The Costumes of Downton Abbey

A trip to Winterthur
A requisite picture before entering the exhibit.

I went to see the Costumes of Downton Abbey exhibit at the Winterthur Museum in Delaware. It was a wonderful, multifaceted display of fashion and history.

Winterthur Museum

Winterthur is the country estate turned museum of the du Pont family. For this exhibit, the designers cleverly used the real Winterthur estate as a counterpoint to the fictional, on-screen Downton Abbey. This was probably my favorite feature of the exhibit. It was nice to have a physical tie-in to remind viewers of where they were and celebrate the museum’s own historical importance as a country house. In the 1920s more than 200 people lived and worked at the Winterthur estate, which hosted a full farm, dairy, post office, and railroad. Throughout the exhibit there are information panels and photos about how Winterthur was run and who worked and lived there. While viewing Mr. Bates’ valet costume created for Downton Abbey, exhibit goers can also read about Victor Swanson, the valet who served H.F du Pont for thirty years.

One of the information panels on display discussing Winterthur
One of the information panels on display discussing Winterthur. (click to enlarge)

Contrary to how Downton Abbey is represented on the show, American estates in the early 20th century made use of many new, modern, labor-saving machines. These machines made estates much more appealing as workplaces for servants. Speaking of servants… Americans preferred to use the words “help” or “staff” to underscore the importance of the pay for labor exchange, rather than the class emphasis in Britain that is so heavily apparent on Downton. In the early 20th century, a scarcity in domestic help due to an expansion of employment opportunities drove wages up throughout the United States and working conditions also improved. At Winterthur, the highly trained, competent staff were attracted by higher wages, ‘generous’ holidays (‘generous’ seems quite vague here), and comfortable living quarters – not to mention access to those labor-saving machines.

Moving Through The Exhibit

The start of the exhibit. This is Thomas' costume.
The start of the exhibit with the clock indicating 7 am. This is Thomas’ costume.

The costumes, which were absolutely stunning, were arranged through the exhibit by time of day. Viewers start ‘below stairs’ early in the morning with the housemaid and housekeeper costumes, a clock on the wall indicating early morning. Here, in addition to the costumes, you could see a replica of the bell system used to ring the staff. Across the way, the Winterthur version of the calling system was on display – electronic and much more modern. As a quick note, Edith would have loved Winterthur – in America, the wealthy always took their breakfast in bed, single ladies included! No spinsters getting up for breakfast here.

Weekend parties, part of the lifestyle of the rich and famous, required many outfit changes. Tipping the staff at the end of the stay was a common practice - but those Americans tipped too much!
Weekend parties required a lot of work by the servants. Tipping the servants at the end of the stay was a common practice – but those Americans and their generous tips were threatening the social order!

As I traveled through a day at Downton, I read anecdotes about work, play, and the many rules of early 20th century fashion for those in a great estate. While viewing the tea dresses, I learned that it was the only time of day that women did not have to wear corsets. And the tradition of serving tea in late afternoon began when Queen Alexandra started inviting friends over for a cup of tea in the late afternoon when she was the Princess of Wales.

Favorites on Display

The costume designers have seven weeks to make an entire season’s wardrobe for each character. Many of the pieces were inspired by a vintage scrap of clothing or bead design and an entire dress would be made with that small piece of inspiration. The handiwork is wonderful to admire, and it’s hard to believe that these pieces were created in mere days. I’m including photos of my favorites here with a few notes in the captions describing how they were altered for effect on TV.

For close-up photos of the costumes and their intricate detail, I’d recommend the write-up on the pop culture and fashion blog Tom + Lorenzo – or, of course, visit the exhibit if you can! It runs through January 4, 2015. We did a house tour of Winterthur following the special exhibit, and it made for a wonderful afternoon. There is also a picnic area and acres of gardens to explore.

 

Cora's dress was inspired by the pearls on the front. The costume designers salvaged what they could of the pearl pattern and made a dress around it. She wore this in Season Two.
Cora’s dress was inspired by the pearls on the front. The costume designers salvaged what they could of the pearl pattern and fashioned the dress around it. She wore this in Season Two.
O'Brien's outfit
The exhibit had photos and video clips of the characters wearing the same costumes that were on display. This is Miss O’Brien’s costume. The costume designers used more texture and slightly different shades of black to enhance servants’ wear for TV.
Lady Sybil's Harem Pants
Lady Sybil’s Harem Pants. These appear quite turquoise, rather than blue like they did on the show. A docent told us that the color was changed digitally post-production to get the right color. You can see the bluer version on the panel behind the costume. The costume began with the vintage embroidery on the waistband.
These coats were worn by Cora, Edith and Cora's mother, Martha Levinson (the ostentatious fur was for Martha, of course). Beautiful!
These coats were worn by Cora, Edith, and Cora’s mother, Martha Levinson. The ostentatious fur was for Martha, of course. Beautiful!
Lady Edith's Wedding Train
This is Lady Edith’s wedding dress train. The costume designers found a scrap of material with this embroidered pattern, and they created the entire wedding dress around it. The bit of original material is included in the train. Unfortunately, viewers never saw the train on TV – the scene with the full train was cut during editing, which is really too bad.
The embroidery on the train was carried through the dress, with detailing on the shoulders and waist. Really beautiful.
The embroidery on the train was carried through the dress, with detailing on the shoulders and waist. Really beautiful.

Notes

As a reminder, I will be blogging Season 5 of Downton Abbey as it appears on PBS in the US – beginning in January! For Seasons 3 and 4, you can find links to all my posts on the Series page. 

For this post, all information came from the Costumes of Downton Abbey exhibit at the Winterthur Museum.

All photos taken by Deborah Doherty at the Costumes of Downton Abbey exhibit, August 8, 2014.

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