Downton Abbey, the beloved PBS period drama about the British gentry in the early 20th Century, has come to a close. But the characters live on at the “Dressing Downton: Changing Fashion for Changing Times” costume exhibit at the Driehaus Museum in Chicago.
Featuring more than 35 costumes from the show’s first four seasons, “Dressing Downton” captures many of the show’s most memorable scenes and personalities. The exhibit runs through May 8, 2015.
In case you haven’t been following it: The television series begins by introducing viewers to the aristocratic Crawley family who inhabits the fictional country estate of Downton Abbey soon after the sinking of Titanic in 1912. It chronicles them through the historical events—from the eve of World War I through the dawning of the Jazz Age—that triggered great change to their most proper way of life.
Meanwhile, the fashions of the day reflected the realities of the larger world. They evolved from the tight-laced Edwardian S-shape toward less restrictive silhouettes as women filled jobs left by men who went to war and, when it was over, on to the free-form flapper shift.
But you don’t have to know the storyline to enjoy the historical perspective and fastidious tailoring presented by the costume collection. Fans and fashionistas alike will appreciate the delicate laces, intricate beading, ubiquitous headdresses and more. These garments were created by the renowned London Cosprop Ltd. Many use original fabrics and embellishments from the time period. Others were made from scratch, using old photographs, paintings, patterns and magazine pictures for inspiration.
On display is the two-piece purple day dress frequently worn by Violet Crawley, Dowager Countess of Grantham, during the early years. The color was chosen because she was in half-mourning for family members who lost their lives in the Titanic disaster. After a certain period of time, it became acceptable for her to wear lilac, purple or gray in addition to black.
Also shown are Martha Levinson’s flamboyant fox-trimmed coat worn when she made her grand entrance to Downton Abbey and Lady Mary Crawley’s riding habit and sidesaddle. And the luscious embroidered coat worn by Cora Crawley, Countess of Grantham, to Lady Edith’s wedding. It was fashioned from a 1920s tablecloth because the pattern running around the edge was fitting for the occasion. Other costumes depict daywear and evening wear for men and servants.
The final stop on the tour is a selection of photographs portraying what wealthy Chicagoans were wearing during the day of Downton Abbey.
“Dressing Downton” costumes are staged on mannequins in the context of the lavish interiors of the Driehaus Museum, an elegant Gilded Age mansion just footsteps from the Magnificent Mile. Upon its completion in 1883, it was the largest private residence and certainly the grandest the city had ever seen. The home underwent a meticulous, five-year restoration and opened as a museum in 2011. Nearly all the marble and marble are original.
I saw the “Dressing Downton” exhibit at the Biltmore Estate last year. It was splendid there, but so much more intimate at the Driehaus Museum.
PAM’S TIP: Due to the popularity of the exhibition, tickets are timed. Buy yours in advance. And wear your flapper dress. Arrival in period costume is encouraged.
Admission tickets range from $15 to $25 and include self-guided audio tour and a full-color exhibition guide. Order by telephone at 312-482-8933, ext. 21, or online at DriehausMuseum.org.
The Richard H. Driehaus Museum
40 E. Erie St., Chicago, Illinois 60611
THE FINE PRINT: Photos are courtesy of and copyrighted by Carnival Films/Masterpiece unless noted otherwise.