An 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.
It 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.
The 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.
O’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.
Winterthur 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.
There 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.
Of 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.
Between 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.
Does 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 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.
Cora’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.
No flappers in sight, they are dressing closer to the way they did in the previous century but in luscious fabrics with exquisite details.
Thanks to my confreres for inviting me and to Winterthur for a fantastic day out.