A most fashionable day trip

Fans of “Downton Abbey” are a loyal, enthusiastic bunch.

They – let’s be honest, we – replay DVDs of the hit television show that airs on PBS; read books about (and inspired by) the drama tracing the Crawley family and the English estate that gives the show its name; and buy themed goods ranging from tea to T-shirts.

The series is so addictive we find ourselves chatting away with friends about the fictional characters as if they were members of our own circle. What tragedy will next befall “poor Lady Edith”? Can we ever forget those smoldering looks of  “that Mr. Pamuk”? How do Anna and her Mr. Bates endure the gasp-inducing saga that is their relationship?

Then there are the oohs and aahs over the gowns, suits and jewelry that, as they would, outshine the workmanlike aprons and uniforms of the staff. All contribute to this exploration of the social graces and traditions of those early decades of the last century.

Clearly, the show written by Julian Fellowes (Academy Award-winning writer of “Gosford Park”) and co-produced by Carnival Films and PBS’ “Masterpiece,” has struck quite a chord.

And since March, “Downton” lovers have been making a determined path to one of America’s very real historic estates, Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library outside Wilmington, Del.

The draw is “Costumes of Downton Abbey,” and just hearing about the exhibition’s existence no doubt gets a fan’s heart racing.

From all accounts – it has received an incredible amount of national press, ranging from Women’s Wear Daily to The Wall Street Journal – the exhibition is echoing the popularity of the show itself.

“Costumes of Downton Abbey” is artfully packed with tea dresses and evening gowns, hunting jackets and butler vests, plus a hearty helping of history.

It adds up to a most stylish destination for a day trip from WAG country.

A SETTING MOST FITTING

The country estate of the du Pont family – Henry Francis du Pont opened up his childhood home to the public some 60 years ago – is hosting the exhibition that continues through Jan. 4 – coincidentally the date that “Downton Abbey” returns to PBS for its fifth season.

A long run, it has become clear, was the right decision, giving visitors plenty of time to drool over Lady Edith’s wedding gown or the dress Lady Mary wore when Matthew proposed beneath the gently falling snow.

“It has wildly exceeded our expectations,” says Maggie Lidz, Winterthur historian and co-curator of the exhibition along with Jeff Groff and Chris Strand.

The exhibition, Lidz shares during a recent phone chat, was one that “came together very quickly,” a natural for Winterthur.

“I think a lot of people here have been fans of ‘Downton Abbey,’ because it’s just a great entry point to history.”

It was facilitated by Winterthur Director of Museum Affairs Tom Savage, who has strong ties to England.

“He had a connection to Julian Fellowes and explained to Julian Fellowes what Winterthur was, and he was really intrigued by that American country house connection,” Lidz adds.

The exhibition, she says, is designed to not only celebrate the costumes of those captivating characters but to go deeper, offering a way to compare the British lifestyle reflected by the show to what was going on in an American estate such as Winterthur during the same time.

“That’s how we were able to get it,” Lidz says.

TO ENGLAND

Most of the costumes featured at Winterthur are owned by Cosprop Ltd. in London, a leading costumer that worked with Winterthur on its “Fashion in Film” blockbuster in 2007.

Lidz traveled to the massive British warehouse to select the clothing to be included in the “Downton” exhibition rather than simply have a collection of beautiful gowns sent over.

“One of the reasons I had to go is we wanted to represent all the different people in the house.”

It took, she says, four days to just go through all the costumes of the “downstairs” characters, from Daisy to Thomas to Mr. Carson.

Throughout, she kept one goal in mind.

“It was really important for us to have the costumes that the actors wore,” Lidz adds.

It’s no surprise the treasure trove of costumes more than impressed Lidz.

“The gowns are just beautiful. I was particularly fond of the velvet gowns. They are just so sumptuous.”

How to arrange the exhibition was quite the consideration as well. Lidz says it finally came to the Winterthur team to trace a day in the life of the Crawley household.

“It seemed so natural once we decided on it,” she says. You might see what Mrs. Patmore the cook would wear while preparing breakfast all the way through to an elaborate gown worn to dinner by everyone’s favorite snob, Violet, the Dowager Countess of Grantham (so well-played by Dame Maggie Smith).

The exhibition goes beyond simply displaying the clothing and accessories such as hats and shawls. There are photographs of the characters wearing the clothes, script lines reflecting the scenes and even video elements.

Related displays bring things further to life. Visitors, for example, can touch a stretch of vicuña wool, which Lidz calls the “rarest textile in the world.”

Lidz says Winterthur purchased some vicuña “wholesale” from Loro Piana, the Italian company known for its luxe designs in cashmere and wool.

A touch of the material, she says, will answer the question: “Why does Lord Grantham look so spectacular in his custom-made evening wear?”

And tea, Lidz says, was a staple not to just the Crawleys but the duPonts. Visitors can inhale the heady scent of the Hu-Kwa tea favored by Winterthur’s residents.

“It’s sort of like a single-malt Scotch kind of tea,” she says.

DRAWING A CROWD

Lidz says the show has connected with visitors of all kinds, from “Downton” devotees to history buffs, costume designers to design students.

“We have a lot of theater and costume people coming,” she says.

The exhibition, she adds, also serves as a window into a very “coded” world where the way of life is no longer familiar to us.

“People are interested in breaking those codes,” Lidz says.

Related programming helps do just that. There are lectures and afternoon teas, automobile exhibitions and themed cocktail parties.

Jessica Fellowes, author of popular books about “Downton Abbey” and niece of Julian Fellowes, will serve as the keynote speaker of Winterthur’s 51st annual Delaware Antiques Show Nov. 7.

The exhibition, Lidz concludes, has done a lot for Winterthur.

“What we’re particularly happy about is people are coming not just to see ‘Downton Abbey’ … but they’re staying for the day.”

That includes taking the garden tram and touring the 175-room mansion, where exhibitions feature selections from the permanent collection.

Oh, and there’s another quite popular element, Lidz adds, and it’s one that’s decidedly contemporary.

“They are going bonkers in our gift shop. ‘Downton’ stuff is everywhere.”

And that seems fitting. After all, what’s a day trip without some souvenirs?

For more, visit Winterthur.org.

 

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