Did I want to see costumes from Downton Abbey? That was the question a friend asked me a few weeks ago. And the answer was, well, um, sort-of. If they were right in front of my face, I wouldn’t close my eyes. But I couldn’t imagine driving 90 miles out of the way to see them. However, since she offered to do the driving and she’d already paid for tickets, I decided to go. It turned out to be one of the better decisions I’d made in quite a while.
The Costumes of Downton Abbey at Winterthur is a beautifully crafted exhibit with much to please fans of the popular British drama as well as those interested in period clothes and costuming. But it is so much more. The exhibit explores life in wealthy English and American households during the first third of the 20th Century, with a particular emphasis on the role of various servants. And it contrasts life in the well-known fictional British grand house with the actual life in an American mansion, the Winterthur estate owned by the DuPont family on the outskirts of Wilmington, Delaware.
The exhibit begins with life at Downton Abbey as it would be in the house at 6 a.m. in the year 1912. A larger than life video projection from the TV series shows the servants rising wearily to start their morning chores. Visitors have chance to ring a bell via the old pulley system to call for a particular servant. In the American estate of Winterthur at the same time period, however, servants were called with an electric push button. And they were not just any buttons, either– many were elaborately decorated with gold and jewels. Visitors to the exhibit have the opportunity push one of the electric call buttons, too, but we don’t get to try one of the jeweled variety.
The difference in the use of technology between the British and American reflects a completely different philosophical outlook on the grand house in general. In the Britain, the emphasis in the great houses was (and still is) on the family, the ancestry and tradition. The present lord is really only a caretaker in a line of succession that matters more than any one individual. By contrast, the focus in an American great house of the period is on the achievement of the man who built the house. His taste, his accomplishments and his interests dominate everything from construction to décor.
Just as the British house was passed from generation to generation, so too the manners both upstairs and downstairs were passed down from superiors to their inferiors. The American occupants of great houses, however, might have risen from a lower strata in society relatively quickly. Americans tended to rely on guidebooks to tell them how to behave and what their servants should be doing and wearing. Emily Post’s Etiquette is quoted throughout the exhibit.
Dinner in both types of houses would be a grand affair. But breakfast was decidedly different. In the British houses, generally only married women or invalids took breakfast on a tray in their rooms—everyone else was expected to gather at the breakfast table and be social. In the American house, however, all guests and family members received menu cards the night before and ordered what they would like to have delivered to their rooms, just like room service at a hotel. This system of ordering breakfast with a menu card was so common that when the DuPonts were visiting at another home, their friends made up an elaborate joke version of the menu card, offering bromo-seltzer as a first course and bourbon as an alternative to coffee.
I enjoyed the exhibit and tour so much that I became I member so I could go back and learn more. The Costumes of Downton Abbey gave me glimpses into other lives in societies that are so close and yet so far from our own. I hope to see a bit more.
And I will share more, too. My next posts will focus on costuming and clothing of the early 20th Century and the strange aggregation that is Winterthur.