clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

‘Downton Abbey’ costumes exhibit finds perfect setting in Driehaus Museum

"Dressing Downton: Changing Fashion for Changing Times" exhibit of "Downton Abbey" costumes at the Driehaus Museum. | Photo by Miriam Di Nunzio

Lady Mary.

Mr. Carson.

Mrs. Hughes.

Anna and Bates.

Lord Grantham.

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.

Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael), coral peach evening dress made of two layers of silk (top layer of sheer, shotchiffon). The drape at the drop waist is embellished with beaded embroidery and ribbon as is the scooped neckline. Lady Violet (Maggie Smith), cen
Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael), coral peach evening dress made of two layers of silk (top layer of sheer, shotchiffon). The drape at the drop waist is embellished with beaded embroidery and ribbon as is the scooped neckline. Lady Violet (Maggie Smith), center, evening dress with an under layer of pale, olive-green satin and overdress of black chiffon. Martha Levinson (Shirley MacLaine), right, Art Deco evening dress of burnout silk velvet in layers. | PHOTO BY MIRIAM DI NUNZIO/SUN-TIMES

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).

Thomas Barrow (Rob James-Collier) and Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan), seasons 1-4. Butler and housekeepers’ uniforms. Her dress: Working outfit of black silk and wool with cream lace trim. His uniform: Footmen’s “liver” made from wool and cotton, with white
Thomas Barrow (Rob James-Collier) and Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan), seasons 1-4. Butler and housekeepers’ uniforms. Her dress: Working outfit of black silk and wool with cream lace trim. His uniform: Footmen’s “liver” made from wool and cotton, with white tie and waistcoat. Downton family crest is visible on the coat’s buttons. | PHOTO BY MIRIAM DI NUNZIO/SUN-TIMES

“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

Admission: $15-$25

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.”

Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) and Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens), Downton Abbey, season 1. Evening dress worn at dinner on the occasion when the Turkish diplomat appears with Mr. Napier and Matthew Crawley. The dress was made for the show from a turn-of-the
Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) and Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens), Downton Abbey, season 1. Evening dress worn at dinner on the occasion when the Turkish diplomat appears with Mr. Napier and Matthew Crawley. The dress was made for the show from a turn-of-the-century Spanish evening dress. The series’ costumers added silk chiffon and had it pleated for the cap sleeves. Embroidered lace was laid over the deep-red satin underdress.| PHOTO BY MIRIAM DI NUNZIO/SUN-TIMES

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.

Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery), green silk evening dress with black net overlay and black and silver starbursts worn at dinner for Matthew’s arrival at Downton. Anna’s (Joanne Froggatt) black cotton dress with white lace trim and white cotton apron. | PHOTO
Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery), green silk evening dress with black net overlay and black and silver starbursts worn at dinner for Matthew’s arrival at Downton. Anna’s (Joanne Froggatt) black cotton dress with white lace trim and white cotton apron. | PHOTO BY MIRIAM DI NUNZIO/SUN-TIMES

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.”

Lady Rose MacLare (Lily James), silk velvet evening dress, original to the period, with glass bead and sequin decoration. | PHOTO BY MIRIAM DI NUNZIO/SUN-TIMES
Lady Rose MacLare (Lily James), silk velvet evening dress, original to the period, with glass bead and sequin decoration. | PHOTO BY MIRIAM DI NUNZIO/SUN-TIMES

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.”

Follow @MiriamDiNunzio//

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.”

Lady Cora Crawley (Elizabeth McGovern), “Downton Abbey” season 3. Silk evening dress with net overlay and beaded panel in front. | PHOTO BY MIRIAM DI NUNZIO/SUN-TIMES
Lady Cora Crawley (Elizabeth McGovern), “Downton Abbey” season 3. Silk evening dress with net overlay and beaded panel in front. | PHOTO BY MIRIAM DI NUNZIO/SUN-TIMES
LEFT: Lady Edith Crawley (Laura Carmichael), Black Coat edged in autumnal colored embroidery; “Downton Abbey,” Seasons 3-4, 1920-1921. MIDDLE: Lady Mary Crawley (Michelle Dockery): burgundy coat, hat and pocketbook worn on Mary’s return from London where
LEFT: Lady Edith Crawley (Laura Carmichael), Black Coat edged in autumnal colored embroidery; “Downton Abbey,” Seasons 3-4, 1920-1921. MIDDLE: Lady Mary Crawley (Michelle Dockery): burgundy coat, hat and pocketbook worn on Mary’s return from London where she meets Sir Richard Carlisle. “Downton Abbey,” Season 2. RIGHT: Lady Sybil Crawley (Jessica Brown Findlay): blue/green suit and hat worn for an afternoon outing with Cora and Edith, “Downton Abbey,” Season 1. | PHOTO BY MIRIAM DI NUNZIO/SUN-TIMES
Violet Crawley, Dowager countess of Grantham (Maggie Smith): purple print silk day dress, white blouse with lace bowtie, necklace, amethyst brooch and hat. |PHOTO BY MIRIAM DI NUNZIO/SUN-TIMES
Violet Crawley, Dowager countess of Grantham (Maggie Smith): purple print silk day dress, white blouse with lace bowtie, necklace, amethyst brooch and hat. |PHOTO BY MIRIAM DI NUNZIO/SUN-TIMES
Downton Abbey (Masterpiece/PBS) Season 1. LEFT: Hugh Bonneville as Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham; light cream linen suit and hat, watch fob, white shirt, collar, ascot with stock pin, brown shoes, socks and straw hat. RIGHT: Elizabeth McGovern as Cora
Downton Abbey (Masterpiece/PBS) Season 1. LEFT: Hugh Bonneville as Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham; light cream linen suit and hat, watch fob, white shirt, collar, ascot with stock pin, brown shoes, socks and straw hat. RIGHT: Elizabeth McGovern as Cora Crawley, Countess of Grantham; white silk day dress and coat with black trim and hat. Worn at the Downton Village Show. | PHOTO BY MIRIAM DI NUNZIO/SUN-TIMES