Secrets of the Stylish: Getting ready with Elizabeth McGovern

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Photo credit: Joseph Sinclair
Photo credit: Joseph Sinclair

Last night's Downton Abbey: A New Era premiere was a glamorous affair that brought all the stars of the beloved TV show back together on the red carpet for the first time in years – and the actresses and their stylists pulled out all the stops. This was certainly the case for Elizabeth McGovern, who worked together with her stylist Mary Fellowes on a very unique look, one which championed sustainability.

The dress was created by Beirut-based couture house, Azzi & Osta, who re-purposed an old design with deadstock material from a former Marc Jacobs collection.

"These big red-carpet moments can get hundreds of millions of digital impressions and therefore are a wonderful vehicle and platform to spread awareness," Fellowes told us about why it was so important to make a statement about sustainability on this occasion. "Not to do so, in the age of climate crisis we live in and when we are all patently aware of how polluting fashion is, to me is a dereliction of duty and unethical. For this event, we needed to rework this heirloom dress, so I insisted that any fabrics be sourced from an upcycled supplier – we went with Mood Fabrics in New York. Rumour has it that the velvet we chose was deadstock from Marc Jacobs."

Photo credit: Joseph Sinclair
Photo credit: Joseph Sinclair
Photo credit: Karwai Tang - Getty Images
Photo credit: Karwai Tang - Getty Images

Following the premiere, the dress will be transformed into a tailored trouser look, featuring the same sequinned bodice detail, giving it a second life – and meaning it can be worn again and again. Taking an opportunity to make such a statement about sustainability was important to both Fellowes and McGovern, who know how much of an impression red-carpet fashion can make.

"Social media has been a game changer to allow stylists to communicate direct with wide audiences on their work, their inspiration, their process," says Fellowes of knowing her impact. " I am always amazed how interested audiences are about our process as it’s just my day job, but there is a sort of Cinderella factor – people are always intrigued by just how much work goes in behind the scenes to achieving the heady, magical glamour and precision that is needed on the red carpet."

Photo credit: Joseph Sinclair
Photo credit: Joseph Sinclair

The dress, which features a sequinned bodice and a beautiful velvet skirt, was paired with David Morris jewellery and a pair of Maria Tash studs.

Photo credit: Joseph Sinclair
Photo credit: Joseph Sinclair

We caught up with McGovern just before she hit the red carpet in her spectacular gown to see what she had to say about the ensemble, what she enjoys about the styling process of these events and how her love of fashion has developed over the years.

WHAT WAS THE INSPIRATION FOR YOUR OUTFIT THIS EVENING?

I’m inspired by Hollywood of the Thirties and Forties. It was a beautiful period when women’s gowns were really works of art. They were structured, but moved with and reflected movement of the body – they enhanced it. Sadly, in spite of all our protestation, when you watch the movies of Bette Davis, Joan Crawford or Katharine Hepburn, you realise the parts were better then, as well.

HOW INVOLVED ARE YOU IN THE STYLING PROCESS?

I have such a wonderful partner in style with Mary that, usually, I just watch in awe as she gets on with the work. Whenever I do say anything it’s usually, 'Keep it simple'. We either have the same taste, or she uncannily knows who I am.

Photo credit: Joseph Sinclair
Photo credit: Joseph Sinclair

HOW HAS YOUR STYLE EVOLVED OVER THE YEARS?

I think for the most part, my style hasn’t changed all that much. For one thing, I hate shopping. I’m still wearing stuff I bought 30 years ago. I think if you possibly can, buy quality and re- wear it. I’m not a slave to trends, and anyway, if you hang around long enough they cycle back – there you are, at the forefront.

HOW MUCH DOES THE PROJECT YOU’RE WORKING ON IMPACT THE OUTFIT YOU CHOOSE?

I like to differentiate myself from my character in the film, if at all possible. When you act in a long-running series like Downton Abbey, people often imaginatively project on to you. You become the part you are playing. When I used to tour with my band, I would sometimes get the feeling that people were devastated that I wasn’t playing guitar in a long gown and corset.

Photo credit: Joseph Sinclair
Photo credit: Joseph Sinclair

WHAT HAS BEEN YOUR MOST MEMORABLE RED CARPET MOMENT OVER THE LAST FEW YEARS?

My favourite red-carpet moment ever was of course a Mary Fellowes' creation. It was for the premiere of The Chaperone in Los Angeles. Mary had found a vintage black Dior dress. Knowing nothing about such things, I would have said it was a Fifties cut: a full skirt to just below the knee, and the most beautiful luminous satin. Mary found a vintage leopard pattern narrow belt and threw it on – and boom, it was suddenly a really modern look.

Photo credit: Michael Kovac - Getty Images
Photo credit: Michael Kovac - Getty Images

HOW DO YOU DECIDE WHICH BRANDS TO WORK WITH?

Mary and I both like to work with brands that make clothes sustainably. Mary lives for beauty and style, so that is proof that it can be done. My favourite wholly sustainable brand is Varana. Often, I’ll try on a lot of things, and then say to Mary, 'Let’s just wear the Varana we had before.' The material is beautiful, cut well, and the colours are gorgeous. According to Mary, all their craftsmen and women were fully supported during lockdown. It’s a company that cares about the planet and about people, but I wouldn’t wear their clothes if they weren’t also my favourite.

WHAT IS YOUR PERFECT ‘GETTING READY’ SET-UP?

I remember, in the early days of the series, we were suddenly all invited to red carpets, and no one knew quite how to manage it all. On one occasion, Laura Carmichael booked us all in to her hairdresser in central London. It was so much fun. Someone cracked open a bottle of champagne, and everyone got spruced up together. On another occasion, Michelle Dockery and I were touring the USA for publicity. She said to me, 'Mum, I’m doing your hair'. 'Do you know what you’re doing?' I said. Well, it turns out, she comes from a long line of hair experts – that girl can literally do anything.

Photo credit: Joseph Sinclair
Photo credit: Joseph Sinclair

FASHION HAS A REPUTATION FOR BEING FRIVOLOUS, BUT WHY DOES WHAT WE WEAR MATTER?

I was raised with the adage, 'Clothes maketh not the man' – and I disagree. Our clothes express who we are. People function better if they feel they are putting their best, most authentic, visual self forward. There is no point in denying it. Having said that, I think it’s important that after you get dressed, you walk out the door and forget about it. There’s nothing more boring than spending time with someone who’s preoccupied by how they look.

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