Why Beauty Junkies Will Love Tonight's Downton Abbey Finale

Photo: Courtesy Of PBS.
I'm not a TV person. I'm too prone to dozing off on the couch, and too easily distracted by my phone, to keep the necessary focus. (Otherwise, I ask my boyfriend for a recap every five minutes.) For both our sanity, I mostly avoid television, but a few shows have broken through my attention-span barrier. I'm still coping with the loss of my beloved Mad Men, and now, with you, I'm mourning the end of Downton Abbey.

From a beauty editor perspective, these two shows have something in common — they're all about my subject matter. Of course, hair and makeup always play a major role in period dramas. Who would Marie Antoinette be without her powdered wigs? Or Scarlett O'Hara without her crimson lips? But Downton Abbey takes this relationship even further.

Warning: Spoilers of tonight's series finale ahead.

Beauty is not simply a timely aesthetic that draws in the viewer and helps set the scene, but something that adds dimension to the plot. And tonight's series finale (tear) couldn't be a stronger example of this point. As all the beloved (and even the not-so-beloved) cast members finally embark on their happily-ever-afters (not tragic deaths, for once), newfangled beauty gadgets and products dance along the storyline beckoning the characters along.

In the last episode, we saw the first hairdryer enter Downton, a bottle of nail polish makes an unexpected debut at the Dowager's home, and we're even witness to a discussion on the merits of using shampoo. ("There was shampoo in India hundreds of years before us. Then again, I'm not sure I see the point of it," muses Molesley.) As Crawley and Co. shift their focus from their haughty and harrowing past to the progressive path ahead of them (new job opportunities! marriages! babies!), these beauty innovations act as stamps on their passports to the future.
Photo: Courtesy Of PBS.
Lady Mary led the pack — of course — when last season (set a year prior, in 1924), she headed to the hairdresser and requested the sleek, blunt bob made famous in the States by Louise Brooks and Clara Bow. “You’ve made me feel very strong,” she says to her hairstylist when she sees the result. Beauty was becoming a form of power — like a swipe of red lipstick on a suffragette, a short cut meant business. But just years before, a woman of Lady Mary's stature would "never risk being seen visiting a beautician — it was considered vain and embarrassing to admit that you needed help to look beautiful," reports PopSugar. Only the lady's maids would see and tend to their hair — which was always worn up and pulled back in public.

And what would Downton Abbey be without those maids tending to every tendril and tribulation? It seems even in Edwardian times those who did hair doubled as therapists — Lady Mary’s Anna being the ultimate example. It was Anna, at Mary’s request, who introduced the blowdryer into the Downton Abbey swan song. The metal contraption became a sign that all of the characters, those upstairs and downstairs, will adapt to the changing world just fine — even if lady's maids become extinct in the process. (“I think the future is no lady's maids at all. But we haven't quite got there yet,” predicts Mrs. Hughes.)
Photo: Courtesy Of PBS.
Daisy is intently bemused when Anna first takes the hairdryer out of its box. Always skirting the line between frustration and excitement, she at first doesn't get the point, then quickly realizes the potential, and is finally confronted with her own never-changing hair. So, in true Daisy fashion, her plotting mind speeds ahead of her rational one — before any food is served, vows exchanged, or feuds extinguished, she takes things (blowdryer and scissors, that is) into her own hands. And with great power comes...well, mistakes. But luckily, Anna and her impressive hairdressing skills swoop in and Daisy, a maid, ends up with the same haircut that made Mary, a lady, feel "very strong."

Just like that, the beauty revolutions cross over to include both master and servant, and both young and old. The Dowager’s lady’s maid Gladys Denker (although she may disapprove of such a categorization), is getting in on it, too. During one of the many ping-pong-like spats between her and the butler Spratt, her nail-painting becomes fuel for their volleying fire. (“Her ladyship won't like that,” says Spratt. “It's very discreet, the color. It's called nude,” says Denker. “That won't strengthen your argument,” he retorts.)
Photo: Via Tumblr/amerigirltn
But it does strengthen something. Whether it's getting a manicure or a new haircut, these beauty rituals are much more than primping. Hell, people have been doing them (or having someone do them) since Downton was erected. These are acts of control. Taking charge of how they look and not being afraid to admit it (even if it goes awry sometimes) gives these women a power they'd never had before — a power we still exert, yet also still struggle with, today.

So, in these final seasons, it was not only the beauty looks that uncharacteristically held my attention on the screen — but how they became a symbol for the growing strength of the series' complicated, dramatic, dynamic, and relatable women. I'll miss you, Downton.

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