PHOTOS COURTESY OF WINTERTHUR/JIM SCHNECK Enlarge
WILMINGTON, Del. — Since Season 4 of Downton Abbey ended in late February, I’ve been in withdrawal.
But right here, right now, everything’s OK, because I’m once again immersed in the world of Downton Abbey. Or at least surrounded by the clothes. Standing at attention on headless mannequins in a large exhibition space at Winterthur — the Henry Francis du Pont estate-turned-museum in Delaware’s Brandywine Valley — are almost 40 costumes from the hit PBS show.
The “Costumes of Downton Abbey” exhibit begins with a snippet from the first episode of the series and a reproduction of the bell wall in the servants’ hall. I can’t resist the interactive part of the display and give the upstairs piece a yank to elicit an imperious ring. Tea in the library, please!
A few things occur to me as I take in the costumes. First, they all look so small. Perhaps this is because they’re sitting on mannequins as opposed to flesh and bones, but wow. Even the livery worn by tall Thomas, the scheming footman-cum-underbutler, looks downright slight. That’s nothing compared with the women’s dresses, especially those worn by eldest Grantham sister, Mary. A mere wisp she must be.
More fascinating is the amazing detail that viewers never see. Costume designers like to add textures to fabrics to give the illusion of light and movement, a placard informs me. Housekeeper Mrs. Hughes’ black dress in the first display is a good example. Totally lost to viewers is the windowpane pattern on the skirt. It’s quite pretty, really.
We admire the details on dresses worn by Violet, the dowager countess, particularly the lacy sleeves and the beaded bodices. Often, they’re sadly obscured beneath the dinner table. Still, I appreciate the dedication to such hidden gems, down to the Grantham crest on Thomas’ livery.
Of course, it’s fun to spot the less-than-perfect elements, too. Is that a stain on the train of Edith’s wedding dress? A spot on Matthew’s cricket pants?
But the exhibit is less about “gotcha” than appreciating the artistry of the costumes. Designers have about seven weeks to create character wardrobes. They combine vintage and contemporary elements, frequently salvaging an old fragment to incorporate into a new piece. Stunning examples are Sybil’s blue harem pants, with which she shocks her family in Season 1, and the floor-length beaded cream dress paired with a long green jacket that Countess Cora wears during the fund-raising concert in the Season 2 opener.
Guests are encouraged to touch two fabric samples that show the contrast between the scratchier wool of servant uniforms and the soft, buttery vicuña that Robert, Lord Grantham, would wear.
The exhibit spans the entire series and nearly the entire cast. The costumes are arranged in little vignettes that recall particular scenes, often with a short video clip. So there’s the summer finery worn at the garden party that comes to a sudden end in Season 1 when Lord Grantham announces the outbreak of World War I. We examine the workaday wardrobe of kitchen staff Mrs. Patmore and Daisy, as well as the dresses that Mary, Edith, and Sybil wear to Edith’s aborted wedding. I like the tweed collection from Season 2, when Mary’s beau Sir Richard Carlisle joins the Granthams for a shooting party.
I linger in the space devoted to the show’s most romantic scene, when Matthew proposes to Mary. His dapper suit and her shimmery red tiered dress stand apart from the rest of the exhibit. The clip of the proposal plays on the wall behind the pairing.
But there’s also plenty of historical perspective. A good bit of it focuses on Winterthur itself, which in its pre-museum heyday operated much like the Granthams’ fictional estate, complete with tenant farmers, tea parties, and multiple daily wardrobe changes.
The placards also use the show as a window onto history. I’m intrigued to learn that pinstripe suits in England evolved from bank uniforms, with each bank having its own distinctive stripe. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that this information accompanies one of Matthew’s suits, posed in front of a very GQ photograph of actor Dan Stevens wearing said suit.
My husband and I spend so much time in the Downton exhibit that we miss out on other Winterthur highlights. Thankfully, tickets are good for two days, so we return the next day for a tour of the house, which is as impeccably decorated and staged as any series set. We spend a good bit of time in the Campbell Collection of Soup Tureens, which includes elegant silver and ceramics in the shapes of cauliflower and animal heads.
Before we leave, we’re already thinking of an excuse to come back. The grounds will be nice in the spring. Yuletide sounds so charming.
But there’s another motivating factor. The costume exhibit runs through early January, 2015. Downton Abbey probably won’t return to PBS until January, 2015.
See where I’m going with this?
If You Go:
Winterthur Museum, Garden and Library is at 5105 Kennett Pike, Wilmington, Del.; 800-448-3883; www.winterthur.org. “Costumes of Downton Abbey” runs through Jan. 4. Timed entry is included in the price of admission: $20 for adults; seniors and students, $18; children ages 2-11, $5.