The Dowager vs. the Dinner Jacket: Round 3

Posted on February 3, 2014

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(ITV)

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Season 4 of Downton Abbey is now airing on PBS and the fictional Grantham household is continuing to adapt to the social changes brought about by World War I.  For her part, the Victorian-minded Dowager Countess is still no more accepting of informal dinner jackets than previously. In episode 4, she converses with her tuxedo-clad son following a family dinner that included an unexpected house guest:

The Dowager Countess: Why are you in your rompers?

Lord Grantham: Tony only brought black tie.  He didn’t think we’d be changing if there was no one staying.

The Dowager Countess: So another brick is pulled from the wall.

For those unfamiliar with the term, a romper is a loosely fitted, short-legged one-piece garment worn as playclothes by small children.  Hardly a valid substitute for traditional full dress.

Interestingly, Lord Grantham’s decision to dress down reflects period etiquette requiring hosts to make sartorial accommodations for last-minute guests.  The following passage is from a 1914 American conduct manual:

When a dinner is hastily arranged for an out-of-town guest, who is perhaps passing through the city for the day only, or some distinguished man or woman on a tour of lectures, the hostess may particularly request the guests not to wear evening clothes out of consideration for the guest of honor who, not expecting any social courtesies, is not prepared so to dress himself.  In such cases the men will wear their day clothes, though a woman is always privileged to make her evening toilet somewhat more dainty and elaborate than her daytime one.