News that the producers of "Downton Abbey" are planning a merchandising line tied to the early 20th Century British class drama raises fanciful images of PBS pledge drives offering cravats and fur wraps for donations of $100 or more.
While your local public television station is unlikely to start giving away Lord Grantham waistcoats or Mrs. Patmore aprons, the bid to capitalize on the show's unexpected popularity by selling "Downton"-inspired furniture, housewares and apparel marks a modern sign of success for a show about old-fashioned excess.
"Downton” joins another Sunday night favorite, "Mad Men," as a fashion influencer in a way that eludes many other TV dramas – like, say, "The Walking Dead.” Both “Downton” and “Mad Men” tap into retro and vicarious-living vibes, even if in reality those good old days weren’t always good.
The power of mass media entertainment on fashion trends predates even 1934’s “It Happened One Night,” in which Clark Gable famously (or infamously, for the folks in the underwear business) ditched his T-Shirt – which just might be the only thing Lord Grantham has left on his back not too far down the line.
The merchandising of "Downton Abbey" follows the show's third season, in which the castle’s upstairs-downstairs crew dodged financial disaster – unaware that Roaring Twenties are soon to give way to the Great Depression, when they’re likely to have bigger things to worry about than whether the soup ladle’s been properly polished.
The longer we watch “Downton,” knowing the gloom that’s on the horizon, the less we want to be in their fancy shoes. But the producers are betting that fans will spend to indulge in the fantasy of living like the Granthams, even if the Edwardian era sunk with the Titanic – the disaster that kicked off “Downton Abbey.”
As “Downton Abbey” Executive Producer Gareth Neame put it to CNBC: “It's very rare for a British drama to have this much retail potential and merchandising value."
We’ll see if “Downton Abbey” stationery, wallpaper and other items find their way into near as many homes as the soap opera, which won’t return to U.S. televisions until January. Times quickly change, as do fashions and tastes. Changing times are far tougher to deal with – keeping up appearances at Grantham Manor may soon be all the lords and ladies and their servants have left.
Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire, Carey Mulligan and Joel Edgerton star in director Baz Luhrmann's take on F. Scott Fitzgerald's classic American novel. Opens Dec. 25. (Published Wednesday, May 30, 2012)