For fans of Downton Abbey, one of the period drama's primary delights was its sartorial offerings — deliciously decadent beaded gowns, ornate hats, the particulars of Edwardian white tie and the proper uniform for a lady’s maid.
Those still suffering from Downton withdrawal nearly a year after the final season aired on PBS can get their fix at a traveling exhibition, open through May at Muzeo in Anaheim. “Dressing Downton” puts 36 costumes from the hit television show on display for fans to examine up close.
Outfits from the first four seasons are arranged in chronological vignettes that help contextualize the designs within the history of the era. The show took care to include its costumes and the evolution of fashion as key plot points, using clothes to chart shifting social mores. Sybil’s (Jessica Brown Findlay) first step into feminism was symbolized through her season-one adoption of “harem” pants, and Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) seized her new life as an independent, sexually liberated woman with a chic bob haircut in the fifth season.
Season five and six costume designer Anna Robbins explains via email, “Clothing is an important social barometer of the times; social and historical events, the movement onwards of feminism, of music, or politics, of design and art, of social class. For me this is the beauty of my job as a designer. To look at the full social strata and paint a picture that captures the age and to be able to tell individual storylines through clothing.”
The exhibition doubles down on this aspect of the show. When you enter, you’re surrounded by Edwardian designs, exemplified by the Dowager Countess’ (Maggie Smith) iconic violet day dress and the traditional servant garb, and you wind your way through the practical fashions and uniforms of World War I until arriving at the loose waists and raised hemlines of the 1920s. Muzeo executive director Dan Finley says, “It’s a time capsule, a snapshot of what’s going on in the time. … Everything going on in the world affects fashion.” The costumes are arranged in a way that allows you to follow the flow of changing fashions, while providing ample social and historical context in placards that explain everything from shorter hemlines to the rise of mass-produced clothing with the need for uniforms in World War I.
Muzeo curator Joyce Franklin maintained the chronology suggested by exhibition developer Exhibits Development Group, but she also put her own touch on the proceedings, breaking the pieces up into more easily digestible segments and installing them alongside antique furniture. “In many places where different curators have set up the exhibit, it becomes more like a runway exhibit or a trade show,” she says. “Our patrons enjoy a more intimate relationship with the pieces we bring in, and that’s why I created the small vignettes.”
She also includes a closing segment that features vintage clothing and artifacts from the same era of history in the city of Anaheim. These items, as well as the furniture in displays throughout the museum, are on loan from Anaheim Historical and local private collectors. Franklin described her process of acquiring these items as “like a shopping trip,” where she walked through Anaheim’s Mother Colony House and Woelke-Stoffel House to select historically accurate items. It gives visitors a chance to contextualize the costumes within their own lives, understanding how these styles and world events affected their local surroundings through tangible pieces of history.
Lovers of Downton Abbey will rejoice in the chance to relive favorite moments from the show through the costumes, but even if you’re not a fan of the television show, the exhibit is a treat for history and fashion lovers. The costumes are not only gorgeous, intricate pieces, but many of them are vintage pieces or feature components from the era. New costumes mix contemporary fabrics with vintage panels of exquisite beading, delicate hand-worked lace and intricate embroidery. For Lady Mary’s scaled-down wartime look, they pair a blouse original to the era with a freshly constructed skirt. The costumers bolster fragile fabrics and beading with sturdier linings and satin underlays. They don’t look for original pieces and fabrics in purely traditional places, either – in the spirit of Scarlett O’Hara and Fraulein Maria, an overcoat for Lady Cora is constructed from an original 1920s tablecloth.
Some pieces are wholly original to the era, including a pink silk velvet flapper dress worn by Lady Rose (Lily James) and Lady Edith’s grosgrain coat with silk cannelle embroidery. Actress Laura Carmichael selected the coat herself from costume house Cosprop and was thrilled to discover that it was a vintage piece that had survived the decades.
The show not only achieved accuracy through the use of original pieces but often had characters rewear pieces, just as people do in real life. The costumes are a mix of old and new, a metaphor for what made Downton Abbey a mega-hit. Costume designer Anna Robbins says, “What has endeared the audience, I think, is the storylines, expertly weaving modern experiences into a period drama.” The characters may have lived in the past, but their triumphs and tragedies spoke to universal themes that ripple down the decades.
The costumers echo this, skillfully blending modern fabrics with period accessories and trimmings and making it difficult to discern where antique glass beads meet newly cut silk. “Dressing Downton” gives you the chance to study the intricacies yourself, admiring the handiwork of new costumers and seamstresses while also reveling in the beauty of handcrafts created by those long gone. It may be an exhibit showcasing the fashions of a television show, but it’s a rare chance to revel in the trappings of a pop-culture phenomenon while simultaneously staring history in the face.