What do Downton Abbey and the film Anchorman have in common?
They have both spawned exhibits at major museums. While the Newseum in Washington, D.C. attracted the non-museum-going crowd with an exhibit about fictional anchorman Ron Burgundy, the Winterthur Museum is currently hosting an exhibit of the costumes from the historical BBC/PBS drama Downton Abbey.
The series will start it's fifth season in January, and has now spanned from 1912 (with the sinking of the Titanic) to the summer of 1923. In the costume world, those 11 years span from the Dowager Countess played by Maggie Smith still dressed in Victorian clothing to rebel daughter Lady Sybil played by Jessica Brown Findlay daring to wear pants. When the costumes are set side-by-side, we can see waistlines dropping and silhouettes of the women's clothing changing.
Overall, the exhibit presented a good combination of the costumes, the history of Winterthur and the DuPonts, historical documents, comments from the costume designers, and the history of the clothing. The curators mention designers that the reconstructed clothing was modeled after, but it would have been nice to see images of those designers and explanations of why those designers were popular or had an impact on clothing choices. As someone interested in fabric, I found it wonderful when they pointed out what original materials were used or how pieces were altered to create an entirely new garment. Below, if you look carefully, you can see that the reproduction embroidery isn't quite as fine as the original work on the top of the dress.
The museum also tried to put the exhibit into context with the Winterthur Estate. Panels explained the upstairs/ downstairs roles of the members of the DuPont family and the help, and even how an American estate compared with a British home like Downton Abbey. But, the exhibit had very scant examples of actual period clothing worn by the DuPonts and their help. It would have been wonderful to see period clothing, not only to compare it with the costumes, but also to explore how the fashions in the United States were different from those in Britain.
Costumes of Downton Abbey is now on display at the Winterthur Museum in Wilmington, Delaware through January 4th, and then will move to the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina.
Come in, the stacks are open.
Away from prying eyes, damaging light, and pilfering hands, the most special collections are kept in closed stacks. You need an appointment to view the objects, letters, and books that open a door to the past.