History on Exhibit in ‘Downton Abby’ Costumes

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Like many fans of Downton Abbey, I started watching the series for the British period drama but I kept tuning in for the sumptuous sets and costumes. Fortunately, the characters’ wardrobes have a lot to say about the dynamic early 20th century.

An exhibit featuring 35 Downton Abbey costumes is on display at Chicago’s Driehaus Museum from Feb. 9 to May 8, 2016. Dressing Downton: Changing Fashion for Changing Times illustrates the wavering world of the aristocratic Crawley family and their servants through fashion.

Exhibit placards and audio input from the show’s costume designers describe how much a garment can reveal about each character. Rose’s wardrobe of light pinks and whites conveys her youthful spirit, while the Dowager Countess is dressed in dusky sages and mauves of the last century.

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Costume Contrasts

The Dowager Countess, a Victorian paragon, is presented in direct contrast to another matriarch, the brassy American Martha Levinson. Mrs. Levinson flaunts her “new” wealth with furs and birds of paradise feathers and embraces modern Art Deco influences.

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An Outfit for All Seasons

For Downton’s Crawley family, there is an outfit for every occasion. Visitors to the exhibit learn about the strict social mores that dictated their dress. For example, the gorgeous outfits seen at Rose’s presentation at Court in season four adhere to the rule that women had to wear a headdress of three white Prince-of-Wales feathers attached to a tulle veil.

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The stiff, removable men’s collars were uncomfortable to the actors wearing them, although they do look sharper than the modern version.

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Upstairs, Downstairs

The exhibit spans social classes and Downton Abbey’s downstairs is also represented. We see the household keys hanging from Mrs. Hughes’ waist belt, Branson’s chauffer uniform, and the snazzy livery of the footmen, who were hired for their good looks and referred to as the “peacocks” of the household staff. Even a servant like Ana had a fancier ruffled apron to change into after her morning chores were done.

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Sign of the Times

“It’s fascinating to see the evolution of fashion over the course of four seasons of Downton Abbey,” says Driehaus Museum Guest Curator Ruta Saliklis. “Throughout the exhibition, visitors learn about the historical and cultural influences evident in these visually stunning costumes.”

The impact of WWI is seen in the family’s wardrobe. In Sybil’s nurse’s uniform, for example, we see the hem line is raised from the floor to avoid contact with blood or other hospital germs. After the war, looser styles prevail as formality in fashion is relaxed and Jazz Age influences make their way to Downton. Although Lady Rose denies being a flapper, her silk pink dress with metallic embroidery is fit for dancing with a Chicago jazz singer.

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Vintage Inspiration

The exhibit also reveals the inspiration behind many of the series’ iconic outfits. The costumes are produced by Cosprop Lt. of London using original period fabrics or re-creations from old photographs and patterns. Just as the characters would have done in their era, the costumers reuse vintage embellishments. Cora’s velvet gown worn to Rose’s presentation at Court includes original lace and beadwork from the 1920’s. An embroidered floral tablecloth found at a vintage fair was converted into a jacket for Cora.

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Chicago’s Downton Abbey

The exhibit is exquisite, due in no small part to its setting in the Driehaus Museum. The museum is a restored Gilded Age mansion that was home to some of Chicago’s most affluent families. The lavish interiors, including a stained-glass dome and several varieties of marble, rival the stunning costumes on display. The costumes seem perfectly suited to the Driehaus, and the juxtaposition of an aristocratic British story with Chicago’s industrial new money is an interesting one similar to Cora’s lineage on the show.

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Guests looking to indulge their inner aristocrat will enjoy taking tea in the Murphy Auditorium before or after the exhibit.

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Viewing their costumes up close brings Downton Abbey’s characters to life. Whether or not you’re a fan of the show, the exhibit is recommended for any history, architecture, and arts enthusiasts. If Dressing Downton and the Driehaus Museum address any plot line, it’s that beauty and excellent craftsmanship are appreciated through the ages.

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A version of this article originally appeared on Chicagoist.

The Richard H. Driehaus Museum
40 East Erie Street
Chicago, Illinois 60611

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