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The world of Downton has just arrived in America. Forty costumes—culled from all four seasons of the show—are now on view at Wilmington Delaware's Winterthur Museum's new exhibit, Costumes of Downton Abbey. They've got everything: Lady Sybil's controversial harem pants, Mathew Crawley's cricket whites and Lady Edith's ill-fated wedding gown included (sorry, spoilers). They're all here in America until next January, displayed in an exhibit that is so well-curated, and so much fun, that any hardcore Downton fan should plan a road trip immediately.
The installation includes costumes from most members of the household. The downstairs is well represented with uniforms for almost all the primary characters, including Mr. Carson, Mrs. Patmore and Thomas Barrow. Not surprisingly, their clothes pale in comparison to the glamor of the ensembles from the upstairs contingent. You'll see many of Lady Grantham's and Lady Mary's beaded gowns, as well as velvet eveningwear from the Dowager Countess and Martha Levinson. Two of Mrs. Levinson's dramatic fur collared coats from season three also are included. The upstairs men are represented with dapper sporting and hunting attire and eveningwear.
But the exhibit isn't just made up of mannequins decked out in period clothing. The curators have managed to tell the story of the costumes in multiple ways. For Mathew's dramatic proposal to Mary, her burgundy gown and his tuxedo are displayed in front of the film clip of their engagement. Nearby on the wall is an enlargement of the corresponding dialogue from the script. There is also an explanation from the costume designer about why the show chose to keep her dress from being too ornate (they didn't want to distract from the scene's action), while special lighting creates the romantic effect of snow falling all around you.
More footage, photos and scripts segments can be found posted throughout the exhibit. You'll also find interesting explanations about how some of the costumes were made, which ones are actually vintage or incorporate vintage fabrics and information on other cinematic inspired choices that the costumers made in determining how the costumes would show up on the screen.
The exhibit also includes descriptions that explain the clothing's historical context. For example, guests will learn the history and role of summer whites, corsets and rep ties. And did you know that tiaras are an appropriate choice for women to wear when men are dressed in white tie? If you wondered why Lady Mary wore so much lavender this season, the exhibit explains that during the Downton era, it was considered the appropriate color for mourning dress—which is why it was also worn by the Crawley women at Baby Sybil's christening.
While most of the upstairs costumes in the exhibit were easy for the Winterthur to track down, finding some of the downstairs outfits proved much more challenging. It turned out that the costume company Cosprop keeps the servants costumes mixed in with their regular stock, ready to be lent out to other shows. Maggie Lidz, one of the exhibit's three curators, traveled to England last summer to choose the exhibit's costumes. Lidz explained, "I really had to dig to get Daisy's first season kitchen maid dress and apron. Each took hours to find." She had a similarly challenging hunt for Mr. Bates' suit.
Adding to the fun, the exhibit is completely interactive. A bell wall was built so that guests can "ring" to call for one of the servants, just like the Granthams. Visitors can feel a sample of wool, and then compare it to the incredibly sumptuous Loro Plano vicuña, of which a real lord's suit might have been made.
The Winterthur Museum was once the estate of Henry Francis du Pont, who lived at the same time as the fictional Granthams. The museum's curators have included a few objects in the exhibit from the du Ponts to help illustrate the differences between wealthy American and British lifestyles of the period. For example, the du Ponts used an electric system to call their servants (how gauche), rather than the more antiquated bell system.
Winterthur visitors are allowed to take photos of the Downton exhibit garments, a rarity at any museum, and a real treat for fans who want photos of themselves standing near their favorite costumes. Barring a trip to Highclere Castle in England, where the series is filmed, photographing oneself at this elaborately detailed exhibit is probably as close as fans can get to actually entering the world of Downton.
Costumes of Downton Abbey will be at The Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library until January 4th, 2015. Tickets are timed and should be bought in advance, as the show is already selling out. The museum is about twenty five minutes from the Wilmington Amtrak station, which houses rental car offices and a taxi stand, so East Coast day visits are easily doable.