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'Downton Abbey' exhibit offers fascinating facts and fab fashion at Winterthur

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"Costumes of Downton Abbey", a fascinating exhibit now at Winterthur, the du Pont mansion in Delaware, provides an insider's view into the coveted lifestyle and the enormously popular TV show.

(This just in -- "Downton Abbey" received 24 nominations for Emmys®, to be awarded on Aug. 25.)

It's an absolute must for fans of "Downton Abbey". And for anyone anywhere who somehow is not (yet) a fan, this will spark your addiction to the PBS Masterpiece phenomenon.

The series is on hiatus until Season 5 begins Jan. 4, the very day the new season begins. So avoid withdrawal at Winterthur.

"Is there anything more thrilling than a new frock?" as Lady Sybil (Jessica Brown Findlay) exclaimed.

Quite, m'lady -- these "old" frocks, plus learning something new about them:

  • Costume designers have only seven weeks to create all costumes for an entire season.
  • Vintage or non-vintage?

"Some of the costumes are vintage, but a lot were created for the show by using a little bit of vintage material and then elaborating upon it," one of the exhibit's three curators, Jeff Groff, told me during a recent tour. "Costume designers did such extensive historical research of these periods."

Vintage fragments of lace, silk, beading, and other original materials are incorporated into new fabric. "Downton Abbey" (D.A.) costume designer Susannah Buxton terms the creations "translations" of period dress. Part of the enjoyment is seeing evidence of use and construction on the mannequins -- each an exact measure of the actor.

-- For Lady Sybil's shocking evening harem pants, the bodice's original fabric on gold net was so fragile that it split during filming -- wardrobe malfunction. Exhibit visitors can see its mended, frayed edges, but it appeared perfect on television.

-- The original beading on one of Lady Mary's (Michelle Dockery) gowns was so delicate that it couldn't be worn again.

-- One of Lady Edith's (Laura Carmichael) coats is from "very early rayon -- DuPont created rayon," Groff noted. (Rayon was the first synthetic fiber, manufactured and distributed by DuPont beginning in 1924.)

-- One gown worn by Cora, Countess of Grantham (Elizabeth McGovern), "started life as a tablecloth," Groff said. The ecru linen garment's border is embroidered with red and pink flowers and buds. Several of Lady Cora's garments are worn by Mrs. Selfridge (Frances O'Connor) in "Mr. Selfridge", another PBS Masterpiece fave series, Groff confided.

-- Many of the costumes are from Cosprop, a London firm specializ(s)ing in making and renting out (hiring) period costumes for professional productions.

  • Servants as well as their "masters" changed clothes daily

Maids usually wore striped calico gowns in the morning, and black ones in the evenings. They had to make their two dresses, and the fabric alone could cost a scullery maid half a year's pay back in 1890. (Winterthur has an extensive collection of 18th- and 19th-century textiles. Its book "Printed Textiles: English and American Cottons and Linens, 1700–1850", considered "a bible among textile collectors," has just been revised by Winterthur textile curator Linda Eaton.)

Butlers wore striped trousers with a black swallowtail coat in the mornings, and in the evenings, a black dinner jacket, waistcoat, trousers, and white tie.

  • I'll be puttin' on my white tie...

One of Lord Grantham's white ties was made by a Savile Row tailor following an original design -- and took four fittings.

"A well-tied tie is the first serious step in life," so wrote Oscar Wilde -- not in "The Importance of Being Ernest", but in "A Woman of No Importance" (1893).

  • Butlers' clothes were quite similar to their masters' attire

"The only absolute difference between the white-tie evening clothes of the butler and those of his employer and the guests is the fabric and tailoring." Carson's suits are stiffer than Lord Grantham’s. The finest, lightest-weight, and rarest wool comes from the vicuña, South America's relative of the llama.

In one of many hand-on parts of the exhibit, visitors may touch a strip of vicuña, softer than cashmere, next to a strip of coarse worsted wool. Guests may also ring for a servant.

"The gentlemen could pretty much get themselves together without help. But ladies couldn't do anything without a maid," Groff commented, "lace up a corset, do their hair, put on a tiara. A tiara'd get all tangled up in their hair. Such a hardship."

  • Lavender and lilac, not black, were mourning colors

Lavender, lilac, mauve, and gray were mourning colors. Several of these are displayed, including the dresses worn by Lady Cora and Lady Mary to the christening of Lady Sybil's baby. Lady Sybil died soon after giving birth.

  • Costumes were frozen or treated in a low oxygen environment as a precaution against infestation.

To prevent any possible infestation, Winterthur textile conservators treated the garments either by putting them in a low oxygen chamber for 21 days, or by putting them in a freezer, below 29.2 degrees F, for 72 hours.

The exhibit is further enlivened by:

  • Film clips of the characters in the clothes displayed.

-- Matthew (Dan Stephens) tells Lady Mary, "You've lived your life and I've lived mine. Now it's time to live them together."

-- Cora's American mother Martha Levinson (Shirley MacLaine) whispers to pregnant Lady Sybil, "We do these things so much better in the States."

  • Script segments printed on walls:

-- "MARY: Women like me don’t have a life. We choose clothes and pay calls and work for charity and do the Season. But really we’re stuck in a waiting room until we marry."

-- "Mary picks up a piece of Edith's jewellery...and drops it in disgust."

  • Quotes of etiquette authority Emily Post in 1922:

-- "Ladies always wear gloves to formal dinners but take them off at the table. Entirely off. It is hideous to leave them on the arms..."

-- "If you would dress like a gentleman...buy only English suits...Bond Street in London is the home of irreproachable clothes for men."

  • Special effects

-- Chandelier bulbs wiggle like candle flames.

-- (Digital) snow in the section recreating Matthew's proposal to Lady Mary. A three-year-old visitor kept trying to catch snowflakes with his tongue. The overall effect in the proposal scene makes some grown women cry.

This very special exhibit can be seen only at Winterthur, an American version of the fictional Downton Abbey.

The 175-room Winterthur mansion, amid a 1,000-acre preserve, was established by the du Pont family, whose fortune began with the 1802 gunpowder manufacturing company, E. I. du Pont de Nemours & Co.

The estate, dating back almost 200 years, is now Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library.

Seeing the mansion itself and the exhibit is the perfect answer to the Dowager Countess of Grantham's (Dame Maggie Smith) non-rhetorical question, "What is a weekend?"

For more info: "Costumes of Downton Abbey", www.winterthur.org/Downtonabbey, Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library, http://www.winterthur.org, 5105 Kennett Pike (Route 52), Winterthur, Del. 800-448-3883 or 302-888-4600. Now through Jan. 4. Some of the info is from "The World of Downton Abbey: The Secrets and History Unlocked" (St. Martin's Press) by Jessica Fellowes, niece of "Downton Abbey" creator-writer-producer, who wrote the book's foreword. Where to stay: Hamanassett Bed & Breakfast, www.hamanassett.com. The English-style manor house, 15 miles from Winterthur, is at 115 Indian Springs Drive, Chester Heights, Penn. 610-459-3000. Reservations: 877-836-8212. "Downton Abbey", http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/masterpiece/downtonabbey. "Downton Abbey" sponsors, Viking River Cruises, offers an optional excursion Oxford & Highclere Castle (the actual "Downton Abbey" setting), as a pre- or post-trip experience on Viking's Cities of Light or Paris & the Heart of Normandy itineraries.

Anna Bates in 'Downton Abbey'. 'Costumes of Downton Abbey' has 'downstairs' and 'upstairs' garments.
Anna Bates in 'Downton Abbey'. 'Costumes of Downton Abbey' has 'downstairs' and 'upstairs' garments. Nick Briggs, ©Carnival Film and Television Limited 2012

Anna Bates in 'Downton Abbey'. 'Costumes of Downton Abbey' has 'downstairs' and 'upstairs' garments.

'Costumes of Downton Abbey' exhibit offers fab fashion and fascinating facts at Winterthur, the du Pont mansion in Delaware, through Jan. 4.

Lady Sybil's harem pants from 'Downton Abbey'
Lady Sybil's harem pants from 'Downton Abbey' Photo by Dava Berkman

Lady Sybil's harem pants from 'Downton Abbey'

"Is there anything more thrilling than a new frock?" as Lady Sybil (Jessica Brown Findlay) asks in "Downton Abbey". Her evening harem pants caused shock and consternation among her family.

Detail of Lady Edith's wedding dress. Alas, left at the altar
Detail of Lady Edith's wedding dress. Alas, left at the altar Courtesy of PBS

Detail of Lady Edith's wedding dress. Alas, left at the altar

Lady Edith's (Laura Carmichael) wedding gown is one of the most gorgeous of all the 40 costumes in the exhibit 'Costumes of Downton Abbey' at Winterthur in Delaware. It's on through Jan. 4.

Lady Edith's wedding dress at 'Costumes of Downton Abbey'
Lady Edith's wedding dress at 'Costumes of Downton Abbey' Photo by Dava Berkman

Lady Edith's wedding dress at 'Costumes of Downton Abbey'

Lady Edith's wedding dress at 'Costumes of Downton Abbey' at Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library in Delaware. Winterthur is an American version of Downton Abbey.

A few of many evening gowns in 'Costumes of Downton Abbey'
A few of many evening gowns in 'Costumes of Downton Abbey' Photo by Dava Berkman

A few of many evening gowns in 'Costumes of Downton Abbey'

A few of many evening gowns in 'Costumes of Downton Abbey'. The exhibit also has livery and other outfits worn by the servants. The servants changed clothes twice daily, while their "masters" changed several more times.

This peach colored gown is an actual vintage garment in the 'Costumes of Downton Abbey" exhibit at Winterthur
This peach colored gown is an actual vintage garment in the 'Costumes of Downton Abbey" exhibit at Winterthur Photo by Dava Berkman

This peach colored gown is an actual vintage garment in the 'Costumes of Downton Abbey" exhibit at Winterthur

This peach colored gown is an actual vintage garment in the 'Costumes of Downton Abbey" exhibit at Winterthur. Many others are partly vintage, and partly new fabric treated to match the original.

The three Crawley sisters at Lady Edith's ill-fated wedding
The three Crawley sisters at Lady Edith's ill-fated wedding Nick Briggs, ©Carnival Film and Television Limited 2012

The three Crawley sisters at Lady Edith's ill-fated wedding

The three Crawley sisters at Lady Edith's ill-fated wedding. The dresses are among 40 items in 'Costumes of Downton Abbey' exhibit at Winterthur mansion in Delaware.

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