As Season 4 of PBS’ ” Downton Abbey” comes to a close this Sunday, U.S. fans of the British period drama won’t have to wait another year to experience the opulent aristocratic life of the Crawley Family. They needn’t even cross the pond. The exhibition “Costumes of Downton Abbey” at Winterthur Museum, Garden and Library in Wilmington, Del., is offering an up-close look at 40 wardrobe and accessory pieces worn by cast members.
Drawn from the collection of British period costumier Cosprop, most of the elaborate costumes were selected from the first three seasons, which include Lady Sybil’s unforgettable harem pants, Edith’s wedding dress and the Dowager Countess’ Victorian-era fashions. One newer selection: the dress Lady Rose wears for her society debut in Sunday’s finale. “It’s fantastic,” said Maggie Lidz, one of the Winterthur exhibition’s three curators. “It’s a beautiful pink transparent vintage dress with intricate beading all over.”
Lidz traveled to England last July to hand-pick the costumes. Most of the “upstairs” attire was selected in less than an hour. Searching for the simpler “downstairs” wardrobe proved to be more challenging than Mrs. Patmore’s disastrous attempt to operate a newfangled electric mixer.
“We have a little kitchen section in the show so we wanted to have Mrs. Patmore’s lavender cook’s dress and Daisy’s dark brown dress with the printed apron she wore as a scullery maid,” Lidz explained. As it happens, the servants’ humble clothes are stored and cataloged in generic “poor people” or “crowd scenes” boxes, which took a great deal longer to sort through.
Because the clothes were designed to exact measurements for each actor, 35 mannequins had to be individually hand-carved to the specifications of the costumes.
The show, which opens March 1 and is scheduled to run through Jan. 4, 2015, is organized by time of day from morning to evening.
Adorning one wall is an array of five coats worn by the Crawley women. Featured are two extravagant furs worn by Shirley MacLaine, as Cora’s American mother, Martha Levinson. In contrast is the old-fashioned lace coat worn by Maggie Smith’s Dowager Countess, Cora’s silk embroidered coat and a frumpy coat worn by the sometimes dowdy, woe-is-me middle sister Edith.
“I love how the clothes are not only expressive of the plot line but symbolic of what each character is going through,” said Lidz.
The top of Winterthur’s list of must-haves were Lady Mary’s aubergine engagement dress and Lady Sybil’s fashion-forward blue harem pants.
“Its much more beautiful in person,” said Lidz of the pants made famous by French designer Paul Poiret in 1911. “They were extremely interesting in terms of fashion history so we were glad to get them in the exhibition because we were able to use some of our early 20th century fashion magazines from our library collection such as the fantastic ‘Gazette du Bon Genre.’”
Lidz was less impressed with Mary’s engagement dress when she first laid eyes on it last summer. “It looked like a droopy, dark red dress, but the way it moves under light, it comes alive and the reflection on the silk turns it into something magical.”
That emotional moment when cousin Matthew finally proposes to the aloof Mary -- the moment audiences waited for through two torturous seasons -- will be replicated at Winterthur with Matthew’s tuxedo, video of the scene and even the romantic effect of falling snow.
Built in 1811, Winterthur was once home to Henry Francis du Pont (1880-1969). An avid horticulturist and collector of American Decorative Arts, Du Pont opened the 175-room country estate to the public as a Museum and Garden in 1951.
Interwoven throughout the exhibit are objects from the Du Ponts’ life at Winterthur in the early 20th century as a way to draw comparisons between the fictional British show and its real-life American counterpart.
Downton may have had pigs, but the Du Ponts had 300 prizewinning Holsteins on their property in 1926. At one point, the family of four, who always dressed for dinner, had 34 people on staff. One of Henry Francis du Pont’s dinner jackets will be on display along with wife Ruth’s alligator ladies maid traveling case.
“We wanted to show Henry’s dinner jacket, as he was a regular client of Henry Poole & Co.,” said Lidz. The gentlemen’s bespoke tailor on Savile Row in London was the renowned creator of the dinner suit.
“The best dressed men in America wore English clothing the way best dressed women wore French designs,” Lidz said of that era.
The exhibition extends its immersion into all things Downton with afternoon teas, English-style brunches and lectures on undergarments and “Grand Motorcars of the Downton Era.” This should keep American fans satiated through January 2015, when Season 5 is scheduled to premiere.