I have just visited a super exhibition of ‘Downton Abbey Costumes’ presented in the Cannon Hall Museum near Leeds. I had been presenting my ‘Jane Austen Talk’ at the Royal Armouries and thought I would travel to Cawthorne which is about 30 minutes by car. It was well worth the journey!
Cannon Hall is a stunning Georgian country house museum set in 70 acres of historic parkland and beautiful landscaped gardens.
This wonderful free exhibition displayed all the glamour and glitz of the Edwardian Era in a display of original costumes from the BBC award-winning television series. Costumes included a wide selection of clothing ranging from plain aprons to sumptuous evening gowns. Selections of historically inspired outfits from the show were displayed throughout Cannon Hall Museum.
The costumes were lent by Cosprop who are the world’s leading costumier to film, television and theatre. I have worked with Cosprop before – they supplied costumes for the ‘Dressing the Stars’ exhibition at Woodhorn Museum in Ashington. As part of the instillation team I dressed the mannequins and assisted with the presentation of the event. You can read more about that event by clicking here.
Highlights of the exhibition included Lady Grantham’s exquisite evening wear, Mrs. Patmore’s kitchen clothes and Lady Sybil’s wartime nurses uniform. All the costumes were beautifully presented in period room settings spread over two floors of the museum.
There was a very elegant Burgundy Chiffon evening dress worn by Lady Mary. It would be worn with gloves and simple jewellery. As 1910 progressed the dresses had more of a tulip shape and a lower waist which allowed for more freedom of movement. Many of Mary’s dresses in the series were red in tone ranging from burgundy, pink and red to compliment her ivory complexion. It is a lovely light flowing fabric – very simple in design yet elegant. I loved the silver embroidery and beading around the sides and neck – just the right amount to make the gown special.
There were three summer dresses worn by the ‘Crawley Sisters’ on display. It is interesting to note that in the lilac and white dress worn by Lady Mary was designed and sewn specifically for her to wear in the programme. It is very interesting in it’s use of the striped fabric – the stripes run down the skirt of the dress but across the bust-line and sleeves with diagonal stripes on the sides of the bodice – very clever use of a patterned fabric. The cream dress with it’s very pointed collar worn by Lady Edith was hired for the exhibition- it was worn originally in film ‘Room with a View’ the Merchant Ivory production. Note that the the skirt has two types of fabric joined by a seam just above the knee – the patterned fabric to match the bodice is below the waist with the plain fabric below. The high slim waist is emphasized by a pretty pink ribbon.
The very pretty cream dress with long sleeves worn by Lady Sybil is probably patterned chiffon or organza and was quite transparent- so would be worn with a petticoat or slip. It has two layers in the skirt and I think it is a wraparound style which ties/fastens at the side – this gown is an original Edwardian summer dress. The white gown with long collar and the striped gown may be cotton and the patterned dress with long sleeves may be a type of fine chiffon/voile but it is hard to be sure as I couldn’t touch or feel them.
Attractive matching hats are also on display – they are decorated with artificial flowers and ribbons. I loved the display but thought it a shame the mannequins didn’t have heads. I have created heads which to attach to my mannequins for my Tudor and Regency Costume displays so I can give the full ‘head to toe’ costume effect.
Lady Edith has a lightweight dusky pink dress with an embroidered bodice worn for the evening. This elegant gown has the new high waisted and tubular style worn by slim young women of the time. It is less tailored and more draped with layers of fabric overlapping. I love the elegant clean lines and the pretty patterned fabric sewn over the plain under dress- the sleeves are very interesting ending in points. There is also some pretty trim down the front of the dress which emphasizes the tulip shape. The gown is probably crepe satin and the overdress embroidered silk.
Lady Sybil’s blue self-patterned evening dress with net overlay on the bodice is very attractive. Sybil was very aware of the latest fashions and would read ‘The Lady’ and other magazines for fashion ideas. She would wear this type of dress for a formal dinner. The correct type of clothing for a dinner was very important during this period. It is a lovely elegant gown – I think it is blue figured silk damask with a fine net overlay of on top of the sleeves and bodice. I really like the fabric belt which looks like it has been hand embroidered -the design is reflects the shapes in the silk fabric – it certainly sets off the dress and emphasizes the wearers slim figure.
The seating arrangements were very strict – the table set for a formal dinner was arranged boy/girl/boy/girl – you also had to speak to the guest on your left for the first course and the guest on your right for the second.
During the First World War jazz and cocktails came from America – however they were frowned upon by Lady Violet as being ‘too exciting’.
Also included was a very simple First World War nurse outfit worn by Sybil. This costume contrasts sharply with her other two pretty and ornate outfits. A large number of upper-class women volunteered to work as nurses during the First World War. In the TV series Downton Abbey also opened its doors to treat the wounded.
Other ladies dresses included a walking dress worn by Lady Rosamund Painswick – it has a very slim skirt called a ‘hobble skirt’ which is so narrow it was difficult to walk in – these types of skirts were fashionable around the time of the First World War. The jacket worn with the skirt also shows the military influence of the time. The grey jacket looks like a fine wool – the large black buttons echo and match the colour of the skirt.
A cricket outfit worn by Matthew Crawley was also on display. Apparently the cricket match seen in Downton Abbey was filmed at Highclere Castle. I must say that the cricket whites don’t look particularly white to me!
In one episode the estate welcomes villagers for special events such as picnics – the family also held tea parties and cricket on the lawn whilst wearing their fineries.
A very elegant brown and cream satin skirt and jacket day outfit with coat was worn by Lady Grantham. The Countess was very fashion conscious and her clothing would set trends. This costume shows the draped and shapeless style of the period but is still full length – it looks like it has been designed in silk taffeta fabric. I particularly like the very pretty handmade fabric rosettes which adorn the coat – a very nice touch. The use of cream fabric to trim the brown coat and a diamanté belt to pull in the waist certainly lift this outfit of the ordinary to make a real fashion statement!
By the 1920’s restrictive corsets were going out of fashion – ladies would wear a tea dress with hat and gloves. Tea ladies would remove gloves and lay them on their lap under the napkin and then discuss the events of the day. My favourite costume in the exhibition is a dress worn by Lady Violet. It is a beautifully ornate blue/grey self-patterned silk with black sequinned and metallic embroidered yoke and sleeves. Lady Violet wears mostly greens, purples and greys in the series. It could be a silk crepe soft jacket with plain silk sleeves and gold buckle belt worn over a plain silk dress or could even be a dress sewn together it is very hard to tell when you cannot see the back. I love the ornate embroidered front insert, collar which match the trim on the sleeve – the necklace over the bodice is also a very nice touch. It was not in the first front of fashion of the time but suggested clothing worn during the Edwardian era nevertheless it is a very attractive gown.
Although personally I prefer the more elaborate costumes worn by the upper-classes in Downton Abbey I mustn’t forget the servant’s costumes as the characters are absolutely essential to the drama.
Included was a suit for Mr. Carson the Butler – he does not wear livery like the other servants however wears a suit to distinguish him from his employer – he wears different suits for different times of the day.
Mr. Bates (Lord Grantham’s Valet) wears a pair of black wool trousers and waistcoat with a cotton shirt collar and black tie. He would be responsible for Lord Grantham’s wardrobe and shoes which would entail cleaning, mending and brushing his garments so they are always ready for wear. Mr. Bates packs for trips and accompanies his master. He is wearing a thick apron and half sleeves to keep his clothes clean while polishing shoes. Valets were very important and were second only to the butler in rank. When a valet wasn’t available a footman was used. Full time valets like Mr. Bates were only employed in the largest and most prestigious households. He makes sure that the strict rules of dress are adhered to. In one scene Matthew Crawley wore only a black tie and inner jacket to dinner and it was remarked upon by Lady Violet.
A dress of heavy cotton with apron was worn by Mrs. Patmore the Cook who had a very important role. She had a very hot and physical job so only wore a very light cotton apron. Mrs. Patmore would have to prepare six meals a day – three for the family and three for the servants plus two afternoon teas. Mrs Patmore wears a cotton cap to keep her hair out of the way!
A dress and apron of cotton was worn by Daisy her assistant – as she is the lowest servant Daisy wore an apron over a cast off dress. She is first up in the morning and lights the fires then goes to the kitchen to assist Mrs. Patmore.
The servants were positioned away from the family quarters to keep cooking smells at a minimum. It was rare for the kitchen servants to be seen upstairs – they were not to be seen by the guests while doing their chores!
A housemaid’s afternoon and evening dress with white lace trim on the collar and a white apron was worn by Anna Bates. She is Head Housemaid so has quite a lot of pretty lace on her apron. I like the lace trim on her collar – I think she wears quite a smart little dress!
Anna would help dress the Crawley girls and arrange their hair (as soon as they left the schoolroom they would wear their hair up) – She would also help them to choose their jewellery. It is also interesting to note that they would not usually wear make-up during this period.
Housemaids were usually addressed by their Christian name however occasionally by their surname in some households. Anna would be the confidante for the Crawley girls – Lady Mary often told Anna secrets about the family.
An outfit worn by Mrs. Hughes the Housekeeper is a black self -patterned long jacket with black satin dress – she wears her own clothes but in dark colours and simple styles. Mrs. Hughes is in charge of the female servants. I love her belt with her keys – It was called a Chatelaine and was always carried by the housekeeper or lady in charge of a household.
There is also a dress worn by Gwen Dawson as the housemaid. Servants used to wear mistresses cast off dresses however as this could lead to confusion a uniform was then provided. Gwen wore a cotton print dress in the morning and a black dress in the afternoon both with an apron. I suppose again the higher the rank the more lace on the apron. She has more lace than Daisy but less than Anna! Although she is a lower ranking servant I quite like the pretty cotton print dress and apron.
I really enjoyed this exhibition – it was great to see such exquisite costumes so well presented in such an attractive period setting. They were beautifully made and perfect for the characters.
Clothing is so important when creating real people in period dramas – I know from experience that they certainly help the actors get into their part. It certainly brings your favourite programme to life when you can see the actual costumes. I would definitely recommend a visit!
click http://www.cannon-hall.com/downton-from-evening-gowns-to-aprons for more info
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