Delaware exhibit offers close-up look at ‘Costumes of Downton Abbey’
Fans of “Downton Abbey” may have bid a temporary farewell to the Crawley family when Season 4 of the Emmy-winning British post-Edwardian period drama wrapped up Feb. 23, but they can now say hello to some pieces of the show closer to home, with the opening March 1 of the exhibit “Costumes of Downton Abbey” at the DuPont family’s Winterthur estate near Wilmington.
The exhibit is unique to Winterthur, having been envisioned and curated by Winterthur’s own staff through an agreement with “Downton Abbey” producers and Cosprop, the London costume warehouse that holds among its collection many of the costumes used on the series. As such, Winterthur’s staff is positioning the exhibit not only as a treat for “Downton” and vintage fashion fans but a tourism draw to the historic home and to the state Delaware as a whole.
Co-curators Jeff Groff, Maggie Lidz and Chris Strand said they were able to make the case for Winterthur’s exhibit through the educational opportunity provided by being able to set the costumes, characters and period plotlines amidst the American equivalent to an English country estate like the fictional Downton or the real-life Highclere Castle, which serves as the show’s set.
Winterthur, they noted, was home to three generations of DuPonts — considerably less longevity than Highclere or Downton but much longer than was the rule in the U.S., where succeeding generations generally tore down the great houses to build their own visions of grandeur.
After a pictorial “who’s who” for the series, the “downstairs” scene that opens the exhibit (featuring 1912 period-authentic costumes for housemaid Anna, footman Thomas and housekeeper Mrs. Hughes) allows visitors to pull a cord to actually ring a bell on a replica of the iconic bell wall from the show.
Nearby, an electronic call panel similar to what would have been found at Winterthur at the time defines what curators described as the comparative eagerness of American estates to embrace new technology.
The exhibit kicks off with the morning routine for the Downton servants and proceeds chronologically through the day (with visual reminders provided by clocks on the exhibit walls), offering glimpses of a typical butler’s pantry and a musing on the use of the word “servant” (typical in Britain, but eschewed in the U.S., in favor of “help” or “staff”).
Then, it’s on to a garden party featuring dresses and floral hats worn by characters Lady Mary and Lady Sybil (and another, more formal housemaid costume), as well as dresses worn by Mary and her mother, Lady Cora, at a christening.
While none of the prop objects from the show are part of the Winterthur exhibit, the curators pulled select items from the estate’s collection of DuPont family items to supplement the settings provided for the Downton costumes.
That includes Henry Francis DuPont’s steamer trunk, which they noted — despite its comparatively compact size — might contain the dozen changes of clothes needed for just a weekend away. Displayed along with the steamer trunk are Thomas’ valet livery and Lord Grantham’s evening suit, leading to Mr. Bates’ workaday valet outfit, featuring an apron and shoe brush.
Mary’s and Matthew’s cricket outfits are next in the exhibit, situated beside a video monitor showing a clip from the scene in which they were worn. Just adjacent is another of the DuPont treasures: a crocodile-leather letter case that holds more than two dozen gold-plated cosmetics cases owned by Ruth DuPont, alongside the costume of Cora’s ladies’ maid O’Brien.
Featured with the valet costumes and O’Brien’s dress are photos of and information on the DuPonts’ valets and ladies’ maids, noting how invaluable such servants were considered and how life-disrupting their departure could be for their employers — reflecting some of the drama seen in “Downton Abbey,” but also observing that the typically homogenous British household staff contrasted with the befitting melting pot of its equivalent in the U.S.
Curators noted that wealthy women of the 1910s would likely have changed into “tea dresses” prior to that late-afternoon event — dresses designed to not require a corset, freeing them to don them on their own, without the ladies’ maid who would otherwise have been needed. Of course, the ladies’ maids would be called back into service to help them change into evening attire, complete with corset.
Lady Edith’s silky ivory wedding dress caps the next display in the exhibit, accented by the pastel dresses worn by her sisters, Mary and Sybil, to the wedding. Curators explained that some of the costumes were inspired by period fashion but created anew for the show, while others are real vintage pieces and still others use items that are vintage but add newly created coordinating elements.
Once such costume is Sybil’s dress for Edith’s wedding, which features a vintage top but a skirt created in the 21st century and embroidered to match that vintage piece. Later, in the evening portion of the exhibit, appears Cora’s red evening dress, made from a vintage embroidered panel that highlights the front of the costume, incorporated into an entirely original design created to make use of the vintage piece.
All of these costumes are found or created for the show in just a matter of weeks, as the scripts are finalized and costume designers are told what scenes will be shot in the so-very-near future, curators noted. The fragile vintage pieces must also be repaired on the set — sometimes repeatedly.
Alongside the wedding costumes sits the exhibit’s “Wall of Coats” — five ladies’ coats displayed on hangers, rather than mannequins, including a bronze-patterned coat and celadon scarf worn by Edith on the show and others belonging to Cora’s mother, brash American heiress Martha Levinson (played by Shirley MacLaine).
Curators noted that MacLaine’s contract for the series prohibited the use of still photographs of her performance. That left them at loose ends as to how to place the coats in the context of the show — a major goal for the exhibit as a whole, which features not only photos from the series but quotes from its scripts. They brainstormed a solution that involved incorporating video from the series instead.
A tea service occupies a niche along the next wall, displaying not only a typical tea set (here, from the DuPont collection) but the preferred brand of tea from the period. (At the conclusion of the exhibit, Downton fans can even buy Downton-branded tea to take home, along with a number of other souvenirs.)
Across the way, it’s a scene from the kitchen, as if cook Mrs. Patmore and her assistant, Daisy, were preparing one of the elaborate dinners served to the family. Curators noted that they’d particularly targeted the unique printed apron worn by Daisy in the series but had been told it was stored amongst an entire box of aprons in the London prop house.
They looked through all the aprons in that box just to find it for the exhibit. It appears alongside Mrs. Patmore’s costume, leading into the display of their employers’ evening attire.
One of the most notable pieces in the exhibit is the harem pants outfit worn by free-spirited sister Sybil, to the shock of her more traditional family members. The exhibit explains that the costume is a copy of an original period garment designed by Paul Poiret, who was known for modernizing British fashion (including eschewing corsets) and for making fashionable Persian and other “Oriental” influences.
Alongside those famous pants is an elaborately beaded dress worn by Mary, featuring a starburst design in black over a beige base. Nearby is an embroidered velvet sheath dress and an equally elaborately beaded ivory lace dress with velvet coat, as well as the gold-embroidered navy blue velvet dress worn by Dowager Countess Violet (played by Dame Maggie Smith) to one of the family’s dinners.
An adjacent case showcases a pair of long red gloves worn by Mary on the show, as well as others from the period, from the Winterthur collection. Accompanying exhibit information notes the importance of gloves in the period.
The next display is another of the hands-on elements of the exhibit, showcasing the costume worn by butler/major domo Carson alongside samples of worsted wool and vicuna. While the costume itself is off-limits, visitors can reach out and touch the fabric samples to compare the texture of the slightly scratchy wool that would have been typical of a butler’s jacket to the softness of the vicuna fabric that would have been more typical of his employer’s — both made in the same style but differentiated by material and cost. (Curators noted that a single vicuna suit would cost around $20,000 today.)
Carson’s costume comes to Winterthur with a unique story. Curators explained that, as Carson has generally worn the same costume throughout the series, they were at a loss as to how to display it in the exhibit while it was still in use. (In fact, the exhibit wasn’t allowed to feature any individual costume still in use on the show.)
When they asked to be able to have a costume replicated from the original, the curators were surprised to instead be offered the original costume used on the show, while a new one was made instead for the character to wear moving into the future. So, the butler costume Downton fans see in new episodes only exists because the Winterthur exhibit asked for Carson’s costume for the display in Delaware.
Another evening suit is featured in the next scene from the show: Matthew’s proposal to Mary. Both characters’ costumes are on display — Matthew’s white tie and tails and Mary’s black-cherry dress. But the dress may be a surprise for even the most devoted fans of the series, as curators noted that the costumes are often much lighter in color than they appear on the show.
In fact, they said, the costumes are created with the specific scenes in mind, and in the case of the proposal, with the nighttime setting, accented by snow and lit from behind by the lights of the home, designers knew they’d have to make the dress a lighter shade of red than they wanted it in the finished show, lest it appear black, rather than red. So, the red dress is just that, accented along the edges of its layered skirt by beading that the viewer couldn’t possibly appreciate until it’s seen up-close and in person.
The red theme continues with that red evening dress worn by Cora and its vintage beaded panel, followed by an informational display focusing on the wearing of tiaras during the period — another element of the fashion of the time that required a ladies’ maid to be done properly, as the tiara was woven into the hair, where it would remain until she undressed before bedtime.
Coral is the color of the next display, with another costume that nearly didn’t make it to the Winterthur exhibit. Curators explained that they had originally been offered a dress to be worn by the character of author Virginia Woolf during a party scene on the show. However, much of that scene ended up on the cutting-room floor, leaving the party guest anonymous and the dress of little notability.
Asking for a substitute, the curators found they were offered a vintage coral-colored embroidered sheath dress that is the exhibit’s only Season 4 costume, due to the proscription on in-use costumes. Only later did they realize that the dress was worn by Cousin Rose, who has become a major character on the show.
Rounding out the exhibit are elaborate evening dresses from the series’ granddames, Matthew’s mother, egalitarian Isobel, and the feisty dowager countess, the latter in her namesake violet, and featuring more elaborate netting, beading and embroidery, all amidst a setting of a period table and beaded lamp, with one of Violet’s famous “zingers” accenting the wall.
“Costumes of Downton Abbey” offers one final interactive feature, with visitors able to vote for one of three favorite items by dropping a button into a jar before they head back out into the larger museum.
They’ll have to exhibit some of Downton’s hard-won fiscal restraint to avoid leaving the exhibit with one of the many souvenirs on offer, ranging from tote bags and T-shirts featuring Violet’s token question: “What is a weekend?” to those canisters of Downton tea, jewelry and more.
The exhibit is open Tuesdays through Sundays, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tickets must be purchased for the exhibit, and curators advised purchasing them in advance, online at www.winterthur.org, as two-hour timed entry periods will be reserved with exhibit ticket purchases and some time slots may sell out.
General admission to Winterthur, including the exhibit, costs $20 for adults, $18 for students and seniors, and $5 for children 5 to 11. Young children are admitted free of charge, as are Winterthur members who get their ticket through membership benefits.
Along with the exhibit, visitors can tour the home’s 175 rooms, while Winterthur’s galleries feature other examples of the decorative arts. The estate’s grounds and gardens are well known on their own among garden enthusiasts and will make for a full day (or more) of touring for those heading to Winterthur for the exhibit. Staff said the hillsides erupt in a carpet of blue as spring arrives, leading in to spectacular displays later in the year, including an azalea-lined path.
The “Costumes of Downton Abbey” exhibit runs through Jan. 4, 2015. There are no plans to continue the exhibit beyond that date at any other location, making Winterthur a unique destination for “Downton Abbey” fans for many months to come. The Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library is located at 5105 Kennett Pike, near Wilmington.