So, Friday was my birthday and my oldest friend (meaning longest term, NOT OLDest, lol) took me to the Downton Abbey Costumes Exhibition currently showing in Boston and then out to a lovely lunch. I was really looking forward to the exhibit as I loved the series and had blogged about it when it was airing on PBS. Unfortunately, many of the photos I’d painstakingly edited and posted seemed to have gone missing. So, there are a lot of holes in my past posts, but there are still lots of photos.
When you first enter the exhibit, there are large character photos, reminding us of the players. The first part of the exhibit are character histories and also the relevant social issues of the day that would have effected the characters. There were also little prop items such as letters, military service forms, etc that were used in the show that might not have truly shown up on camera. I always love these little details!
There was an interesting mix of media and memorabilia throughout the Downton Abbey Exhibition – including a door frame where a life size video of Mrs. Hughes and then Mr. Carson would walk into the door as if just stopping to say hello. They clearly hired several of the cast members to create unique video content for the exhibit – such as Mr. Carson’s (Jim Carter) initial greeting where he tsk tsks the attendees for how we were dressed. It was pretty funny.
The costumes were generally presented by theme – early period (19-teens), later (1920’s), daytime and evening, and weddings. There were far fewer servant character costumes for obvious reasons and some were showcased with the servants quarter’s set and others were shown individually – so those will be spread out. Also, the lighting, while good for viewing the costumes and sets was terrible for photography. Most of the lighting is top down which causes significant shadowing. The rooms were also generally low lit, so the color renderings in the camera are a bit off.
Cora, Countess of Grantham (Elizabeth McGovern)
In addition to the unusual color palette, this costume also featured exquisite knife pleating on the coat and bead detail on the dress.
This gorgeous velvet costume has such amazing details and layers. The mannequins really don’t wear these looser, less structured costumes anywhere as well as the actors do.
Mr. Carson (Jim Carter), butler, and Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan), head housekeeper
As I mentioned, the servant’s Downton Abbey costumes tended to be shown in their room sets. Above we have examples of their daytime looks while running the household, shown in Mr. Carson’s rooms. As the two top servants in of the household, the butler and head housekeeper, their clothing was somber but of high quality and impeccable tailoring.
At the end of the six season run, Hughes and Carson finally tied the knot. As servants, they didn’t have extensive wardrobes, the funds or the interest to invest in fancy wedding clothes. The ever practical Mrs. Hughes plans to wear something in her closet, but her friends are having none of it and encourage the Countess Cora to loan her a coat befitting the importance of the day.
The lovely pink velvet duster jacket featured extensive lace appliqué, beading and silk flower details. It was worn over a simpler purple dress. Mr. Carson wore a classic gray flannel three-piece suit with natty blue polka-dot tie.
Lady Edith Crawley/ Marchioness of Hexham (Laura Carmicheal)
Lady Edith, commonly referred to as “Poor Edith”, was the “ugly duckling” 2nd daughter for whom things never seemed to go right. She was jilted at the alter by an older bridegroom who decided he was too old for her (he was) and she was settling for him just to get married (she was). Her first wedding dress was a loose fitting sheath style gown with a gathered detail on the hip and a lovely back draping. The thing about Edith, she may not have been the prettiest sister, but the actress could were these shapeless garments spectacularly well.
Edith’s second wedding, while filled with pre-wedding drama (of course), was much more successful and as a Marchioness, she ultimately outranked even her own mother and Grandmama in the nobility.
Her second wedding dress was a more traditional lace affair with lots of layers and draping.
I always though that the Downton Abbey costumes designers took pity on Poor Edith and gave her the best clothes. Especially, as I said, because she could wear them so well.
Lady Mary Crawley Talbot (Michelle Dockery)
Lady Mary, the eldest daughter of the house, first married the doomed Matthew Crawley, distant cousin and heir to her father’s estate (because men, even distant unknown relatives, outranked female next of kin).
I actually never liked this dress either in the show or in person. It really does just hang there and completely obscures the body.
Mary’s second wedding was more of a fancy day dress and not a formal wedding dress.
Mary was an experienced horse-woman and the actress looked particularly striking on horse back in her various riding habits.
This silver beaded dress is simply glorious both on the actress and on the mannequin.
The Downton Abbey series started with the sinking of Titanic in 1912 and ended the season at the outbreak of WW1 in 1914. This dress below was worn by Lady Mary at an outdoor garden party at the end of the first season.
I always loved this dress.
And this dress was worn in the final season, in 1925 (I believe).
I will say that in person, this dress is nothing. A thin silk sheath with a gold lace overlay tacked on. But on the actress with the right lighting, it’s quite something. It’s also teeny tiny. One fun thing about costume exhibits is you can get an idea of how big (or small) actors really are.
Lady Sybil Crawley Branson (Jessica Brown Findlay)
I think there was only one Lady Sybil costume in the exhibit – which was the most iconic. Sybil was the budding feminist youngest daughter of the household. So, it was only fitting that one of her early acts of rebellion was to have a new “gown” made that feature harem pants – which were all the rage as Egypt and all things Middle-Eastern were quite in vogue at the time in England. (Just not done in pants, especially in the upper classes).
The fabrics used must have had a lot iridescence in them, which results in the colors looking wildly different depending on the lighting. I actually wondered if this was the same costume due to the color variations.
Lady Rose MacClare Aldridge (Lily James)
Lady Rose was a 2nd cousin to the Crawley sisters and was basically brought into the series to inject some younger blood after Mary and Edith became grown women and mothers and the death of Lady Sybil. She started out as the perfect flapper wild child, then calmed down into a more mature character. They had very few of her costumes in the exhibit, but did have her Debutante Presentation Gown which had a kind of dropped Marie Antoinette pannier look about it. It’s both sweet and sophisticated with metallic threads running through the lace, pretty floral appliqué and dazzling diamonds.
These 1920’s era gowns were unstructured and very loose fitting. Most literally hang on the mannequins as if on a hanger. The beauty in these clothes is how they are worn on the body and in movement. The bias cut of many of them skims the body and accentuates movement.
I was initially underwhelmed yesterday when seeing the Downton Abbey costumes in person. They didn’t seem quite as – exciting as I expected? I couldn’t put my finger on what was bothering me. But I kept thinking about how amazing the costumes were that I saw in 2016 at an exhibit on Cape Cod that showcased costumes from several different movies. I went back and looked at that post and I do think it comes down to shape and structure. Most of those costumes were highly structured garments that literally wore themselves. Bustles, corsetry, etc was created to give shape to clothing of different periods depending on the fashions of the day. The lack of same, as was the fashion in the 1920’s, quite literally leaves the clothes shapeless and for the actual wearer to be doing the work of making them look great. That said, seeing all the Downton Abbey costumes details up close and personal is really fun.
Downton Abbey Exhibition – The Room Sets
Production Designer: Donal Woods
Downton Abbey was filmed at Highclere Castle in England. Well, the upstairs scenes were filmed there. The downstairs scenes were shot on a film stage on fully built sets. The exhibition really only features three of the sets – Carson’s office/Downstairs, the Kitchen and the Dining Room. I would have loved to see a recreation of the drawing room or a bedroom, but the scale of the rooms would have been hard to recreate unless the exhibition space was massive.
Mr. Carson’s Office & Downstairs
The important task of decanting the wine was left only to the guy in charge.
All the cleaning, washing, mending and pressing of clothes took place below stairs.
Downton Abbey Kitchen
There were many, many scenes shot in the kitchens featuring head cook Mrs. Patmore (Lesley Nicol) and scullery maid Daisy Mason (Sophie McShera). The scenes often depicted the fairly cramped quarters in which they worked especially producing the massive quantities of food required for the household and guests. Before electric lights were installed, kitchens needed big windows for lighting and they must have used a lot of oil lamps, gas lighting and candles in the evenings. I would imagine certain tasks like polishing silver or cleaning glassware required daylight to do them properly.
I’m not sure if actual kitchens of the era were quite as country quaint as this one is. You could absolutely copy this look, add in some modern appliances and an AGA range and feel totally at home today.
There were lots of fun details in the kitchen. It would have been great to get closer to really take it all in. Unlike the costumes, which you could reach out and touch (but don’t!) the sets are more distant.
Downton Abbey Dining Room
There were many, many scenes that took place in the dining room – from huge formal dinners to small daily breakfasts. One of the comments made in the guided tour recordings about the dining room was that dinner party scenes took a long time to shoot, were very crowded with lots of actors at the table and production personnel crowded around the periphery. The scenes were shot with both set lighting and candle light, which is of course hot. Between all that and the food sitting out all day on the table – apparently things became quite stifling and stinky at times.
The massive dining table was increased or decreased depending on the needs of the moment.
Since the dining scenes were shot on location, the room is recreated in total for the Downton Abbey Exhibition. The artwork are reproductions (sort of) of what actually hangs in the rooms and the monumental Van Dyck portrait of King Charles I has been replaced with a screen which plays videos with more info on the room and also a photo of the van Dyck.
I have to say that these French (or Italianate) bombe commodes on the window wall surprised me a bit. They definitely did not seem correct for the room.
As you see below, the actual room has English Regency style sideboards with massive gilt brass candelabra.
The drapery is also fairly mediocre and would have benefitted greatly from the addition of carved gilt wood cornices as seen in the actual room. This could be done without spending a fortune. The addition of tall mirrors between the faux windows would have been an accurate additional as well as adding more light and sparkle. The candelabra, which are quite a bit smaller than the originals would have doubled in size with a mirror backing. Also, they should make a pedestal to raise them up higher. Okay, that whole wall is a bit of a fail. The rest is good, but not that wall. (Decorator claws coming out!)
Aside from that kind of sad wall above, I do highly recommend the Downton Abbey Exhibition if you’re in the Boston area, which is up through the end of September. Its next tour stop is the Biltmore in Asheville, NC starting in early November until April 2020.
And finally (this was one helluva long post, wasn’t it???) coming soon: Downton Abbey – The Movie! They’ve been expecting us!
Were you a fan of the Downton Abbey costumes and sets? What was your favorite room or costume?
All Downton Abbey Exhibition photos ©Linda Merrill, 2019.
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