Downton exhibit: Maids, matriarchs and more

From exquisite wedding finery to tweedy foxhunting duds to mundane butlers’ garb, “Costumes of Downton Abbey” at the Winterthur Museum, Garden and Library continues to give fans of the blockbuster PBS series reasons to visit.

The attire of Lady Mary and Matthew Crowley is set in front of a screen that plays their marriage proposal scene.

The attire of Lady Mary and Matthew Crawley is set in front of a screen that plays their marriage proposal scene.

For starters, the exhibit, which includes clothing from the series’ fictional aristocratic  family in post-Edwardian England, has a limited run. It will close on Jan. 4, the same day that Season Five starts.

Since “Costumes of Downton Abbey” opened in March, more than 150,000 visitors have traveled to the Delaware museum on Route 52 to see the period clothing worn by members of the extended Crawley family and their servants, said Liz Farrell, Winterthur’s communications director.  “Attendance is at an all-time record high,” said Farrell.

Those who saw the exhibition early might want to consider a repeat visit.  Last month, three jewelry pieces designed for the drama were added to the display: a feather hair slide of Swarovski crystals, worn by Lady Mary Crawley (Michelle Dockery) in the third season; a wave scroll tiara of Swarovski crystals, also worn by Lady Mary in the third season; and a double-drop necklace of Swarovski pearls and crystals, worn by an extra in the final royal presentation scene in the fourth season.

The dresses worn by the Granthan sisters during Lady Edith's ill-fated wedding are on display.

The dresses worn by the Crawley sisters during Lady Edith's star-crossed wedding are on display.

Andrew Prince, a London craftsman who once worked for “Antiques Roadshow,” created the jewelry. After being used in the production, it was purchased by a private collector who kindly loaned the pieces to Winterthur for the remainder of the exhibit, according to a Winterthur press release. Prince will visit Winterthur in November to present two lectures and a trunk show, plus display eight to 12 additional jewelry pieces from the acclaimed TV show.

Forty costumes and accessories worn upstairs and downstairs on the period drama are displayed in the Galleries at Winterthur. “The first time I looked at the costumes up close, I was amazed at the incredible detail. They are surprisingly ornate. This is ... one of the most beautiful exhibitions ever held at Winterthur,” said Maggie Lidz, one of the three co-curators of the exhibition.

Among the costume highlights of the exhibition are Lady Sybil’s harem pants – see if you can detect a rip that had to be repaired - Lady Mary’s engagement dress, and Lady Edith’s ill-fated wedding dress. The latter was designed to be durable. “The dress had to survive a lot of action … running up the stairs and throwing herself on the bed,” the curators’ notes explained.

Lady Sybil shows her defiance by sporting the latest scandalous fashion: harem pants.

Lady Sybil shows her defiance by sporting the latest scandalous fashion: harem pants.

Besides showcasing the outfits from Downton Abbey, the exhibit skillfully compares and contrasts the fictional British world of Downton Abbey with Winterthur, its real-life American counterpart, in the first half of the 20th century. And despite the dramatic idiosyncrasies of Downton’s servants, Winterthur’s staff does not appear dull by comparison. For example, Victor Swanson, Henry Francis du Pont’s valet from 1917 through 1948, “kept a pet squirrel in a cage and traveled with it.”

Henry Francis du Pont, writing about his household staff in 1922, said this: "The husky Hungarian has been replaced by a Norwegian, Charles the Giant by a sturdy Swede, and poor Juanita was taken away quite insane."

The exhibition is organized chronologically, and, with Downton music playing in the background, visitors move through the times of day, both upstairs and downstairs. Visitors enter past a working replica of the bell system of Downton Abbey.  Video screens capture some of Downton’s pivotal scenes, such as the wedding of Lady Mary and Matthew Crawley, while displays of Winterthur memorabilia provide an entertaining history lesson.

The Downton Abbey exhibit includes

The Downton Abbey exhibit includes 40 costumes from the show, including a variety of dresses, coats, hats and jewelry.

In conjunction with the exhibition, Winterthur is hosting a diverse range of lectures, including the continuation of the “Downton Within, Downton Beyond Lunchtime Lecture Series.” This fall, Winterthur introduces the series “Behind the Seams with Hollywood and Television Insiders: A Costume Design Lecture Series.”

The new series will feature talks by award-winning costume designers linked to shows such as Downton Abbey, Mad Men, Saturday Night Live, The Hunger Games, House of Cards, and more. The first lecture of the new series, Oct. 26, is a panel discussion with Downton Abbey costumes designers Susannah Buxton and Carolina McCall.

In addition to the Downton Abbey exhibit, Winterthur - known worldwide for its preeminent collection of American decorative arts, naturalistic garden, and research library for the study of American art and material culture - offers a variety of tours, exhibitions, programs, and activities throughout the year. For more information, visit


About CFLive Staff

See Contributors Page



1 Star2 Stars3 Stars4 Stars5 Stars (1 votes, average: 5.00 out of 5)

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.