Downton Abbey: The Exhibition, Review

If you haven’t seen it yet, Downton Abbey: The Exhibition, based on the period drama television series (1912-1926), which opened in November 2017 in New York City, is now extended through April 2, 2018! This exhibit is more of a peak behind the curtain than chronological Museum Exhibition of the Downtown Abbey TV series. It is very enjoyable for fans of the show, but in terms of in-depth historical information regarding the clothing, they were lacking in some descriptive labels and information. In this sense, it differs from the prior, Costumes of Downton Abbey, traveling exhibit. Overall, certainly worth a visit, if only to see more than 50 of the show’s outstanding garments in person!

For those who have trouble remembering what happened in some of the episodes by now (like me), here’s a great episode guide

The show is set on three separate floors. The lowest is appropriately attributed to discussing the kitchen and downstairs activities of the Downton Abbey staff. This included a replica of Mrs. Patmore’s kitchen, the servants’ hall, and servants’ uniforms. New recordings of Mr. Carson and Mrs. Hughes welcomed guests into the exhibit and interactive tablets, quizzing guests on what their profession might have been during that time, were fun novelties.

 

From Left to Right: Anna’s (lady’s maid) working dress, Mr. Carson’s (butler) desk, and Mrs. Patmore (head cook) and Daisy’s (assistant cook) uniforms in the Downton kitchen 

Most chat and didactic labels described film set details, like Food Stylist, Lisa Heathcote, waking up early in order to make all the food needed for filming. One label, however, expanded on the life of women during the Edwardian-WWI period, called A Life in Service — Women, and said:

“It was common practice for housekeepers and cooks to select the brightest girls from a rural village school to come and work in the big house. When they reached their twenties, most maids made the decision to either leave to marry or continue to climb the domestic service career ladder — the one was usually incompatible with the other. After the First World War, service became a less desirable career as other possibilities opened up for women in England’s fast-growing towns and cities.”

Following the exhibit upstairs, the second floor was dedicated to the Crawley family and the lives of the aristocratic class. This included the Crawley dining room, Lady Mary’s bedroom, and many costumes worn by the Crawleys. In addition, there was some information on the effects of WWI, the Jazz Age, and technological advancements, like the telephone and radio. There were beautiful costumes, jewelry, and some related props to the room settings, although the props were sometimes unclear as to whether they were used on set, a replica, or historical object.

From Left to Right: various jewelry items, various accessories for daywear and evening, the Crawley dining room, and Lady Mary’s bedroom

As a fan, I personally would have loved to see even more information for each garment in terms of its context within the series and the year in which it was supposedly worn. For instance, with the dress worn by Lady Mary below when she goes to dinner with Henry (left) and Tom (right) in Season 6, set in the mid-1920s.

This stunning gown is made of vintage lace and is supported by modern fabric underneath. This is a prime example of the authenticity of the show’s costumes created by melding past and present by the show’s designers, Anna Robbins, Susannah Buxton, and Caroline McCall. On that note, I also would have loved to hear more about the behind-the-scenes construction details from the perspective of the costume designers, considering how much of the television show and exhibit’s success is attributed to the costumes themselves.

Finally, the third floor was dedicated almost entirely to costumes and accessories. I loved the sheer number and variety of costumes on display on this floor! Again, more detail in some of the descriptions would have been appreciated (like the episode number or date in which the episode took place) but it was satisfying to see so many of the well-crafted costumes close-up. I’ve included more information on some of my favorite pieces from this section:

Is any roundup of Downton Abbey costumes complete without talking about Lady Sybil’s amazing Turkish trousers from Season 1? This ensemble speaks to Sybil’s free spirit and was a daring look in the Edwardian era (this episode takes place in 1913) when women in England very rarely, if ever, wore pants.  This was made from original Edwardian period fabric. In this interview with costume designer, Susannah Buxton, from Time, Buxton says of this ensemble:

“I used a panel of embroidery for the bodice that was very old and very beautiful. She came down for the first scene and after the third take the whole panel started to split at the back. Fortunately we did have another piece of it, but watching a dress part from itself in front of your eyes on camera is pretty scary.”

 

 

Lady Rose’s robe-de-style gown from the conclusion of Season 4, worn during her debutante ball in 1923, at Buckingham Palace. This sloping pannier skirt was a popular alternate style of dress in the 1920s, as opposed to the linear, flapper look.

 

 

This beaded evening gown worn by Lady Edith, when she goes to dinner in London with Michael Gregson at the Criterion in London, has become better known as the “Beadith dress.” This flapper-style gown from Season 4, with daring open back and front side slit, is representative of Lady Edith’s transformation from frumpy sister to independent female editor as the series progresses. Downton Abbey Online does a great job of unpacking Edith’s “Cinderella Story” through narrative and photos.

 

This daywear ensemble echos the 1920’s affinity for a dropped waist and long, lean lines. Lady Mary wore this ensemble when she attended a fashion show in Season 5 with her aunt, Lady Rosamund.

 

For the grand finale, viewers got a chance to see Lady Edith’s second wedding gown made of Brussels lace. The marriage between Edith and Bertie Pelham takes place in the series finale, Season 6. Other wedding gowns were available to view too, and The Enchanted Manor does a great job of compiling the various wedding gowns of Downton Abbey.

This exhibit concludes with a montage of memorable moments from the series and recordings of Mrs. Hughes and Carson specifically made for the exhibit. Overall, as a fashion historian I wish there would have been more specific date and reference information for the pieces, as well as more information and commentary from the show’s costume designers, but I thoroughly enjoyed the sets, extra recordings made for the exhibit, and the many gorgeous costumes! I would highly recommend this exhibit for fans of the show. Anyone else missing Downton Abbey?

 

-Danielle Morrin

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