History on Display: Dressing Downton

I have to admit, I never watched Downton Abbey, with the exception of the last ten or fifteen minutes before each episode of Mercy Street. My experience of the series has been limited to conversations with friends who urged me to watch* and the weekly recaps on one of my favorite podcasts, Satellite Sisters. ** I had two clear visions of the show:  Maggie Smith rocked and the costumes were gorgeous.

When I saw the ad for an exhibit called Dressing Downton I was intrigued, not only because it was a chance to see the clothes but because it was being held at a Chicago museum I had never heard of.*** I immediately contacted one of my favorite Downton Abbey fans and planned an outing.

Dressing Downton is an intriguing combination of fan convention and social history. Many of the visitors arrive wearing their best approximation of a period hat–or at least a hat.  You have the option of having a traditional English tea**** before or after visiting the exhibit.  Neither my friend nor I wore a hat, but we did sign up for the tea.*****

My personal favorite. Click on the photo to get a better view.

My personal favorite of the costumes

The costumes in the exhibit are, in fact, gorgeous.  Each is displayed with a sign that tells what character wore it and in what episode. (The signs assume you’re familiar with the show. I was glad Tracy was with me to fill in the details.) The construction of each costume is described in loving detail.  More importantly–at least from my perspective–the exhibit places changes in the shape and construction of the clothing in the context of social changes as England moved from the Edwardian summer through World War I and out the other side, making it clear that changes in hemlines and silhouettes were a matter of more than just designers’ whims.  (Can we say the same today?)

The  Driehaus Museum is the perfect setting for the exhibit.  Home to wealthy Chicago industrialists are the height of the Gilded Age, the beautifully restored interiors are as lavish as any in Downton Abbey.  The home was commissioned in 1879 by banker Samuel Mayo Nickerson and is an over-the-top mixture of Renaissance and Moorish Revival, occasional dabs of Gothic and Queen Anne, and modern plumbing.  The historian in me would have been happy to see the kitchen and servants quarters as well as the public rooms, but the public rooms are worth the visit.  And I was fascinated to learn about Lincrusta, a deeply embossed luxury wallcovering based on linseed oil gel that was the hottest thing in high end home design at the end of the nineteenth century. Invented by Frederick Walton, who also brought us linoleum flooring,****** Lincrusta was used on the walls of European palaces, the White House, private railroad cars, and six staterooms in the Titanic.

Dressing Downton will remain in Chicago through May 8, then will travel to small museums across the country through January 2018. (Check here for the schedule.)  If you’re interested in the nexus of fashion and social history, or you’re suffering from Downton Abbey withdrawal,  it’s definitely worth seeking out.  As for me, I’ll be keeping my eye on the schedule for future delights at the Driehaus Museum.

*I don’t know why they bother.  My record of watching television shows as they air is abysmal.  I get to shows when they call my name, often years after the fact.

**NOT a history podcast.

***I felt much better about my ignorance when I learned that the Driehaus Museum opened in 2008.  Only eight years of lost opportunities.

****Afternoon tea, not “high tea”, which is a different meal altogether and more apt to include fish fingers than finger sandwiches.   (Rant over)

*****Worth doing. The tea was weak, but the sandwiches were excellent and the setting was glorious.

******In many ways the cultural opposite of Lincrusta.  Evidently Mr. Walton was interested in supplying the decorating needs of just plain folk as well as those of high society.

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