"What is a weekend?" the Dowager Countess of Grantham once snarked on that loveliest of English soap operas, Downton Abbey. Dame Maggie Smith may lay claim to all of the great lines, but the winner of the Abbey Aesthetics Award goes to the show's costume designers, who manage to convey a certain mood before each actor even utters a word.
As a Downton Abbey Fan, Truly (DAFT) I was thrilled to discover The Costumes of Downton Abbey Exhibit at Winterthur Museum in Wilmington, Delaware. In Henry F. DuPont's mansion -- now a showcase and museum of antiques and home design -- the exhibit juxtaposes the lives of English and American landed gentry in a most engaging way.
Forty life-sized hand-carved mannequins wear the dresses and suits from Downton Abbey's most memorable scenes, standing before large photographs and projections of our favorite characters. The hunting party, baby's baptism after Lady Sybil's death, Mathew's proposal to Mary -- all here in living color.
What were the major differences between Americans (Cora) and the British (Lord Grantham) when it came to displays and management of wealth? You need look no further than right where you're standing in DuPont's 1928 home. For one, wealth was much more conspicuous in the States. Henry provided one footman for every two guests at dinner in contrast to the two footmen allotted for the whole of Downton's dining room.
Peruse informational panels in and among the costumes to learn other ways that the fictional Downton Abbey would have differed from Winterthur. Americans tended to be more modern: the servant call system was electric, rather than old fashioned series of bells that lend cinematic beauty to the show but was passé by the 1920's. Also, the British aristocracy employed fellow Brits as house staff while American servants tended to be more diverse (African-American, Irish).
What has touched museum staff the most since this exhibit opened is the carefree exchange and interaction among guests. Strangers, prompted by each display and scene, start talking to each other. Watching Downton Abbey at home may be a solo experience, but at Winterthur, it brings people together.
Costumes of Downton Abbey Exhibit at Winterthur in Wilmington DE through Jan 4, 2015.