My husband, David, makes his way around a tangled knot of women being led by an energetic tour guide. “Have you touched those fabric samples over there?” he asks, his voice carrying that little edge that tells me he’s seen something he likes. I work my way past a display of a butler’s evening suit, toward the area David has just left.
The tour guide is talking about the fabric, too, noting that this may be the only time we’ll all ever have the chance to feel vicuna wool, made from the coat of the wild South American animal, a relative of the llama.
I touch the vicuna, and it is astounding — soft, thick, even better than cashmere. I touch the fabric sample to its right. Scratchy, disappointing wool, much like what the butler looming above me might have worn.
I understand David’s enthusiasm. I have, just moments before, fallen head over heels for a garment myself. The object of my affection is an evening gown — a nude-colored slip with an overlay of glossy jet black beads that sparkle and dazzle and form an intricate lacelike pattern. The beads gather in the front and center of the full-length dress, forming a mesmerizing medallion. Tiny lines of silver beading along the bodice add additional subtle glamour.
At the back, a row of carefully placed buttons leads to a very subtle and flowy black tulle that is a bit like a more modern bustle. I can almost see lovely Lady Mary in it, posture perfect, bedecked with additional baubles and long, elegant evening gloves.
I mean, of course, Lady Mary of the addictive world of PBS’ award-winning Masterpiece series Downton Abbey, that delightful mix of historical drama, soap opera and fashion show, infused with humor thanks to the acerbic one-liners of Violet Crawley, the dowager countess of Grantham, played by Dame Maggie Smith.
We are at the opening weekend of “Costumes of Downton Abbey,” an original exhibition curated and hosted by Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library in Delaware, on display through January.
Winterthur is sort of the American real-life equivalent of the fictional British Crawley family’s country estate. The Crawleys’ story began in 1912, and Season 4 has taken viewers through 1923.
Winterthur is also a family home. E.I. du Pont purchased the land in 1810. Du Pont, who founded DuPont chemical company as a gunpowder manufacturer in 1802, was a French immigrant with a vision whose family became one of America’s Industrial Revolution dynasties.
By the 1920s, more than 200 people lived on the 2,600 acres that made up Winterthur (pronounced “winter-tour”). The grounds included farmlands, a dairy, a post office and a railroad station. The house itself boasted 175 rooms. Henry Francis du Pont inherited the estate in 1927 and just three years later established Winterthur as a nonprofit, with plans to turn it into a museum.
This exhibition of 40 costumes from the show makes the most of its location, bringing in elements from Winterthur to compare and contrast British landed gentry life with that of America’s self-made aristocracy.
To wit: While the British were often reluctant to embrace technology (“Is this an instrument of communication or torture?” asked Dowager Countess Violet when a telephone came to Downton), their U.S. counterparts eagerly installed elevators, intercoms, walk-in refrigerators and vacuums.
The hand-pulled bell system at Downton, shown in the exhibition’s very first vignette, had its equivalent in an electric system at Winterthur, which also happened to have 98 telephone connections (and 23 bathrooms). Americans also tended to call the people who worked for them “employees” or “help,” eschewing the term “servants.”
Elements of the du Ponts’ life add fascinating details to this breezy walk through early-20th-century high style.
“Oh good, let’s talk about money,” the dowager countess once said on Downton. But money is what bought these fabulous, real-world fantasies: A huge and sturdy traveling trunk, a lady’s traveling bag, an 1874 Tiffany silver tea service, sterling silver clothing brushes and that vicuna fabric (du Pont favored the material in his suits; the current price of such a suit would run about $20,000 to $30,000).
And then there are the stars of the exhibition — the costumes.
The costumes are on loan from Cosprop Ltd., a London-based theatrical costumer. In the first season, according to the tour guide I overheard, the PBS show mostly used stock pieces from the company’s collection. But then Downton took off in popularity, and the costumes became custom-designed to match the big personalities on the small screen.
The work is done quickly. Cosprop gets the script from writer Julian Fellowes, and then it has seven weeks to come up with outfits for every scene and every character. Some use fragments of period pieces — Lady Edith’s wedding dress, for example, started with a vintage train, and the rest of the garment is created around it. Sybil’s blue harem pants also started with vintage fabric for the bodice.
Many garments are refabrications of original designs but have modern inspirations, as well, and are constructed with an eye toward simply looking good for the cameras.
The details are staggering and stunning. Housekeeper Mrs. Hughes’ mourning dress includes beautiful bead work, a design component that probably wouldn’t have been found in real life, according to the exhibition’s text. The footman’s jacket features small buttons each embossed with the Grantham coat of arms. The clothes of the “upstairs” characters are embroidered, beaded and sequined in an elaborate manner that recalls designer evening dresses at Neiman’s.
The exhibition includes some televisions playing scenes from the show, as well as large backdrops with photos of memorable moments. Accompanying text includes quotes from characters and easy-to-read short histories.
The setting is somewhat intimate — viewers can get pretty close to the displays: close enough to study the details of vintage ruby red gloves worn by Lady Mary and the drop-waisted, tabard cut of Rose’s salmon-colored frock with deep slits in the side so the heavy beading lies perfectly flat.
The costumes are organized chronologically as sort of a day-in-the-life-of, but also include special occasions. Visitors begin with a look at the servants, who were up early, then move through summer dresses, cool-weather tweeds, winter coats, lavender mourning clothing (“No one wants to kiss a girl in black,” as Dowager Countess Violet once said), Lady Edith’s wedding attire, sporting clothes (cricket, anyone?) and finally into dinner and evening gowns.
Perhaps the most breathtaking display comes near the end, as a light show of falling snowflakes cascades down the walls framing a large screen that shows Matthew’s proposal to Mary. At the center of the vignette are Matthew’s white tie and tails and Mary’s exquisite rich burgundy silk multitiered dress with light beading along the scalloped edges of the tiers.
Fear not if you are considering bringing a non- Downton fan along for the ride. This is a well-edited, well-designed exhibition that celebrates an era in history and makes it accessible whether you know your valets from your footmen.
The final stop is, appropriately, a gift shop. You can’t buy Lady Mary’s black-beaded gown or a vicuna suit, but the wares include everything from mini models of Downton as elaborate Christmas ornaments ($55) to cookbooks and British history and design books, and from a line of Downton-inspired jewelry (brooches, earrings, necklaces from $20 to $35) to purses, hats and shawls. One of my favorite items was a T-shirt with one of the Dowager Countess’ most famous one-liners: “What is a weekend?”
Be sure to schedule at least a half a day at Winterthur. Just getting from the parking lot and visitors center to the house requires a short ride in a minibus. And you’ll want to see at least some of the museum’s famous, extensive decorative arts collection.
Begin with one of the hour-long introductory tours of the 175-room house/museum.
You’ll learn more about the history of this unique house, where the du Pont family lived for four generations. E. I. du Pont left the property to his kids, and in 1839, his daughter, Evelina, and her husband, Jacques Bidermann, bought this parcel of land from her siblings. They had a simple 12-room Greek-revival home built, and named it after Bidermann’s family home in Switzerland.
From this point, the history of the house involves a series of Henrys.
In 1867, Evelina’s brother, Gen. Henry du Pont, bought the place from Jacques and Evalina’s son. Henry’s son, Col. Henry Algernon du Pont, married Pauline Foster in 1874, and two years later they moved into Winterthur. While he owned it, Henry Algernon added a new facade to the house and a library wing.
But it was Henry Algernon’s son, Henry Francis, who made Winterthur what it would become. A Harvard graduate, he started managing the household in 1902, and became manager of the estate by 1914 (his father served in the U.S. Senate from 1906 to 1917). Henry Francis was an antiques collector, bent on finding the best examples of American craftsmanship. By the time he died, he had acquired more than 100,000 objects.
But, as they say, that’s not all. H.F. would buy entire rooms from other houses — all the architectural elements, from floors to windows to fireplaces. On the sixth floor, in the Shipley Room, our tour guide noted that the size of the room that came in from the Shipley residence was smaller than the configuration of the space at Winterthur, so if you look at the windows, you see there is space between the Shipley window and the exterior of the mansion.
To house his vast and growing collection, H.F. expanded the house to 175 rooms on eight levels. In 1951, the house was opened to the public as a museum. He and his wife, Ruth Wales du Pont (who apparently wasn’t as excited about antiques as her husband) moved into the “cottage” on the property, a 50-room home.
The tour includes, then, walks through entire rooms that have been brought to the estate, as well as displays of important individual pieces of material culture, such as George and Martha Washington’s china set and James Madison’s dessert plates.
Our guide led the tour as if we were among the lucky guests invited for a weekend. We were told we would have arrived on Friday afternoon and been shown to our rooms — husbands and wives in the upper-crust of society would have had separate bedrooms in the first half of the 20th century, and between those was a dressing room and closet area.
We learned that we would have started the day with breakfast in bed, perhaps with some fresh roses from the garden on the tray. After a day spent perhaps in the gardens (where H.F. apparently continued to work alongside his staff until his death in 1969; on his passport, he put “farmer” as his occupation), we’d meet at 8 p.m. with our hosts and the other guests in a grand room with hand-painted wallpaper from China, and have exactly one drink before dinner was served in the dining room at 8:30.
H.F. himself would have picked out the freshest-looking flowers from the garden for the table, and then would have selected, from among 52 sets, the china that went best with the floral arrangements, and then the linens that looked best with the tablescape. After dinner, we’d play bridge with our hosts at card tables, smoking cigarettes and staying up late until we’d retreat back up the grand spiral staircase to our luxury linens, with maybe a small cheese snack to tide us over until morning.
If the tour just whets your appetite for more, you’re in luck. Winterthur offers an abundance of additional tour options — two-hour private tours, narrated tram tours of gardens, a handful of reserved tours with special emphases — such as art and architecture or the conservation labs. You can also request special tours in advance: One person recently wanted a tour of just floor clocks, for example.
There are also many special exhibitions going on in the Galleries building, which opened in 1992. Or you could just amble through the estate on a nice day, admiring the greenhouses, the Coach House (where H.F. kept his car collection) and the Enchanted Woods children’s garden, among other treasures and pleasures.
If it all seems a bit overwhelming, treat yourself to lunch or a cup of tea at one of the two on-site cafes. And as you soak in the scent of American money that built this astounding estate, recall the stirring words of Violet, the countess dowager: “Don’t be defeatist, dear; it’s very middle class.”
Brandywine Valley, which includes parts of northern Delaware and southeastern Pennsylvania, is awash in historical attractions, cultural activities and sites that celebrate the beauty of nature. A Downton fan can easily pull together a trip that feels a bit like an English countryside escape — just be prepared to hear the name du Pont a lot.
Specials include a weekends-only Downton Abbey Exhibit Package that starts at $359 a night. (Luxury suites are more in the $899 per night range). Downton fans will want to book afternoon tea in the sumptuous Green Room.
Oh, and the hotel is also home to the DuPont Theatre, so you can take in a show without having to put on an evening shawl. It’s a 15-minute drive to Winterthur. 11th and Market streets, Wilmington, Del., 800-441-9019. www.hoteldupont.com/.
It’s a 5-minute drive to Winterthur. Route 100 & Kirk Road, Montchanin, Del., 800-269-2473. www.montchanin.com. (Note: No online booking; rooms run from about $192 per night to $399 for a two-bedroom suite.)