The Costumes of Downton Abbey at Winterthur Museum

Throughout the course of the past six months thousands of visitors have flocked to Winterthur Museum in Winterthur, Delaware to view the Costumes of Downton Abbey exhibit currently on display. As a docent for the exhibit, I have had the opportunity to meet visitors from all over the country (and even some from across the pond). While Downton Abbey fans have traveled from far and wide to view the exhibit, one need not be a fan of the television series in order to enjoy the museum’s display.

The exhibit includes more than forty costumes from the popular television series Downton Abbey. Highlights of the exhibit include Lady Mary’s engagement dress, Lady Edith’s wedding dress, Lady Sybil’s harem pants, and Matthew Crawley’s cricket attire. The costumes are arranged according to the chronology of a single day. The exhibit begins with displays of morning attire and concludes with evening attire.  Costumes of servants and aristocrats are interspersed, mirroring the show’s dual focus on the aristocratic family and its staff.

Most of the costumes in the exhibit came from Cosprop, Ltd., a London based costume company that has provided costumes for many famous period films.  Though most of the costumes in the exhibit are not completely vintage pieces, many of the costumes include bits and pieces of period fabric or embroidery. Since clothing from the 1910s and 1920s often consisted of delicate fabrics, many vintage pieces were too fragile to endure the wear and tear of filming. As a result, the costume designers for Downton Abbey developed clever and creative ways to incorporate vintage fragments into new costume pieces. Many of the evening dresses in the exhibit illustrate the ability of the costume designers to blend old and new.

In addition to displaying beautiful costumes, the exhibit includes interesting and informative textual displays that juxtapose life at an English country estate to life at an American country estate like Winterthur, which was once the home of Henry Francis DuPont (1880-1969). Before DuPont established Winterthur as a museum to house his vast collection of decorative arts, Winterthur was a country home that boasted a large staff and housed many guests and visitors. The Costumes of Downton Abbey exhibit does a wonderful job of incorporating the legacy of DuPont; the exhibit explores Winterthur’s own history alongside the story of the fictional Downton Abbey.

The Costumes of Downton Abbey exhibit provides an example of how museums can draw upon popular culture to find new and interesting ways to present their mission to the public. I encourage people to visit the exhibit, which will be on display through January 4, 2015.



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