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A Stitch in Time


“Is there anything more thrilling than a new frock?” – Lady Sybil, Downton Abbey, Season 1, Episode 4

In 2011, PBS’s British period drama Downton Abbey took America by storm. Despite the historical nature of the show, people across the world fell in love with the characters: they supported Sybil’s quest for women’s rights, cheered when Mary finally admitted her love of Matthew, and laughed as Mrs. Patmore tortured poor, naive Daisy. But aside from the stellar acting and detailed storylines, what really sells the scenes are the intricate costumes that draw the audience into the early-20th-century world of Downton Abbey. Can you even begin to imagine what these costumes, that add so much to the actor’s performance, might look up close and personal?

Winterthur is offering Downton’s audience just that–the chance to get a closer look at the costumes that act more like props than simple garments. While a few pieces in the “Costumes of Downton Abbey” exhibit have been viewed before, this is the first time the whole collection has been seen on American soil. Winterthur has rented 40 of the Downton Abbey costumes, encompassing both “upstairs” and “downstairs,” morning to evening.

Lady Edith’s wedding dress 

Some of the collection’s crowning jewels include Mary’s engagement dress, Sybil’s Harem pants, and Edith’s wedding dress. These costumes “support the brilliant script that Julian Fellows has written, and all those details come together to make a fictional reality [believable],” says Linda Eaton, Winterthur’s John L. & Marjorie P. McGraw Director of Collections & Senior Curator of Textiles.

Aside from the 2006 exhibit “Fashion in Film,” Winterthur has not often ventured into the world of pop culture. “We also realized that Winterthur had the ability to make a comparison between the British country house, like the one in Downton Abbey, and a real American country estate with Winterthur and the du Pont family,” says Jeff Groff, Director of Public Programs. “It really fit with the research we’d already done, especially because the historian and production designers and costume designers for Downton are so careful about the accuracy and detail.”

All of the costumes, save for Rose’s Season 4 dress, which was a completely authentic piece, are made for the television show. The designers took vintage pieces of fabric and fashioned an entire costume around them, utilizing inspiration from the clothing of that time.

Mr. Bates’s costume

The curators of Winterthur worked to offer the viewer a better understanding of the similarities and differences between the American and British estates. To accomplish this, the exhibit’s designers built a three-dimensional series of vignettes in which the costumes exist. These vignettes track the course of a day, from morning to evening, and mirror the scenes that one would find in an episode of Downton, so the viewer can follow along. Along with the Downton costumes, the curators have added items from the du Pont household to fill in the scenes and bring even more life to the exhibit. One such example is the small section on valets, which includes one of Bates’s costumes and several cleaning tools that a valet in the du Pont household would utilize when tending to shoes and clothes. Together, the costumes and du Pont items create a seamless and vivid picture of life in a manor house.

The hunting costumes of Michael Gregson, Lady Mary and The Earl of Grantham 

Along with the costumes and artifacts, the curators have utilized stills and script excerpts to help the viewer recall each re-created scene. Winterthur’s designers have added special lighting to add to the ambiance, such as a crystal chandelier alight with flickering candles, and lighting that appears like snow falling on a winter’s night.  Even the wall colors help the observer follow the displays as the colors transition, like the day itself, from light grays to greens and blues to mauves. The exhibit also features several interactive and sensory components for guests, including a lever that triggers one of the downstairs bells to ring (just like in the television show’s opening sequence), a chance to smell the du Pont’s favorite tea, and a fabric sample display, which allows the viewer to feel the differences in the fabrics that the house and the staff world wear.

One of the most interesting aspects of the collection is the elements of the design that the viewer cannot see on the screen. Joy Gardiner, Winterthur’s Textile Conservator and Assistant Director of Conservation, noted that the buttons on Carson’s vest pick up the diamond pattern that appears on his shirt and cuffs. “[It’s] something that would never show up on film, but they’re taking that level of detail,” she says.

Thomas’s Livery. Photo courtesy of Winterthur, James Schneck

Along with this detail, the costumers found and included the real Grantham family crests on the buttons of each footman’s livery (Thomas’s can be seen in the exhibit). The designers also had to consider how a garment would translate to television. Because of this, certain looks, such as Mary’s engagement dress, appear lighter in person than they do on screen; if the stylists had actually fabricated the dress out of the deep burgundy that appeared on screen, the camera might have turned the dress black in the light of the falling snow.

“The amount of knowledge that these costume designers and people who make the costumes have, to be able to re-create believable costumes of the period, is phenomenal, and so they have studied fashion history,” Eaton says. “That’s what museums are for, and so museums provide the backdrop and the background research that make things like Downton Abbey [possible].”

In conjunction with the exhibit, Winterthur is hosting a series of Downton Abbey-inspired lectures on various topics, including the art of costuming and jazz music, inspired by Season 4 character Jack Ross. The exhibit will run at Winterthur until January 4, 2015.