By Mary Anna Violi | @MaryAnnaVioli
This weekend we viewed the exhibit, Dressing Downton: Changing Fashion for Changing Times. 36 stunning costumes from the BBC’s production of Downton Abbey transport viewers of the exhibit back in time to a British era of incredible wealth and the gilded mansions of its aristocracy.
The intricate stitching of the costumes, particularly the elegant gowns of the Lady Mary Crawley character riveted my attention. I could not take my eyes off of a delicately spun black lace over pale green silk with black beaded tassels at bracelet length filmy sleeves topped off with the long, thin strand of a black jet necklace made me wish I had been a member of that affluent born-to-the-manor’s ilk.
The clothing on the mannequins each had a backdrop from a scene of the characters wearing the costumes on display. In some instances, a belt or a buckle differed slightly from the backdrop scene. I attributed this to the fact that throughout the exhibit viewers are told that most of the costumes worn on Downton Abbey’s characters are originals, based on designs of the times, but that certain pieces were borrowed from archived costumes and private owners. There is even a replica of the famous pearl and diamond crown of Mary of Teck, who visited the fictional Downton Abbey, although my guess is Queen Mary likely was a guest at Highclere Castle where the television series was filmed. Several of the costumes had a mirror angled so that the back or the front of the clothing could be seen. I found myself walking as far behind the mannequins as possible because the detail of the back of the costumes proved as intricate and artistic as the front of them. Even Matthew Crawley’s formal dinner attire intrigued me with its pearl shirt buttons and fabric covered waistcoat buttons. My interest also piqued with the gown by Lady Cora Crawley to a ball for the character of Rose. The intricate beadwork on the cap sleeves and their heavily beaded tassels riveted my attention, as did the perspiration lines under the arms of the dress Rose wore!
As we strolled through the elaborate exhibit and backtracked more than once to see it again, I reminded myself that the author himself is an aristocrat: Sir Julian Fellowes, who walks among this élite set’s descendants. His Downton Abbey captured a decaying lifestyle of the rich that effectively ended with World War I. Seeing and reading how the evolution of the clothing reflected the times from the end of the 19th century, to the “war to end all wars”, to the Flapper age. Whalebone corsets gradually gave way to less confined dresses, and as hemlines rose, we have a bird’s eye view of the falling away of the rigid social protocol. We have observed this in other BBC series such as The Pallisers, The Forsyte Saga, and Upstairs, Downstairs. Perhaps these British series create nostalgia for a way of life in which we can participate from afar. Maybe these are the stuff of dream weavers beckoning us to inhabit their world in 50-minute weekly increments. For me, that is enough.
Ciao for now.