Downton Abbey Dish #29, Continued: Exhibit at Winterthur

Deborah Gilbert | October 6, 2014

As you enter the The Costumes of Downton Abbey exhibit at the Winterthur Museum in Wilmington, Delware, you are greeted by this very fitting quote from Oscar Wilde, “I love acting because it’s so much more real than life.”  

Lidz explained, “We struggled with how to tell this story because everyone thinks they know the English country house because it’s been fictionalized and it symbolizes stability, but actually it only became that as it became fragile and started to disappear.” You are also greeted by the downstairs staff and right there you start to notice all the details. The costumes are detailed down to the buttons on Thomas’ livery, which are embossed with the Grantham Coat of Arms. Even though none of that will be picked up by the camera, still it is there because that is what would have been there historically.

Lidz explains, “The clothing is not historically accurate. It gives the effect of historical accuracy, and Cosprop is the leading practitioner of that. Theatrical costumes are very much like theatrical make up; they slather on a lot to make it look natural.” Concessions sometimes need to be made so that the costumes read well on camera. In real life, a working dress for someone like Mrs. Hughes would never have been made out of this fabric, but the kind of fabric a Mrs. Hughes work dress actually would have been made out of would photograph like a black hole in the screen.

So this dress is highly textured with the patterned silk, the appliqué, the beading and sequined lace. With many of the costumes on display here, if you look very closely, you see all kinds of delicate details that you don’t see on even the best HDTV. On Mrs. Hughes’ dress, you’ll see very tiny hand stitching in metallic silver thread all around the edges of the cuffs.- It allows those edges to catch a little light and adds dimension on screen, not so you would notice, but just enough to draw your eye.

When Sybil returned to Downton wearing this frock, the fashionistas in the blogosphere quickly dubbed her ‘dowdy.’ But when you see this dress in person you see that she was not dowdy at all; she was bohemian.

The ‘job’ of a costume isn’t just to make the actor look attractive; it is supposed to speak to the viewer in a kind of visual shorthand that communicates who the character is. A great costume designer is every bit as much a storyteller as a scriptwriter. The costume designers at Cosprop do this by mixing vintage and new in building the costumes. They don’t use museum quality dresses. They use bits and pieces of things so they can fit it to the actor. Sybil’s dress is perfect example of the mix of old and new, the embroidery was cut off a vintage dress that was in shreds. They cut the middle out and then dyed the velvet to match the vintage and built it into this costume we see here.

The thing that limited how many garments the museum could display was how many mannequins they could afford. The 35 mannequins were the most expensive part of the exhibition.  Each one is hand carved, then upholstered with foam and fabric, to be the same size and dimensions as the actor/character who wore the costume. This allows the sometimes fragile garments to keep their shape during their long stay here, as well as showing them off to their best advantage. But here is a place where they made an exception, this fabulous wall of coats belonging to Cora and her mother:

The designers at Cosprop are very resourceful. One of these coats was actually made out of a vintage table cloth. Can you guess which one?

In choosing the costumes for the exhibit, the museum was also limited to the costumes that were no longer in use. But since Daisy has been promoted to assistant cook, they were able to use her old skullery maid costume. And here again is more detail you never see on TV: the print on Daisy’s smock. Next to her is Mrs. Patmore.

As we walked around we came to a display of Matthew’s suit, so I jokingly asked, “Do people come and stand in front of Matthew’s suit and just sob?” And in all seriousness Maggie replied, “Not the suit. I’ll show you later where they do that. We actually have to have kleenex out.” This isn’t the crying place either; Matthew and Mary’s cricket costumes.

When the cricket scenes were being filmed, there was a whole lotta tweetin’ goin’ on. The male actors, took to Twitter to joke and complain about having to wear period underwear under their costumes. Of course, the women of Downton have had to wear period undergarments since the beginning, (ask them how much they loved the long hours in those corsets!) But this was apparently the first time the men had to go there, because of the light color of the slacks, and they did not like it. Very uncomfortable on their delicate…sensibilities.

Another example of vintage combined with new: Edith’s ill-fated wedding dress started with a vintage train, beautifully hand embroidered and beaded. Then, they had to make the rest of the gown to work with that.

The designers often start with an idea; a piece of something vintage, mixed with new. The designers at Cosprop are experts at trolling flea markets and antique shops for bits and pieces of lace, hand beading and embroidery, and utilizing them in their designs. Also, people know what they do, so they bring them things. Some of the maid’s uniforms are newly constructed, but with vintage lace collars. The costume shop at Cosprop employs about one hundred people to build the season’s costumes and they have the ability to work quickly. About seven weeks before filming starts they’ll get a general idea of what they’ll need to create for the season. Then it’s five weeks from the time they get the actual scripts with the breakdown of scenes and find out exactly what they’ll need for each episode. Lidz says, “These designers are very knowledgeable. They don’t start off thinking, what does 1921 look like? They know. And they have to make sure they don’t do 1922 dresses in 1921.”

We all remember Sybil making an entrance in this, with Branson peeking in the window. This costume was number one on the shopping list for Lidz, when she went to Cosprop to choose the garments because it had gotten so much attention (it had it’s own blog sites). They wanted costumes that drove plot twists. And is a perfect example of how the designers work. They’re looking at something that was a fashion sensation, a very scandalous piece for that time, in real life, and through Sybil brought it to Downton. The top is vintage and when they were filming it kept shredding and they had to keep pinning it.

When Lidz was at the costume house she was asking about the differences in evening wear for Carson and Matthew or Lord Grantham and the costumer said it’s all about the cut and the fabric. They invited her to visit the fabric warehouse with them, and showed her the different fabric bolts. The fabric used for a butler’s suit is just a standard wool; cheap but good quality, nothing exceptional. Then they showed her what the master of the house would wear: Vicuna, the most expensive fabric in the world. A jacket made from Vicuna would cost 20 to 30 thousand dollars today. (Yowza! That’s where all Lord Grantham’s money went!) Vicuna is something the average person would never get to see or feel so the museum wanted us experience it. They were able to obtain some Vicuna wholesale so could have that on display here so you can feel that difference for yourself.

This is the costume Carson has been wearing for all four seasons. Winterthur had been begging for the evening costume, so Cosprop said that since his costume was old, they would remake one, and  the museum could have the old one. So Carson got a new livery thanks to the curators at Winterthur!

When I first saw this gown, it took a moment to recognize who it belonged to because the mannequin is standing up straight and the Dowager usually leans on her cane. Here again we see another example of detail that is not historical but appears to be: If you look closely you can see sheer black netting over the cuffs. That would not be done in real life, but here it helps the dress look richer on camera by toning down the sequins and the whiteness of the cuffs. Lidz explains, “These are costumes. They are meant to give an instant effect under lights but not take over.” This is why we see the kind of delicate metallic stitching and beading we first saw on Mrs. Hughes’ cuffs on numerous garments throughout, adding reflection as a theatrical device.

This gown belonging to Cora is a new construction based on a drawing of a Lanvin design. They didn’t have the money to get the drawing here, but forget that; here’s the dress.

This dress, belonging to Lady Rose, is one that is entirely vintage and is embroidered all over with crystal beads.

Right about now I know what you’re thinking: Wait a minute, where are all the tiaras and jewelry? The jewelry is owned by a different company and the museum has been negotiating to get some examples for the exhibit and, great news, some of the jewelry will be added to the exhibit this fall – and Downton Abbey’s jewelry designer, Andrew Prince, will be giving a talk at Winterthur on November 22.

Kiss & Cry:  And here it is, the spot where Downton pilgrims come to cry their eyes out about love and fate and dearly departed Matthew: a romantically dimmed corner of the exhibit where The Proposal plays on an endless loop in the background as the snow falls around you (or at least, that’s what it feels like thanks to the museum’s brilliant lighting designer).

The intricately beaded details in Mary’s changeable silk dress are absolutely incredible, and, again, you see none of it on TV. Because that loop is playing in the background you can see the difference between how the dress looks in person and how it looks digitally re-mastered on screen. The entire show is digitally re-mastered so colors of many of the garments look different. Things get deepened or lightened in the same way we would use Photoshop on still photographs. In this spot, Downtonians take their pictures in front of the falling snow, and they have already had one real life couple get engaged in front of Matthew and Mary (let’s just hope he kept his eyes on the road on the drive home!)


This exhibit is exclusive to Winterthur and will not be touring (and mores the pity). When the clock strikes midnight on January 4 (coincidentally the date Season 5 premieres), the costumes go back to Cosprop. A few of them may appear next year in various places but not this gorgeous exhibition. So do not delay; do not pass go, do not collect $200, just go see this exhibit now while you can! I truly cannot recommend this exhibit highly enough, and I guarantee you will not be sorry (it was so fabulous, I’m going to go back to see it again before it closes!). It is well worth the drive down to Delaware (not a bad jaunt down the Jersey turnpike) and right over the bridge to the Dupont state. Just have Mrs. Patmore pack you a hamper and go! Road trip!

**For more information and a schedule of related events, visit their website:

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