Recently, friends and I made a pilgrimage to see "Costumes of Downton Abbey".
No, we did not cross the Atlantic. We merely drove past Amish farms in southeastern Pennyslvania, through the rolling hills of the Brandywine Valley, until we saw the white-fenced estates of Wilmington, Delaware. Our destination was an American counterpart to Highclere Castle, Winterthur.
This magnificent 175-room mansion on Henry Francis du Pont's 1000-acre estate is where the 40 Downton Abbey costumes currently are on display. What an interesting exhibit it is! Seeing the beautifully constructed, historically-accurate clothing in person, illustrated for me how important costumes are to theatre: They define characters, enrich scenes, and reflect culture.
After viewing the costumes, I could see how--at least in film--clothes do make the man or woman. Each costume conjured up an image of the character who wore it. Let me illustrate.
First, the upstairs servants dressed for their roles. Even on a mannequin, you can almost hear the rustle of this black tone-on-tone dress as the efficient housekeeper, Mrs. Hughes, moves about keeping Downton running like clockwork.
Then looking at this simple cotton dress and apron, you can visualize Mrs. Patmore wiping flour from her cheek as she directs traffic in the kitchen downstairs?
A third example of a costume defining a character is the navy velvet gown worn at a formal dinner by the Lady Violet Crawley. It suits Dame Maggie Smith as Dowager Countess of Grantham to a tee.
But, perhaps the most striking example of a costume embellishing a character is the outlandishly lavish brocade, fur-ladened coat worn by Shirley McLain. Doesn't it epitomize the flamboyant, wealthy American heiress? Can't you picture Countess Cora's American mother sweeping out of a hired car in this over-the-top ensemble? Did she wear the coat and hat, or did they wear her? I would say, "Both". The costume embellished the character, and the character colored the costume.
Besides magnifying the personalities, the costumes also amplify scenes in the intriguing miniseries plot. Four scenes illustrate the synergy between clothing and scenery.
First, wouldn't you agree that the hunting scene was memorable in large part because all the actors sported wool shooting ensembles?
Thankfully, the exhibit also reproduced happier scenarios. In the snowy, snowy night scene Matthew, wearing an elegant tuxedo, properly proposed to the Earl's eldest daughter, Lady Mary, who was dressed in a shimmering jewel-red, silk costume. Without a doubt, the clothing warmed the entire scene.
Alas, happiness was not in the cards for all the Crowley daughters, and the costumes symbolized this. Even the most jaded among us, pitied poor Edith when she was jilted at the altar. The blue sister-of-the bride's dress and the draping wedding gown perfectly suited the tragic events.
Yes, costumes enhance characters and scenes, but they also reflect changing times. For me, the exhibit crystalized the seismic shift in cultural mores from World War I to the Jazz Age.
The highly-structured, lady-like garments from the first season of Downton Abbey reflect the Victorian Era's lingering effect on style and compunctions. For example, Lady Crowley's purple evening dress would have required a tightly cinched corset, but the next generation's Edwardian-style loosened restraint a bit.
As modern times bore down on Downton Abbey, the culture was transformed as quickly as motorcars replaced carriages. The costumes of the Emmy award-winning miniseries reflect this rapid change. Remember shock reverberating in the room when Lady Sybil appeared at dinner in harem pants?
Finally, by this last season, corsets and conventions were tossed to the wind. The young, high-spirited cousin Rose exemplified the loosening morals as she flaunted herself in a gorgeous apricot-colored, velvet flapper-style dress (my favorite of the exhibit).
Rarely, does so innocuous and seemingly frivolous an exhibit capture the character, enhance the flavor, and reflect the values of such a sweep of history. If you live anywhere near Wilmington, Delaware, I would highly recommend that you get tickets and go to see "Costumes of Downton Abbey" before it closes on January 4, 2015. It is well worth the pilgrimage.
If northeastern Delaware is too far for you to travel, perhaps Asheville, North Carolina will be more convenient. From Febrary 5 through May 25, 2015, the 40 costumes will be exhibited at another grand American home, The Biltmore in Asheville, North Carolina.