CINCINNATI — In April 1912, the new, White Star Line ship, Titantic, left the shores of Southhampton, England, only to find its fate in the icy waters of the North Atlantic. And thus, the opening storyline of the upstairs and downstairs of “Downton Abbey.” In addition to the casualties of historic figures including J.J. Astor and Charles Hays, were “Downton Abbey” characters James and Patrick Crawley.
September 2010 premiered a PBS series written by Julian Fellowes, soon to become the Sunday night distraction of millions of people in more than 200 countries. For six seasons, people around the water cooler, fashion mavens, and theater buffs watched intently as the Crawleys went through their daily routines, life struggles and joys one floor up from the cooks, maids, housekeepers, butler and footmen.
Aside from the interior of Downton, one of the most watched aspects of the show were the many outfits worn daily by the aristocracy for breakfast, dinner, outings and traveling.
On display at the Cincinnati Taft Museum of Art through Sept. 25, “Dressing Downton: Changing Fashion for Changing Times” features 36 costumes with jewelry and accessories in an arrangement that traces the evolution of British fashion during the first four seasons of the show from 1912 through the early 1920s, through World War I, the Roaring Twenties, and the Jazz Age. Twenty-six of the costumes are displayed in the Museum’s Fifth Third Gallery, with the other 10 in the galleries of its historic house where Charles and Anna Taft lived during the same period that the fictional Crawleys lived in Downton Abbey, and the families would have moved in similar social circles.
Another local link written in the script is that Martha Levinson (played by Shirley MacLaine) hails from Cincinnati and her daughter, Lady Cora (Elizabeth McGovern), was born in the Queen City, as well.
The costumes range from country tweeds and riding outfits; servants’ uniforms and footmen’s livery to lavish evening attire crafted from sumptuous fabrics and decorated with intricate embroidery, lace and beading.
Included is the gown worn by Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) when Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens) first comes to Downton; the ostentatious outfits of the flamboyant American, Martha; military uniforms from World War I; and uniforms worn by favorite downstairs staff. Photos and labels identify exactly when and where each costume was worn in the series.
While a viewer may not touch the costumes on display, there is a touch board at the entrance to the exhibit where museum-goers can feel the different fabrics used to make the costumes: silk, satin, wool, velvet, cotton, linen and more.
The first dress encountered upon entrance to the exhibit is a purple print day dress worn by Violet Crawley, Dowager Countess of Grantham, portrayed by Maggie Smith. Viewers are immediately drawn into the Downton era for the remainder of the tour. Installing curator Tamera Muente explained the dark purple would’ve been worn because the matriarch was in mourning for the family members killed when the Titanic sank on its maiden voyage.
The most beautiful display might be the three dresses in the Taft’s music room. The ladies are dressed for a party, fitting wonderfully in the music room where the Tafts entertained. The dresses belonged to Martha Levinson, the Dowager Countess and Lady Edith.
Attendees are encouraged to take pictures of the exhibit. Everyone will fall in love with the television show all over again, even those who are not “admitted” Downton Abbey fans. Theater lovers will also love looking at the costumes and how they are made. The time span equals such stage productions as “Of Mice and Men,” “Gypsy,” “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” “Anything Goes,” and “Ragtime.”
The museum hours are Tuesday through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission prices start at $20 for adults; $15 for youth 6-12 and children 5 and younger are free. An audio guide is available for $8, which reveals which dresses were restored from the original period garments, how the designers created the costumes to reflect each character’s personality and other secrets.
The Linder Family Café, located in the museum, has chosen some classic British dishes for its exhibition-inspired menu, including Mrs. Patmore’s pasty, chicken tikka masala, crab and celery salad and much more. Reservations are required.
Due to an overwhelming response, the museum has recently added afternoon teas on Fridays during September. With a timed ticket entry, the exhibit-going begins at 1:30 p.m. followed by afternoon tea at 2:30 p.m. A 2 p.m. tour will be followed by tea at 3 p.m. The menu has both vegetarian options and meals for children 12 and younger. Visit www.taftmuseum.org or www.dressingdowntoncincy.com for ticket information. The nuseum is at 316 Pike St. There is limited parking on the grounds and several parking lots are in the vicinity.
The exhibition, produced by Exhibits Development Group in collaboration with NBCUniversal International Television Production and Carnival Films/PBS Masterpiece’s Downton Abbey, will tour North America through 2018.
The writer is a regular contributor to the Sidney Daily News.