Revisiting Downton Abbey

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Lady Mary’s gown with her maid, Anna Smith’s uniform.

All of our old friends are there: Lord and Lady Grantham. the Dowager Countess, the daughters, their heartthrobs, Cora’s American mother and of course, all of our favorite servants.

Well, it’s not exactly them — but their exquisite clothing, worn by life-sized mannequins. “Dressing Downton: Changing Fashion for Changing Times,” a traveling exhibition of dazzling costumes, jewelry, film stills and accessories, opens at the Taft Museum of Art on Saturday, July 2, and is here through Sept. 25.

Matthew Crawley's wartime uniform, with Lady Mary's costume.
Matthew Crawley’s wartime uniform, with Lady Mary’s costume.

After yesterday’s press tour, it’s clear that the Taft Museum has another hit on its hands. Even before the show opens, they’ve sold more than 6,000 advance tickets, and the teas are completely sold out! (More could be added, so stay tuned.)

But do make a reservation in the cafe, where you can lunch on Mrs. Patmore’s pasty, and other British delicacies.

Elizabeth McGovern as Cora Crawley, Countess of Grantham, and Hugh Bonneville as Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham, wore these outfits in Season 2.
Elizabeth McGovern as Cora Crawley, Countess of Grantham, and Hugh Bonneville as Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham, wore these outfits in Season 2.

This show of 36 elegant, finely detailed costumes is not only enormous fun for fans of PBS Masterpiece’s “Downton Abbey” — and I’m sure you know each and every detail of every season, and also what they wore — but it is also graciously exhibited in the best possible venue for these lavish period costumes, the Taft family home. (Be sure to read Carol Motsinger’s piece on the Cincinnati connections to “Downton Abbey.”)

The Taft’s Fifth Third Gallery displays 26 ensembles. Another 10 are scattered strategically throughout the home’s permanent collection. So, you might bump into Lady Sybil’s baby bump — her maternity dress — in the British gallery, full of portraits of mothers and children. You’ll arrive at the front door (surrounded by those lush Duncanson murals) just as the men are coming in from a walk on the estate.

The Taft House's Music Room is a lovely place for the picnic scene from Season 3.
The Taft House’s Music Room is a lovely place for the picnic scene from Season 3.

Oh, and there’s a vignette from the indoor picnic from Season 3, when the stove went out just before a grand dinner party, and Martha Levinson (wonderfully played by Shirley Maclaine) suggested that the invited guests just eat cold food all over the house. It’s in the Taft’s Music Room.

The costumes were constructed by the renowned British costumer, Cosprop Ltd. It is astonishing what the designers have accomplished, for the outfits are authentic to the period (the range is 1912-1925) as well as beautifully crafted. Or, as the Taft’s assistant curator Tamera Lenz Muente says, “You’ll see historic accuracy and painstaking detail.”

Vintage lace and beading have been worked into this gown.
Vintage lace and beading have been worked into this gown.

Painstaking, indeed. It is almost courtier quality. Some of the lace and beading, as in the bodice of the gown that Cora Crawley wore for Lady Rose’s presentation to the King and Queen, are actual vintage pieces that have been worked into the gowns.

The exhibition traces the evolution of fashion up to, during and just after World War I, says Muente.  For the Dowager Countess, Violet Crawley, you’ll see her dressed in violet (a mourning color, as she is still mourning her relatives who died in the Titanic). Her gown, Muente said, is the epitome of High Edwardian fashion, complete with corset and bustle. “It helps to establish her character as someone who’s deeply rooted in tradition.”

Maggie Smith, who played Violet Crtawley, Dowager Countess of Grantham, wore violet for mourning.
Maggie Smith, who played Violet Crawley, Dowager Countess of Grantham, wore violet for mourning.

At the opposite end of the spectrum is Rose — who is often dressed in rose, another subliminal reference to her character. Her lovely, short rose dress is entirely vintage.

Rose's dress is entirely vintage.
Rose’s dress is entirely vintage.

The show is by timed entrance, and museum hours have been extended to accommodate what the Taft is expecting to be blockbuster crowds.  If you forget to get a ticket ahead of time, walk-ups will be accepted. You’ll just have to wait a bit longer to enter.

There is also a catalog and an audio guide and there are lots of British items in the gift shop.

There are also a series of programs, lectures and even ragtime dancing as part of the exhibition.

Museum hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m.Tuesday through Sunday. Last entry is at 4 p.m. Closed Mondays.

Admission: Members and children five years and younger – free; $20 for adults; $15 for youth (ages 6-12); $10 admission with guest pass, at dressingdowntoncincy.com.

For more information, visit taftmuseum.org.

 

 

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