British historical drama Downton Abbey may be best known for its soapy plot lines and acidic one-liners, but the show’s detailed costumes form an integral part of the series’ grounding in the past. Without lavish gowns and sharp suits, characters such as Robert and Cora Crawley wouldn’t be quite as believable as inhabitants of an early 20th century British country house.
The painstakingly researched, period-accurate costumes of Downton Abbey are the subject of “Dressing Downton: Changing Fashion for Changing Times,” the latest exhibit at the Driehaus Museum. The venue, a Gilded Age mansion dating back to 1879, is the perfect place for a display of bygone finery, spread throughout three floors of drawing rooms, living rooms and libraries. As you walk through rooms outfitted with vintage furniture and ornate fireplaces, it’s easy to imagine that you’re strolling through a palatial, turn-of-the-century Yorkshire estate.
The outfits on display are drawn from the first four seasons of Downton Abbey and focus predominantly on the gowns, suits and coats sported by the series’ upper class characters. From a painstaking replica of a World War I captain’s uniform worn by Matthew Crawley to one of Violet Crawley’s intricately beaded dresses, the collection favors items that are indicative of the era's splendor. You won’t find many pieces worn by the servant characters (aside from a maid’s uniform and Mr. Carson’s livery) because—let’s face it—the upper crust sports the most impressive clothes.
While the displays are sparse, an accompanying audio tour (delivered via a personal headset) offers some additional insight about many of the pieces, placing them in both a historical and narrative context. Devout Anglophiles can purchase a traditional English tea in the adjacent Murphy Auditorium, which includes specialty teas from Rare Tea Cellar as well as pastries and tiny, crustless sandwiches. There’s also a special gift shop which sells a frilly Downton Abbey tote bag.
Timed to coincide with the series finale of Downton Abbey, “Dressing Downton” is squarely aimed at fans of the program, presenting a carefully curated collection of screen-worn artifacts. For visitors who are unfamiliar with the Earl and Countess of Grantham, the surroundings may be more interesting than the costumes themselves. However, if you’ve ever wanted to gaze at the tiara worn by Queen Mary in the season four Downton Abbey Christmas special, this exhibit offers the best kind of fan service.