Dressing Downton

Downton Costumes“Downton Abbey” has come to Winterthur Museum in Wilmington Delaware for almost a year’s visit.

Downton CastAn exhibit of 40 of the costumes of the hugely popular PBS series is intertwined with the history of Winterthur in the same time period when it was a private house, owned by Henry F. and Ruth Wales duPont.

Downton Servants HallIt begins in the Servant’s Hall with costumes from a housemaid, footman and Mrs. Hughes, the Downton Housekeeper, set against a wonderful wall of servant’s bells which you may ring yourself (no one will come). Mrs. Hughes dress has appliques and discreet beading, making it more elaborate than it appears on the program.

Downton Lady Mary's Garden Party DressThe costumes are displayed against large photomurals from scenes in the show.  This is the scene at the end of Season1 when war was announced at the Garden Party.  Mary’s dress is simple with detachable lace panels on the sleeves that were moved to other garments.  Her beautiful hat makes the outfit.

Downton O'Brien, Cora's maidO’Brien, Cora’s lady’s maid, who we all loved to hate, had more elaborate dress than appears on the screen.  What seems all black, is, in reality, a burgundy dress with ruffled edges paired with a dark olive over jacket.

Downton Mrs. du Pont's Travel CaseWinterthur has added some fascinating displays to the costumes including this lady’s travel case made in London (1920) of “crocodile or alligator”.  Belonging to Mrs. duPont, it contained among other things: 10 gold-plated capped glass and ceramic bottles, seal and sealing wax, address book, inkwell, sketchpad, pencil and pen, 2 clothes brushes, buttonhook, shoe horn, hairbrushes, comb, jewelry box, soaps, 2 toothbrushes and a manicure set.

 Mrs. DuPont and Pauline LouiseAbove the case in the vitrine is this beautiful portrait of Mrs. duPont with her oldest daughter Pauline Louise painted by Harrington Mann, 1921.

 Shooting PartyThere are very specific wardrobes for hunting, shooting and fishing.  Regarding foxhunting, here is a 1893 quote from Oscar Wilde “The unspeakable chasing the uneatable”.  Some version of tweed is a must.

Cora and Mary Evening dressesOf course, what everyone wants to see are the Upstairs dresses.  They do not disappoint, being even more elaborately beaded and constructed than they appear on the screen.  On the left, a handsomely embroidered dress of Cora’s and just visible, the back of Mary’s dress, on the right.  This Art Deco dress is beautifully beaded with a low décolleté, and surprisingly plainer in the back with the rather odd ‘tail’ of black tulle.

The ProposalBetween some of the vignettes are huge screen video clips on a loop, and the centerpiece of them is the Proposal scene between Matthew and Mary, outside in the snow.  There is also snow falling all over the walls either side of the video.  Mary’s seemingly simple burgundy red silk dress has a skirt of graduated scalloped panels.

Engagement dress BeadingAll this painstaking work for Mary’s dress…..who saw the beading when we were waiting for the proposal???  It is truly exquisite and has an innocence as befits an unmarried girl.

 Ruth Wales DuPont Wedding DressWhich brings us to weddings….  Ruth Wales married H.F. duPont on June 24, 1916.  She wore a most becoming dress with a long train and veil, and if we  believe the newspapers, a lot of diamonds!

Edith's wedding dayDoes anyone say Edith, without saying, ‘poor Edith’?  Here is her ill-fated wedding day, with Mary’s dress in front of it.  By this era, the dresses definitely needed someone wearing them.  Otherwise they look very baggy, and we know these are very slender women.

Edith's Wedding Dress BeadingEdith’s wedding dress has the most elaborate beading of the collection. On the left is the pleated, beaded draping that creates the shape of the front.  The train is very heavily beaded and falls from the shoulders.  It must have been heavy to run away in.

Poiret for Lady SybilThe younger girls introduce the more fashion forward outfits.  Lady Sybil raised eyebrows with this harem pants dress in the style of Paul Poiret.

Lady Rose in pinkCora’s niece, Lady Rose brings Jazz Age fashion to Downton.  This straight flapperish dress of pink velvet with embroidery still has a longish hem well below the knees.  We learned that short dresses didn’t arrive until 1926.

Downton Abbey dialogueWe’ll give the last word to those sparring partners, the Grande Dames of Downton – Penelope Wilton, Maggie Smith and Shirley MacLaine.

Three Grande DamesNo flappers in sight, they are dressing closer to the way they did in the previous century but in luscious fabrics with exquisite details.
Winterthur Urn of flowersThanks to my confreres for inviting me and to Winterthur for a fantastic day out.


About Susan

Susan Detjens is a former landscape painter, she lectures, demonstrates and runs workshops on floral design for museums, horticultural organizations and garden clubs across the US.
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