Wilmington, Delaware, is a long way from Yorkshire but it’s also an oddly appropriate setting for Costumes of Downton Abbey, an exhibition of 40 outfits from the television series that opens next Saturday. The venue is Winterthur, a 175-room country estate that is now a museum but was once the home of wealthy cattle breeder Henry Francis du Pont, his family and a staff of more than 200. This American answer to the Granthams’ stately home is located a 90-minute drive north of Washington DC.
The exhibition is a rare case of a current TV series being granted a museum retrospective. Other fashion-obsessive TV series such as Mad Men and Gossip Girl have not had one, so what’s so different about Downton?
“It really taps into our fantasy of being British and rich,” says Cameron Silver, author of Decades: A Century of Fashion, who thinks that the exhibition reflects a peculiarly American fixation. “It’s a cultural phenomenon in the States, because we’ve always had a fascination with British royals and British society.”
British designer Jenny Packham, whose bridal designs are heavy on the early 20th-century vintage feel, tells how, when she appeared at a Los Angeles store last year, her visit attracted 100 future brides. “Every single woman who came in was like, ‘Downton Abbey, Downton Abbey’,” she says.
Downton’s period costumes have not gone unnoticed by designers and are echoed in looks this season from Marc Jacobs and Ralph Lauren (who has, since 2012, been a sponsor of the Masterpiece Theater series on PBS, where Downton airs in the US).
“This fascination with a life of leisure, complicated by all the upstairs/downstairs drama is irresistible,” says Anne Slowey, fashion news director of US Elle. Slowey points out that several items in the autumn catwalk shows – long coats at Reed Krakoff and Joseph Altuzarra, for example – echoed Downton’s costume silhouettes and colour palette. “The look particularly appeals to women because, for the women of the upper class, all they had to do was run the household and present themselves through their fashion.”
The exhibition showcases the luxurious costumes of the fictional Grantham family, such as the burgundy dress that Lady Mary wears on the night of her wedding proposal; Lady Edith’s wedding dress (for the marriage that wasn’t meant to be); a pair of coats worn by Lady Cora’s mother Martha Levinson (played by Shirley MacLaine); and a sumptuous blue velvet evening dress.
“It was an era when glamour was at its peak and people took a lot of time to wear beautiful clothes,” says US designer Naeem Khan, whose autumn 2014 collection includes flapper-inspired dresses that are easy to picture on Lady Rose en route to a jazz club.
Yet what makes the exhibition meatier is its inclusion of servants’ clothing, such as the crisp uniforms worn by maids Daisy and Anna, and Anna’s husband, the valet Mr Bates.
Designed to take visitors through a day in the life of the house, the exhibition begins with kitchen staff preparing breakfast and is peppered with du Pont family items (such as an eight-piece Tiffany silver tea set from 1874). This aims to make the experience relevant to an era increasingly concerned about the income gap. “We have been looking at the show in terms of social history,” says Maggie Lidz, Winterthur historian and the show’s co-curator.
But despite its success in highlighting the lifestyle of the Downton era, there are a few heavy-handed touches. A Downton-themed gift shop offers faux jet earrings and brooches, a kitchen apron embellished with a giant “DA” and “Grantham Breakfast Blend” tea. The museum restaurant offers cream of cauliflower and Stilton soup and, perhaps inevitably, tea with scones and sandwiches.
Costumes of ‘Downton Abbey’ at Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library until January 4 2015. winterthur.org
This article was corrected on February 26 to reflect the fact that Downton Abbey is shown on PBS in the US, not HBO as originally stated.