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.
There’s a big difference in how we use history. But we’re equally nuts about it. To us, the everyday details of life in the past are things to talk about, ponder, make fun of -- much in the way normal people talk about their favorite reality show.
We talk about who’s wearing what and who’s sleeping with whom. We try to sort out rumor or myth from fact. We thought there must be at least three other people out there who think history’s fascinating and fun, too. This blog is for them.