The fabulous museum and garden at Delaware’s Wintherthur is well worth a visit, especially now through January 4, 2015, when 40 costumes from Downton Abbey will be on display. It is a spectacular show, brilliantly displayed. It covers the real-life world of landed gentry in 1912-1920 Great Britain, with fascinating context comparing it to life at the 175-room mansion of Winterthur itself in that era. While there were many similarities, there were important differences. American upper class families, with much less to draw from in terms of tradition, had a range of books to advise them on household matters and etiquette. This was not necessary in the UK, where, as we see in the show, both upper and lower class learned how to behave by observing.
Americans were, unsurprisingly, much more interested in adopting new technologies like electricity and washing machines. The exhibit also covers the contemporary challenge of creating the world of a century ago for television. One of the first dresses on display is worn by the housekeeper of Downton Abbey. The fabric is more textured and luxurious than it would have been in real life, in order to make a visually striking impression on a television screen. The costumes are not precisely authentic. They are modern interpretations of the styles of the era, with many vintage details. Fans of the series will remember Lady Sybil’s harem-inspired outfit, shown on the left, which is in the exhibit. The fragile vintage lace tore during filming and was repaired. It looks perfect on screen, but in person the tear is obvious. A highlight of the exhibit is the dress Lady Mary wore when Matthew proposed. A loop of the proposal itself plays on a monitor. As fans will remember, it was snowing when Matthew knelt to ask her to marry him. The museum has somehow managed to evoke a soft snowfall in that part of the room, so we feel we are right there seeing it happen. The exhibit is highly recommended. And be sure to make time for the tour of the rest of Winterthur to see the extraordinary permanent collection of American decorative arts and the magnificent gardens. To make reservations for the Downton show: 800.448.3883