Downton Abbey – the Delaware connectionWinterthur exhibit contrasts British and American estate life
One of the most popular television shows in the world now has a Delaware connection.
“Costumes of Downton Abbey,” a major exhibition of 40 costumes from the award-winning Public Television series, opened at Winterthur Museum on March 1. And by all accounts, it should turn out to the biggest exhibition in the history of the museum; more than 14,000 tickets already have been sold.
Curated by Winterthur staff, the exhibition is one-of-kind in the United States. The story how the exhibition came to reality is one of inspiration, hard work and creativity.
Winterthur will also host lectures, workshops and events focusing on entertaining and country estate life in Britain and the United States. Interwoven in the exhibition are period pieces from the Henry F. du Pont family collection.
“Costumes of Downton Abbey” compares and contrasts the fictional British world depicted in “Downton Abbey” with a real-life American life at the Winterthur estate in the first half of the 20th century. Among the highlights of the exhibit are Lady Sybil's harem pants, Lady Mary's engagement dress, Rose's vintage red dress and Lady Edith's wedding dress. The exhibition is supplemented by photographs and vignettes inspired by the series and by real life at Winterthur.
From the first season, costumes have been an important element of the show. According to Winterthur staff, obtaining and renting the costumes was a challenge, but not nearly as daunting as cutting through the legalities for the rights to use photographs, videos and script pieces. It also helped that there was a connection between a Winterthur staff member and Julian Fellows, creator and writer of Downton Abbey. Once Fellows backed the project, he was able to help sell it to the production company, Carnival Productions, said Chris Strand, director of Winterthur's garden and estate.
With list in hand, it fell on curator Maggie Lidz to travel to London to track down the costumes stored in warehouses in London at Cosprop, one of the leading costume providers to movies and theater in the world. The fact that the company has more than 1 million costumes did not deter her quest. When it was all said and done, the hardest clothing to locate was assistant cook Daisy’s apron.
Mannequins had to be handmade to fit each costume as crafts people and designers turned ideas sketched on paper into vignettes depicting a typical day downstairs and upstairs at Downton Abbey. “That's what great about museums. It allows a different way for people to connect with the story,” said Amy Marks Delaney, one of the originators of the idea for the exhibit.
Marks Delaney said not everything worked out as planned. Because of contract stipulations, no photographs of actress Shirley Maclaine – who portrays American Martha Levinson – could be used. “We were able to work around it by using a video clip,” she said.
Another costume to be used was worn by the character English writer Virginia Woolf, but the scene was cut out of the episode. In a swap, Winterthur was able to get a vintage red dress worn by Lady Rose MacClare – played by Lily James – from Season 4. It's the only vintage dress in the exhibit, however others – such as Lady Edith's wedding dress – contain some vintage pieces.
Mr. Carson's evening dress costume was still being worn, but a deal was worked out to get the original costume and make another for Jim Carter, the actor who portrays Carson the Butler.
Connected to one of the most watched series in television history, there is little doubt Winterthur's exhibit will be a major hit as well.
“Costumes of Downton Abbey” runs March 1 through Jan. 4, 2015.
Timed ticket reservations are required. Visit winterthur.org or phone 800-448-3883 for more information.
Museum hours are 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday at Winterthur, Route 52, six miles northwest of Wilmington.
• The Downton Abbey series, filmed at historic Highclere Castle in southern England, depicts the lives of the privileged Crawley family and of the servants on the family's Yorkshire estate during the post-Edwardian era, from 1912 onward. The fourth season has recently aired.
• Winterthur is the former home of Henry Francis du Pont, who in 1951 founded the museum, which houses the premier collection of American decorative arts. The 1,000-acre estate once sprawled over more than 4,000 acres.