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Designs for Downton Abbey

By Anne Levin

When Downton Abbey fans talk about the television series that has dominated PBS-TV’s “Masterpiece” ratings for the past three years, the topic of costumes is bound to come up. The sumptuous gowns and stunning ensembles worn by the upstairs inhabitants of the magnificent house are so striking that they are almost characters in themselves.

What Downton fan can forget Mary’s beaded, deep red dress from Season One? What about Sybil’s daring harem pants? Or Edith’s wedding gown, with the headdress she flung over Downton’s balcony after she was abandoned at the altar by Sir Anthony Strallan?

Die-hard fans and anyone with an interest in early 20th century fashion can get a close-up look at these and other examples of sartorial splendor at “Costumes of Downton Abbey,” recently opened at the Wintherthur Museum near Wilmington, Delaware. The show will remain on view at the museum, which is housed in the former home of the du Pont family – an impressive country house in itself – through next January.

“There is nothing else like this going on anywhere,” said Maddie Lidz, one of three curators for the show. “It came about through personal relationships that Tom Savage, our Director of Museum Affairs, had in England. He does very exclusive trips there every year, and he knows everybody, which reflects the whole country house history, really.”

One of those relationships is with Julian Fellowes, the creator and writer of Downton Abbey. Once the director of Winterthur, a big fan of the show, asked Savage if he thought an exhibit related to the television program was possible, Savage got in touch with Fellowes.

“A tete-a-tete was arranged, and pretty soon they were clinking glasses and the contract was signed,” Lidz said. “Then Tom asked me and my colleagues Jeff Gruff and Chris Strand to become the curators, and we’ve been doing the nuts and bolts ever since.”

Lidz is the museum’s estate historian, while Gruff heads public programs and Strand directs the 60-acre gardens. Planning the exhibit has been a learning experience for all of them. “This is not my field. I’m not a costume historian. So I’m coming in at the level of most of our visitors,” Lidz said. “We are all interested in the history of the American country estate. We’re approaching it from a social history point of view. We wanted to organize the costumes so there was some meaning beyond just the show.”

The 40 costumes in the show are being lent by Cosprop, which is a costumier to film, theater, and television. The team has organized the exhibit as a “day in the life” of a country estate. Using Downton costumes the television series no longer uses, the show is a chronological tour, via clothing a man and a woman might wear at different points in the day. While the elaborate dresses and suits worn by the Crawley family are more varied than those of the people who serve them, the exhibit is by no means limited to the aristocrats.

“It’s upstairs and downstairs,” Lidz said. “Through the costumes, we’re able to show the servants’ roles. We have Daisy and Mrs. Patmore in the kitchen, Mrs. Hughes the head housekeeper, Thomas the evil footman, and Mr. Carson, the butler.

The importance of costumes to Downton Abbey is detailed in Behind the Scenes at Downton Abbey, the latest book about the series, written by Emma Rowley. “The costume designer is really part of the producing team, because she has a huge amount to do with the telling of the story,” Rowley quotes executive producer Gareth Neame. Lily James, who plays Crawley niece Rose, says, “It’s an incredible thing to wear an evening dress and immediately feel you are back in that time. The cut, the feel of it changes the way you move.”

While many of the items are found at vintage fairs or at costume houses, the book relates, most are created for the show. Sometimes a piece of fragile, vintage material is incorporated into a costume that is made from scratch. Inspiration comes from many sources, including historic photos and detailed illustrations from the period.

Lidz traveled to London and met with Caroline McCall, the costume designer for the show. “One of the things she told me was how with Daisy, the kitchen maid, her costumes are part of her character and provide information that help the viewer to understand things,” Lidz said. “They show her status. Once she is elevated to become assistant cook, she gets a proper white apron and a more elegant dress.”

The costumiers took Lidz to the fabric warehouse where bolts of luxurious materials are kept. “I felt the fabrics. I felt the material a butler’s costume would be made of,” she said. “I felt vicuna wool, which is amazing – a more expensive fabric than cashmere. This would be the highest quality suit they would have, I was told. I knew we had to have that for people to feel in the exhibit. So we bought some of that material so that people can touch it. A suit made from this fabric today would cost between $20,000 and $30,000.”

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The exhibit begins with Anna, a key character in the series. “We start with her before she was the lady’s maid, wearing a morning parlor maid costume,” Lidz said. “Then her costume changes. Part of this is that even the servants had to change their clothes during the day. We have Carson the butler’s evening dress with white tie. We talk about what the difference was between the white tie outfit of the butler, and the white tie outfit of Matthew, upstairs.”

Bringing the history of Winterthur into the exhibit was a goal from the beginning. “I’m very interested in the American country estate,” Lidz said. “Winterthur was a private residence in the same time period as that of Downton Abbey. What is the difference between an American and a British estate? One very significant difference, we’ve found, is that the drama at Downton really turns on keeping the family in the big house. In this country, that’s not the case. There’s nobody lobbying to get the Vanderbilts back at Newport. No du Ponts live at Winterthur anymore. We think of it as something special if a house like this is still in private hands.”

Lavish estates in the United States are almost always about a person, not a family. “That’s a big cultural gulf,” Lidz said. “Another is that in Britain, they say ‘servant’ without too much of a problem. Here, we say ‘help,’ ‘staff,’ or ‘employees.’ We use words that emphasize the pay-for-labor swap, not the status difference. And that’s been true since the nineteenth century.”

The exhibit uses a lot of quotes from Oscar Wilde. Tidbits about the du Pont family and some of their servants are included. “We do a lot about what a housemaid, butler, and footman do,” Lidz said.

“We have a section on how the du Ponts had tea at Winterthur. They had one kind of tea all the time, from Boston. We’ll have that at the show for people to try.”

Programming throughout the run of the exhibit will include a focus on how people live in British country estates today, with a visit from Simon Howard of Castle Howard (setting for the 1981 “Masterpiece Theater” series Brideshead Revisited), scheduled. Specialists – even one whose field is corsetry – will also make appearances. As for whether Lady Violet, Lord Grantham, Lady Mary or Tom Branson might make a showing at the opening or sometime during the year, Lidz was demure.

“We have a wide range of things scheduled,” she said. “I can’t say right now about whether any of the actors or writer will be here – not yet.”

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