition of Sybil’s character, and I agree–she really is committed to her ideals! However, on the subject of her wardrobe, I have a few clarifications for you:

    The trousers Sybil models, to her family’s shock, are harem pants, not pantaloons. Pantaloons are open at the bottom and have their origin in Italy’s Commedia Dell’Arte theater; Sybil is explicitly drawing from the Persian/Turkish/Arabian exoticism that was fashionable at the time, which is what makes the outfit even more scandalous with its hints of the seraglio.

    As for the purple tones she wears in the first season, she is not wearing them because they flatter (although they obviously do). You’ll notice that all the characters are wearing black, then various shades of purple and gray in most of the first season; it isn’t because the production designer wanted a coordinated look for the characters! 🙂 Sybil, with the rest of her family, is in half-mourning for her relatives who died on the Titanic. We think of mourning clothes as being all black (when we think of them at all), but the Victorians and Edwardians had a complex system of colors for mourning: you started out with black, but after a suitable interval (it varied depending on your age and your relation to the deceased), you could branch out to purple, mauve, lilac, lavender, or shades of gray, getting lighter and lighter as the mourning period passed. So Sybil would have had to dress in purple for a certain period of time whether it suited her or not.

    1. Rose – thank you for your comment! I’m glad that you liked the description of Sybil. She is definitely one of my favourite characters.
      Oops! I’m not sure how the pantaloon error escaped my attention. I do recognize them as harem pants, but must’ve not been mindful when I wrote the post. I will correct the error. Thank you for pointing this out! It is interesting to note the “exoticism” that crept its way into Europe at different periods (not just in this case, but at others in the form of turbans, feathers, etc.). I think sometimes we tend to forget that in the past other cultures could have such influence (rather, we may think of a period as “quintessentially British”).
      As to your notes about purple- I am familiar with the seasons of mourning and how they played out during different periods but forgot to make such note here. Thank you for pointing this out as well! ^_^ As to the colours, I moreso was aiming to interpret that they can be flattering for certain skin tones, versus point out their historical significance. For example, in both seasons I find there are certain colour pallets that work well with each character.
      I so appreciate your comment and hope you feel free to make any such in the future! 🙂 (though I’m not quite sure whether I shall be doing another history/fashion post here.. perhaps at another blog, we shall see)

      ~ Hannah

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