It’s been two long weeks, and I’ve been in withdrawal.
But right here, right now, at this moment, everything’s okay. It’s okay because I’m once again immersed in the world of “Downton Abbey.” Or at least surrounded by the clothes. Standing at attention on headless mannequins in a large exhibition space at Winterthur are almost 40 costumes from the show.
The “Costumes of Downton Abbey” exhibit at the Henry Francis du Pont estate-turned-museum in Delaware’s Brandywine Valley has been open only a week before my husband and I high-tail it up Interstate 95 to be among the first to see it. And not a moment too soon. The recent conclusion of Season 4 has left me hungry for anything new having to do with the PBS-imported Brit hit.
Admission to the show runs on a timed-entry system, so even though it’s winter and the grounds are covered in snow, we decide to pass some time on a garden tram tour. As our teeth chatter, a staff member walks over to warm up the crowd. He asks whether we’re here to see the “Downton” exhibit, and whether we’re fans of the show.
My husband and I don’t hesitate to admit our devotion, which prompts another passenger to apparently distance herself from the frenzy. “I enjoy it for the historical perspective,” she says a bit haughtily.
Oh. Come. On.
I think of the exhibit bookmark that I’ve already stashed in my purse. The soundtrack on my phone. The “haters gonna hate” Thomas and O’Brien T-shirt my husband’s wearing under his sweater. My own pair of quippy T-shirts. The book and DVDs at home. The series-branded English Rose tea on my desk at work.
I play it cooler than Season 1 Lady Mary and decide not to counter our skeptic’s assessment. Yes, the history’s interesting, but I also like — fine, love — the series for any number of more lowbrow reasons, and I have a suspicion that a lot of the other museumgoers do, too.
The exhibit begins with a snippet from the first episode of the series and a reproduction of the bell wall in the servants’ hall. I can’t resist the interactive part of the display and give the upstairs piece a yank to elicit an imperious ring. Tea in the library, please!
A few things occur to me as I take in the costumes. First, they all look so . . . small. Perhaps this is because they’re sitting on mannequins as opposed to flesh and bones, but wow. Or perhaps it’s because I’m used to seeing them on my big-screen TV. Here, even the livery worn by tall Thomas, the scheming footman-cum-underbutler, looks downright slight. That’s nothing compared with the women’s dresses, especially those worn by eldest Grantham sister, Mary. A mere wisp she must be.
More fascinating is the amazing detail that viewers never see. Costume designers like to add textures to fabrics to give the illusion of light and movement, a placard informs me. Housekeeper Mrs. Hughes’s black dress in the first display is a good example. Totally lost to viewers is the windowpane pattern on the skirt. It’s quite pretty, really.
We admire the details on dresses worn by Violet, the dowager countess, particularly the lacy sleeves and the beaded bodices. Often, they’re sadly obscured beneath the dinner table. Still, I appreciate the dedication to such hidden gems, down to the Grantham crest on Thomas’s livery.
Of course, it’s fun to spot the less-than-perfect elements, too. Is that a stain on the train of Edith’s wedding dress? A spot on Matthew’s cricket pants?
“Maybe it’s his sweat,” my husband jokes. I am simultaneously appalled and enthralled.
After all, the exhibit is less about “gotcha” than appreciating the artistry of the costumes. Designers have about seven weeks to create character wardrobes. They combine vintage and contemporary elements, frequently salvaging an old fragment to incorporate into a new piece. Stunning examples are Sybil’s blue harem pants, with which she shocks her family in Season 1, and the floor-length beaded cream dress paired with a long green jacket that Countess Cora wears during the fundraising concert in the Season 2 opener.
My hands itch to reach out and touch the beading, the embroidery, the pleats. I keep them occupied by avidly taking notes. Guests are, however, encouraged to touch two fabric samples that show the contrast between the scratchier wool of servant uniforms and the soft, buttery vicuña that Robert, Lord Grantham, would wear.
The exhibit spans the entire series and nearly the entire cast. The costumes are arranged in little vignettes that recall particular scenes, often with a short video clip. So there’s the summer finery worn at the garden party that comes to a sudden end in Season 1 when Lord Grantham announces the outbreak of World War I. We examine the workaday wardrobe of kitchen staff Mrs. Patmore and Daisy, as well as the dresses that Mary, Edith and Sybil wear to Edith’s aborted wedding. I like the tweed collection from Season 2, when Mary’s beau Sir Richard Carlisle (miss him!) joins the Granthams for a shooting party.
I linger in the space devoted to the show’s most romantic scene, when Matthew proposes to Mary. His dapper suit and her shimmery red tiered dress stand apart from the rest of the exhibit. The clip of the proposal plays on the wall behind the pairing, enhanced by a projection of animated snowflakes to complement those that swirl around the lovers. Swoon.
But there’s also plenty of historical perspective to satisfy our opinionated friend from the tram. A good bit of it focuses on Winterthur itself, which in its pre-museum heyday operated much like the Granthams’ fictional estate, complete with tenant farmers, tea parties and multiple daily wardrobe changes.
The placards also use the show as a window onto history. I’m intrigued to learn that pinstripe suits in England evolved from bank uniforms, with each bank having its own distinctive stripe. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that this information accompanies one of Matthew’s suits, posed in front of a very GQ photograph of actor Dan Stevens wearing said suit. But, no, this is about the facts! Factsfactsfacts.
We spend so much time in the “Downton” exhibit that we miss out on other Winterthur highlights. Thankfully, tickets are good for two days, so we return the next day for a tour of the house, which is as impeccably decorated and staged as any series set. We spend a good bit of time in the Campbell Collection of Soup Tureens, which includes elegant silver and ceramics in the shapes of cauliflower and animal heads. I can imagine the field day that Branson of Season 2 would have had here, choosing which tureen to fill with slop in his foiled attempt to dump it on the famous general’s head.
Before we leave, we’re already thinking of an excuse to come back. The grounds will be nice in the spring! Yuletide sounds so charming!
But there’s another motivating factor. The costume exhibit runs through early January 2015. “Downton Abbey” probably won’t return to PBS until January 2015.
See where I’m going with this?