Anna and Bates.
The list of names, though mysterious to some, is second-nature to fans of “Downton Abbey,” the beloved British period drama set in a fictional Yorkshire estate, airing Sunday nights on PBS. The names are representative of six seasons’ worth of an aristocratic family’s joy and sorrow, a turn-of-the-century world at war and its aftermath, which signaled the beginning of the end of Victorian mores.
And perhaps overshadowing all of the series’ storylines and historical lessons learned are the incredible costumes worn by the lords and ladies, the staff and common folk, which clearly defined one’s place in societal order and, in most instances, took our collective breath away each week.
Coinciding with the series’ sixth and final season (airing Sunday nights on WTTW-Channel 11), Chicago is now hosting “Dressing Downton: Changing Fashion for Changing Times,” a traveling exhibit of 35 costumes from the series’ first four seasons, opening Feb. 9 at the stately Driehaus Museum on East Erie. There could be no more perfect a setting than the palatial Gold Coast mansion for this exhibit (which spans three floors of the house, and which is making only eight stops in the U.S., Chicago being the fourth, over the course of three years).
“You’re used to seeing the costumes on the actors each week,” said Ruta Saliklis, exhibition and development director at San Luis Obispo Museum of Art, and the guest curator for the Driehaus exhibit. “Here you can get closer to them and see all the gorgeous details you can’t really see on television. The costumes are tied to what’s going on historically in the world at the time in which the series is set, so the exhibit is set up to reflect the times [of pre- and post-WWI Britain]. The clothes reflect what the younger generations were embracing, the whole idea of modernity. They also truly reflect that upstairs-downstairs idea of social order, the relationships or lack thereof, between servants and the upstairs family.”
In addition to informative placards and a self-guided audio tour, the exhibit features an array of still photos from the series reflecting the costume on display, so visitors can immediately make that scene connection.
‘Dressing Downton: Changing Fashion for Changing Times’
When: Feb. 9-May 8
Where: Driehaus Museum, 40 E. Erie
Info: Visit driehausmuseum.org
“We have many of the fashions of the Crawley women: Mary [actress Michelle Dockery], Edith [Laura Carmichael], Sybil [Jessica Brown Findlay] and Cora [Elizabeth McGovern]. And because of the decor of the Driehaus, they look ‘right at home’ in many ways. For example, we have the dress Mary wore on the night that Matthew [actor Dan Stevens] was having dinner at Downton. Being a working-class lawyer, suddenly thrust into this very aristocratic world, it’s hard for him to adjust to white tie and tails for dinner.”
The gowns worn by Lady Mary are some of the most elegant in the collection, and, judging by the impossibly tiny waistline, reflective of an era in which women of society’s upper echelons in particular were much smaller in stature than today. To see her gorgeous green silk evening dress juxtaposed with the maid’s standard-issue, black-and-white cotton cloth dress speaks volumes about the class divide of the era, regardless of the ladies’ close friendship. “The ladies absoutely needed a maid to get in and out of these intricately made dresses,” Saliklis said.
To re-create the costumes for “Downton Abbey,” costumers did a lot of research and used period-specific fabrics wherever possible, Saliklis said. In addition, to expedite the process (because an entire season’s worth of costumes needed to be made on tight deadlines), the designers found vintage panels or dresses that already featured the right type of embroidery and glass or bugle and silver beading and just re-purposed those for a particular dress or coat.
The men’s costumes carry an equally interesting back story. Butler and footmen’s uniforms were a reflection of the house, Saliklis added. “They are the ones in the dining room with the family and their elite guests, so it was very important for their uniforms to be gorgeous and impeccable — having the family crest on the buttons on a striped waistcoat, for example. No detail was left out. The butlers and footmen were the peacocks of the estate, if you will. They were expected to be handsome and tall. Thomas [actor Robert-James Collier] fits that ideal.”
As for her personal favorite among the exhibit, Saliklis points to the “flapper-style” dress worn by Lady Rose (actress Lily James) when she goes to a fashionable club and meets up with the Chicago singer-bandleader Jack Ross (Gary Carr).
“I’m always cheering for the flappers’ styles. Even though Rose doesn’t admit she’s a flapper [very forward-thinking for the times], that rose-colored silk dress with metallic threads she wears while dancing with Jack is gorgeous.”
NOTE: In conjunction with the exhibit, the Dreihaus Museum is serving a traditional English tea before or after your visit to “Dressing Downton.” Set in the museum’s Murphy Auditorium, the garden-setting tea features scones and cake breads, tea sandwiches, a variety of sweets and two specialty teas. Seatings are offered Tuesday through Sunday by advance ticket purchase only. (Separate ticket purchase is required for the exhibit). To make tea reservations/purchase tickets, call (312) 482-8933, ext. 21.
Below are a few more of the costumes featured in “Dressing Downton.”