Sunday, June 1, 2014

"Costumes of Downton Abbey" at Winterthur Museum

Sunday, June 1, 2014
Isabella reporting,

This weekend I finally made the trek to Winterthur Museum to see one of the most popular exhibitions of the year: Costumes of Downton Abbey (running now through January 4, 2015). The exhibition features 40 historically inspired costumes from the popular PBS series along with photos of the costumes as they appeared in the shows.

Shown in contrast to the fictional Crawleys are their real-life American contemporaries, the wealthy duPont family who built the country estate of Winterthur. The world of the duPonts and their servants is represented by a wonderful selection of vintage photographs, objects, portraits, and quotations from the first decades of the 20th c. - an informative juxtaposition to the costumes.

I appreciated how the exhibition's curators have stressed that the costumes are exactly that: they're not historical garments or reproductions. They're costumes, created as part of the story-telling process, and designed to not only help create the characters and their world, but also to look good on the television screen. While past fashions certainly inspired the costumes, there are behind-the-scenes short-cuts and accommodations to the actors and the audience that I find fascinating. As the introduction to the exhibition explains:

"The costume designers for Downton Abbey have only seven weeks to complete each character's wardrobe for an entire season. In the words of costume designer Susannah Buxton, their creations are actually 'translations' of period dress, inspired by the past but influences by modern styles and enhanced for dramatic television effect. There is a mix of old and new. Vintage fragments of lace, pleating, and silks are incorporated into the new fabric that is dyed and distressed to create what appears to be a coordinated whole (at least on television.) Part of the pleasure in viewing these costumes up close is seeing evidence of use and construction."

This is all well and good, but as I studied the costumes - which are quite gorgeous - I did wish there had been a bit more explanation. Not every costume was created from scratch in that "seven weeks." Some have come from the famous English costumers of Cosprop, and have appeared in other productions (such as this embroidered coat, created from a tablecloth!), while others are actual vintage pieces. I wondered how large a staff Ms. Buxton has to assist her, and whether they created all the beautiful embroidery and beadwork that is such a feature of these costumes, or had the needlework sent out to specialists.

But these are tiny quibbles. Whether you're a die-hard Downton fan (and I was clearly surrounded by them today, speaking reverently about their favorite characters and dresses) or not, the exhibition is fascinating and beautiful, and well worth a visit - as if you need another reason to visit wonderful Winterthur! See here for more information.

All photographs copyright 2014 Susan Holloway Scott.


The Duchess of Diaphragm said...

Exquisite post.

Question: based on your knowledge of period clothing, were the costumes "authentic" i.e. were their design elements correct for the period?

As a classic movie fan, one of the things that drives me NUTS (and it's not a long drive, mind you) are films made in the 1940s & 50s which are set in the 1910s & 20s ...

The costuming, hairdressing and makeup are invariably WRONG since heaven forbid stars back then should ever appear "old-fashioned."

(In fact, as late as "Bonnie & Clyde" in '67, Faye Dunaway's wardrobe was FAR more Carnaby Street than Tobacco Road.)

So ... did I have a question? ... oh, yes:

In your opinion, if one were to, say, snatch a Downtown tea dress off its mannequin and slip it effortlessly onto one's sylph-like frame while stepping through one's Magic Time Portal with the dial set to: "1915 -- Tea Time -- London Ritz" ...?

As one hobbled gracefully to one's table, would one's fellow clientele see a duchess, a demimonde or a disaster?

Would one's raiment be regarded as chic, bleak or (sniff) "unique"?

One hopes you'll share your views on this as they'll undoubtedly be thoughtful, informative and insightful. (One never finds anything less on this perfectly marvelous blog.)

Thanx again for the lovely post.

Dixie Quilter said...

While we were at a conference in Pennsylvania in March, my friends and I took a trip to Winterthur. We had never been there before and thoroughly enjoyed our day there. None of us had ever watched Downton Abbey and only went to the exhibit so we could brag to all our friends who are fans of the show. But being very interested in history and clothing, we couldn't help but love it.

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

The answer to your question about authenticity is...yes and no. Not all of the costumes used on the show and featured in the exhibition were made for the series. Some are actually original early 20th c pieces, like this beaded rose-colored dress:

So that one would definitely pass muster at a 1920s party!

Some of the others, however, seemed to me to be very much "costumes" that show very well on TV, but close up reveal modern beads, sewing techniques, and fabrics.

Perhaps the most glaring thing that I noticed is how the costumes were made to accomodate both modern actresses & modern expectations of the viewers. The actresses are clearly all teeny-tiny, and while they might not have "needed" corsets, they clearly weren't wearing the early 20th c underpinnings. The silhouettes weren't "right" at all - but except for us Nerdy History folk, I doubt many viewers cared at all. :)

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

Dixie Quilter -

Glad you enjoyed your visit to Winterthur! It's an amazing place - you should come back in warmer weather so you can experience the gardens as well. Totally agree with your comments about the exhibition. Even though I'm not a fan, I still enjoyed the costumes very much.

Were you in the area for the CCHS conference? If so, I was there, too. :)

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

I've posted more costumes from the exhibition on our twitter feed: @2nerdyhistgirls. If you're not a Tweeter, here are the direct links to the images:

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