Field Trip: “Dressing Downton,” Taft Museum, Cincinnati

Readers,

Last month I got to see three dozen costumes from Downton Abbey up close in the show “Dressing Downton: Changing Fashion for Changing Times” at the beautiful Taft Museum in Cincinnati, Ohio.

In front of Cincinnati's Taft Museum.

In front of Cincinnati’s Taft Museum.

At the invitation of a friend of my sister Cynthia’s who is a member of the museum, I joined Cynthia and our sister Donna on a day trip for lunch, the show, and a little spin around some of Cincinnati’s  notable neighborhoods.  It was a lot of fun.

Worn by Violet Crawley, the Dowager Countess of Grantham. (Sorry, I missed photographing the details of this outfit.)

Worn by Violet Crawley, the Dowager Countess of Grantham.

As a Downton Abbey devotee I came pretty late to the party. Season 1 began broadcasting in the US  in 2011 just a few weeks before Jack and left the country for two months (in London, it so happened) and I just was not tuned into the excitement.

Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham: "Light cream linen suit with straw Panama hat.' Season 1, 1913-1914. Cora Crawley, Countess of Grantham. "Silk day dress and coat with black frogging and large brimmed silk hat with net overlay, flowers, and ribbon detail." Season 1, 1913.

Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham: “Light cream linen suit with straw Panama hat.’ Season 1, 1913-1914. Cora Crawley, Countess of Grantham. “Silk day dress and coat with black frogging and large brimmed silk hat with net overlay, flowers, and ribbon detail.” Season 1, 1913.

On that sojourn, even when I was researching “Sewing Destination: London, England” for Threads magazine and saw Downton Abbey costumes at Angels the Costumiers that were headed for filming, I took only a cursory glance.

Lady Mary Crawley, Season 1, 1913-1914. "Riding habit and hat. Worn during Lady Mary and Matthew's first meeting at Crawley House."

Lady Mary Crawley, Season 1, 1913-1914. “Riding habit and hat. Worn during Lady Mary and Matthew’s first meeting at Crawley House.”

It was only in season 4 that I got swept up in the tsunami of Downton Abbey, and that was because watching it became a social occasion.

Lady Mary Crawley. Season 2, 1916-1918. "Two-piece wool ensemble with velvet collar and cuffs, felt hat with silk ribbon, and velvet handbag with metal clasp. First worn on Mary's return trip from London after meeting Sir Richard Charles." Lady Edith Crawley, Seasons 3-4, 1920-1921. "Black grosgrain coat with silk embroidery, original to the period. First worn on a trip to London."

Lady Mary Crawley. Season 2, 1916-1918. “Two-piece wool ensemble with velvet collar and cuffs, felt hat with silk ribbon, and velvet handbag with metal clasp. First worn on Mary’s return trip from London after meeting Sir Richard Charles.” Lady Edith Crawley, Seasons 3-4, 1920-1921. “Black grosgrain coat with silk embroidery, original to the period. First worn on a trip to London.”

By the last season, when I was now Cynthia’s neighbor rather than 764 miles away in Minnesota, I was recording the show for us to watch the following day. An hour’s show could take 90 minutes to watch, as I frequently paused and replayed scenes so we could divine the meanings of each raised eyebrow and turned head.

I like the velvet collar and cuffs and matching them to the hat.

I like the velvet collar and cuffs and matching them to the hat.

I noticed that the buttons and buckle don't match the fabric or each other. I like the rows of top stitching on the belt.

I noticed that the buttons and buckle don’t match the fabric or each other. I like the rows of top stitching on the belt.

Plus, who wouldn’t confess to waiting impatiently every week to hear what Violet, Dowager Countess of Grantham, would say next?

And who would refuse to admit that the scenery and the cars, the rooms and all their accoutrements, and those costumes weren’t fabulous enticements to keep watching?

Anna Smith, Ethel Parks, Gwen Dawson, and Jane Moorsum, Maids. Season 1, 1912-1919. "Black cotton maid's dress with white lace trim and cotton apron" Lady Mary Crawley, Season 1, 1913: "Silk evening dress with net overlay and black and silver starbursts. Worn at dinner for Matthew's dinner at Downton."

Anna Smith, Ethel Parks, Gwen Dawson, and Jane Moorsum, Maids. Season 1, 1912-1919. “Black cotton maid’s dress with white lace trim and cotton apron” Lady Mary Crawley, Season 1, 1913: “Silk evening dress with net overlay and black and silver starbursts. Worn at dinner for Matthew’s dinner at Downton.”

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Did anybody really live like that?

Apparently, yes. Some of the garments in this show, or parts of them, are original to the period.

Jack Ross, American jazz musician and singer. Season 4, 1922. "Formal evening suit. Worn during Jack Ross's performance at the Lotus Jazz Club in London." Lady Rose MacClare. Season 4, 1922-1923. "Silk velvet evening dress, original to the period, decorated with glass beads and sequins. Worn at supper and at an 'at home' party in London."

Jack Ross, American jazz musician and singer. Season 4, 1922. “Formal evening suit. Worn during Jack Ross’s performance at the Lotus Jazz Club in London.” Lady Rose MacClare. Season 4, 1922-1923. “Silk velvet evening dress, original to the period, decorated with glass beads and sequins. Worn at supper and at an ‘at home’ party in London.”

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Still, I found it just barely credible that people, if only a relative few, had such amazingly intricate handmade clothes.

Mrs. Hughes, housekeeper. Season 1, 1912-1914. "Black silk and wool dress with cream lace trim. Worn while working at Downton."

Mrs. Hughes, housekeeper. Season 1, 1912-1914. “Black silk and wool dress with cream lace trim. Worn while working at Downton.”

Yes, I know a little about bespoke suits and all, having had a backstage peek at some of Savile Row’s tailoring workrooms. But a hand-stitched custom suit could be worn for many years and even be handed down to an heir.  That clothing seems like a sensible investment, with the cost spread out over many wearings.

Left: (No information--sorry!) Right: Sir Richard Carlisle, Season 2, 1917-1920. "Three-piece wool herringbone suit and wool coat. Worn while walking and during a shooting party at Downton."

Left: (Missed getting the information–sorry!) Right: Sir Richard Carlisle, Season 2, 1917-1920. “Three-piece wool herringbone suit and wool coat. Worn while walking and during a shooting party at Downton.”

Thomas Barrow, William Mason, James "Jimmy" Kent, and Alfred Nugent, Footmen. Season 1-4, 1912-1923. "Wool and cotton footman's livery. Worn while working at Downton."

Thomas Barrow, William Mason, James “Jimmy” Kent, and Alfred Nugent, Footmen. Season 1-4, 1912-1923. “Wool and cotton footman’s livery. Worn while working at Downton.”

But who would dare to be seen in some of these stunning gowns more than once?  Maybe nobody; I don’t know.

Left: Martha Levinson, Season 3, 1920. "Evening dress of devore (burnout) silk velvet in layers. Worn at the indoor picnic, which Mrs. Levinson suggests when disaster strikes the kitchen oven." Center: Violet Crawley, Dowager Countess of Grantham. Season 3, 1920. "Olive salon evening dress with black chiffon overdress, partially original to the period. Worn at the indoor picnic." Right: Lady Edith Crawley. Season 3, 1920. "Silk evening dress. Worn at the indoor picnic."

Left: Martha Levinson, Season 3, 1920. “Evening dress of devore (burnout) silk velvet in layers. Worn at the indoor picnic, which Mrs. Levinson suggests when disaster strikes the kitchen oven.” Center: Violet Crawley, Dowager Countess of Grantham. Season 3, 1920. “Olive salon evening dress with black chiffon overdress, partially original to the period. Worn at the indoor picnic.” Right: Lady Edith Crawley. Season 3, 1920. “Silk evening dress. Worn at the indoor picnic.”

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So, after the stunning gown was worn once, then what?

I’m just curious.

Left: Madeleine Allsopp, Season 4, 1923. "Silk satin gown with attached beaded panels. Worn by Madeleine Allsopp, when she and Rose are presented at Court."

Left: Madeleine Allsopp, Season 4, 1923. “Silk satin gown with attached beaded panels. Worn by Madeleine Allsopp, when she and Rose are presented at Court.”

I’m sure a lot is known–and volumes and volumes have been written–on the whole cycle of creating and wearing fashion over the generations. And I will bet that 95 percent of that writing centers on the designers, models, and the clientele.

Martha Levinson. (Sorry, I missed photographing the museum label.)

Martha Levinson. (Sorry, I missed photographing the museum label.)

Sorry, but as a maker, I want to know much more about the makers of the original garments and of these gorgeous facsimiles.img_0438-264x460

Who was "S. Hawes"?

Who was “S. Hawes”?

Just the other day I started reading Kevin McCloud’s Principles of Home: Making a Place to Live. I really like Kevin McCloud’s books on color and on lighting, which combine concepts and practical applications so beautifully.

In his introduction to Principles of Home McCloud writes,

I think we have lost touch with the made world. We have forgotten how difficult and time-consuming it is to make something; how hard it is to make an elegant table out of a tree or a spoon out of metals dug out of the ground and refined. Our sensibilities to craftsmanship have been eroded by high-quality machine manufacturing; our tactile sense has been debased by artificial materials pretending to be something that they are not. Our attention, meanwhile, has been diverted by the virtual built worlds that exist inside screens. The landscapes of gaming and avatar worlds, for instance, are not complicated by the inconvenient messiness of the real world. In them, stuff, narratives, buildings and people are both perfect and disposable.

The real world is not perfect and it’s not disposable. In the real world, things and people age and decompose. The real, tangible world is much harder to make, more difficult to maintain and unpleasant to recycle. Which may explain why so many people seek solace in virtual worlds, even it it’s just by watching a soap opera on TV.

Uh oh. Could he be referring to Downton Abbey, the greatest soap opera of them all?

Lady Mary Crawley, Season 1, 1913-1914. "Dark red silk evening dress, partially original to the period. Worn at dinner on the night of the hunt with Mr. Napier and the Turkish diplomat."

Lady Mary Crawley, Season 1, 1913-1914. “Dark red silk evening dress, partially original to the period. Worn at dinner on the night of the hunt with Mr. Napier and the Turkish diplomat.”

I am really of two minds about Downton Abbey. It’s fiction, but based on lots of actual practices and set in real places.  The vast wealth, the cultural assumptions and expectations, and the intricate etiquette are so abstract to me. But the material culture–the buildings, the rooms, the furnishings, and the clothes–are quite concrete.

Lady Sybil Crawley, Season 3, 1920. "Velvet maternity dress, with gold embroidered borders original to the period. First worn at dinner when Lady Sybil and Tom Branson return to Downton."

Lady Sybil Crawley, Season 3, 1920. “Velvet maternity dress, with gold embroidered borders original to the period. First worn at dinner when Lady Sybil and Tom Branson return to Downton.”

Cora Crawley, Countess of Grantham. Season 3, 1920. "Cream dress and coat with embroidered floral borders, made from vintage fabric. Worn at Lady Edith's first wedding."

Cora Crawley, Countess of Grantham. Season 3, 1920. “Cream dress and coat with embroidered floral borders, made from vintage fabric. Worn at Lady Edith’s first wedding.”

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You would think, then, that I would find the clothes believable. But I walked around the show shaking my head in disbelief. They are so far from what I’ve ever experienced. I’ve never worn a dress weighted with glittering beads, nor have I ever had the ambition to.

Cora Crawley, Season 2, 1916-1917. "Dress with original ivory silk center panel beaded with glass diamonds, pearls, and seed beads; and green velvet jacket. Worn at the charity concert for the hospital."

Cora Crawley, Season 2, 1916-1917. “Dress with original ivory silk center panel beaded with glass diamonds, pearls, and seed beads; and green velvet jacket. Worn at the charity concert for the hospital.”

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However, there was one detail of one costume I found utterly charming: a pocket on a (relatively) utilitarian garment, worn by Edith to do work around the Downton property.

Lady Edith Crawley, Season 2, 1917-1918. "Wool cord breeches, brushed cotton blouse, and linen jacket with contrasting velvet trim. Worn during Lady Edith's work on the farm."

Lady Edith Crawley, Season 2, 1917-1918. “Wool cord breeches, brushed cotton blouse, and linen jacket with contrasting velvet trim. Worn during Lady Edith’s work on the farm.”

(You won’t find me gardening or cleaning out the barn in a linen jacket, with or without velvet trim, but indulge me in this one illusion.)

I love this pocket.

I love this pocket.

I love this pocket, for its utility, and simplicity, and originality.  And comforting familiarity.img_0435-451x460

While I can appreciate elaborate clothing, and I was happy to attend the Downton Abbey show to see it up close, I believe it will be Edith’s linen jacket with those wonderful pockets that will leave the deepest impression on me.

Our visit to the exhibition ended with a visit to the room reserved for members, where we discovered to our delight  life-size cardboard cutouts of Lord and Lady Grantham and the Dowager Countess.

My sister Donna plays Lady Grantham; with me as Violet, the dowager duchess; and my sister Cynthia as Lord Grantham.

My sister Donna plays Lady Grantham; with me as Violet, the dowager duchess; and my sister Cynthia as Lord Grantham.

I’m sure the Dowager would not have been amused.

“Dressing Downton: Changing Fashion for Changing Times,” is at the Taft Museum through September 25.

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6 thoughts on “Field Trip: “Dressing Downton,” Taft Museum, Cincinnati

    • That was very nice–they did a good job of showing the contexts of the clothes, which I missed mentioning in my post.

  1. Wow! This really made me miss Downton Abbey! I hope it will be replayed on TV. I will certainly pay better attention to the beautiful clothing that they are wearing.
    What a great place to visit! Thank you for sharing it with us, Paula!

    • Marilyn, you could probably borrow the Downton Abbey DVD sets from your library and watch them at your leisure. I missed the first three seasons entirely so I have a lot of catching up to do. The Taft Museum is beautiful and I want to go back to take a good look at its permanent collection.

  2. Hi Paula! I just returned from a two week vacation in Canada where I was unable to access the Internet. I’m thrilled to see you have posted such interesting articles. I can’t wait to read them in detail as soon as I unpack and get settled!
    Marguerite

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