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When I began working in fashion, the importance of formulating your own, original style was a lesson passed down from the top editors to the rookies. It is important. But what was unspoken back then was how everyone – and I mean all of us – takes note of what others are wearing and incorporates elements into their own repertoire. From the Duchess of Cambridge, who has frequently borrowed looks from her late mother-in-law, to Sienna Miller, who, early on, freely riffed on Kate Moss’s style, who in turn took notes from Marianne Faithfull... at any age, there’s no shame in observation and incorporation. Finding women of a similar age, with a relatable shape, taste and outlook, is inspiring and helpful.
I’ve been watching Elizabeth McGovern, the 60-year-old star of Downton Abbey and sometimes rock chick (she’s sung and played guitar in a band called Sadie and the Hotheads for years) ever since she was in Robert Redford’s Ordinary People in 1980. Back then, I was obsessed with her shiny dark hair and sleek air of simplicity. 40 years on, the hair has silvered, the blue eyes are as piercing as ever and her style has gracefully mutated into a modern, pared-back, low-key glamour that has a multiplicity of easy-to-follow details to mull over.
She takes notes too – from her stylist Mary Fellowes, the British former Voguette, known for dressing Olivia Colman, Julianne Moore and Scarlett Johansson as well as for being one of the most sustainably minded celebrity stylists on the block. It was Fellowes who steered McGovern to her latest red carpet triumph at Sunday night’s New York premiere of Downton Abbey: A New Era.
The beautiful cream silk cape dress (by ethical, sustainable Indian brand Varana) and contrasting black peep toes are typical of the low-key, timeless labels she loves. Plus it had a cape, which Fellowes loves. “They’re so glamorous, flattering and old-school classic,” she says. “If you’re short, wear a teeny one.” McGovern’s shoes were by Roger Vivier and her diamonds from ethical jewellers David Morris, which has its own workrooms in London.
Sackcloth and ashes this is not. But there are lessons here for all of us, not just in shopping more carefully but also in how to put together a modern, versatile, low maintenance wardrobe in your 60s. “I love the 1920s period we’ve just been working in for Downton,” McGovern tells me from New York. “More and more, I appreciate well made clothes and beautiful fabrics.
“But,’ continues the Illinois-born actress, who lives in West London and has two grown up daughters with her husband, director and producer Simon Curtis, who she married 30 years ago. “I look for something very different in style for myself outside the show, I like to wear the same thing again and again.’
She’s now practised in the art of streamlining the fuss out of everything, including her beauty routine, which – even on the red carpet – favours sheer foundations and eye shadows and red lips. The only exercise she does is swimming and, every so often, putting on a yoga video. “What made me decide to let my hair go silver?” she repeats my question. “Going my natural colour feels like the easiest thing in the world. I just sweep it back and forget about it. It’s liberating, Also, I hardly ever need to wash it.”
A modular wardrobe of sharply cut blazers, ankle-length trousers, silk blouses and her beloved Moroccan slippers (Manolos or Malone Souliers for evenings) is similarly low maintenance and gets her through most events. This isn’t about being directional, but amping up her personal style, which has always been one part rock chick and two parts contemporary Audrey Hepburn. She too has her own role models.
“If you have a handful of tops in different shades it’s really easy to switch things up and look quite different without having mountains of clothes,” says Fellowes. (And yes, she is related to Downton writer Julian Fellowes who’s a second cousin. But she says McGovern didn’t pick up on the link until they’d already built a working relationship.)
It’s not surprising the two work so well together. Fellowes is disarmingly direct and practical and knows how to conceal a tummy from every angle. “Wacoal lingerie is the absolute best for tummies and hips, while Wonderbra’s Ultimate Plunge Bra is incredible for giving you structure,” she says. “Add a tunic top that doesn’t tuck in, to avoid bulges, and frame the whole outfit in an evening coat or jacket so three-quarters of your torso is surrounded with tailoring and the rest is shapewear. It’s a very sharp, sleek, clean approach.”
She’s fastidious about jacket lengths. “On anyone under 5ft 6in, that’s hip length or mid-way down your backside, no longer otherwise legs are foreshortened.”
McGovern’s stylist also swears by shoulder pads, especially for pear shapes and big busts. “People are often scared of shoulder pads because they think they’ll make them look bulkier, but the right ones can take two sizes off,” she says. “I had them incorporated into every single one of Olivia Colman’s outfits.”
At 5ft 8in and a delicate frame, you’d assume that McGovern is a dream to dress. But she doesn’t want to show too much flesh and wants to feel comfortable. “There’s nothing worse than uncomfortable body language,” says Fellowes. “So a workable heel is essential. If you teeter in stilettos, swap them for a block heel.”
Plenty of ankle, however. McGovern’s are excellent and she’s a habitual wearer of flat and mid-height mules that show them off when she wears them with one of her favourite pairs of cropped trousers. “A few pairs of backless shoes or strappy sandals mean you can wear quite simple outfits on repeat,” says Fellowes.
McGovern’s style and beauty advice is both elevated and basic. “Love who you are. Get lots of sleep, and stay away from Diet Coke if you can.”
McGovern’s looks we love
White dress from Sunday’s New York premiere
The increasingly popular cape dress flatters every one. If you’re under 5ft6, look for smaller, shorter capes that won’t cut you in half. “We wanted something fluid and elegant, but relaxed as a counterpoint to the black structured one she wore at the London premiere, “ says Fellowes. “Plus it’s hot in New York’.
Frilled top and cropped trousers
“The top’s from Jane Atelier, which is very good at Farrow and Ball type colours,” says Fellowes. “Those in-between shades that are less harsh than black. Colours that are somewhere between teal and petrol blue, pistachio and jade suit lots of different skin tones. The trousers are in wool crepe – every woman’s best friend because it doesn’t show the creases much and soaks up the light, so it’s slimming in photographs”. Shoes by Pretty Ballerina – with a slimming bare ankle.
Pale pink silk blouse and jeans
“This is classic Elizabeth, “ says Fellowes. “She loves to combine a bit of rock chic with a modern take on Audrey Hepburn style. The Jeans are DL1961, which use eight gallons of water per pair compared with the industry standard of 1500 gallons. Ethical silk blouse, Varana, old Malone Soulier shoes. Note the ankles are still on show. It’s youthful and contemporary.”
Emerald silk blouse and trouser suit
“The silk shirt is yet again by Varana – they cut them so well and the colours are gorgeous. The trousers are Varana, cut above the ankle bone, and ones she wears over and over again. The jacket is one she’d had in her wardrobe for ages. The silk mules are old Manolos and they transform everything.”
Pink floor length gown
This floor length, off-the-shoulder satin dress from Zac Posen had been worn before in 2018 by the country singer Kelsey Ballerini on the CMA red carport, but “Elizabeth doesn’t care about that”, says Fellowes. “She’s not at all precious. If she loves it and it looks good, she’s happy. The colour here is amazing – those clashing red nails make it look modern – and the neckline looks incredible on her. The bag’s from Tyler Ellis.”
Black vintage mesh jumpsuit
“Elizabeth has great arms but she doesn’t want to show too much flesh. The mesh across the collarbone is so chic plus it takes the line of the jumpsuit right up to her neck which is very elongating without being too covered up. It’s in matte black crepe that soaks up the light and is super flattering,” says Fellowes. “She loves this look and has worn it multiple times.”
Red cape back dress
This really works with her dark hair and vivid blue eyes plus clean, glowing skin, lots of mascara and a strong red lip.
Simple chic staples
Clockwise from top left