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Dressing Downton Exhibit Brings Fans Closer to Artistry and History

“I am a woman, Mary. I can be as contrary as I choose.” – Violet Crawley


Reviewed by Fiona Bessey-Bushnell

Step into the lives of the early 20th-century aristocracy with the characters from PBS’s wildly popular Downton Abbey at the Virginia Historical Society.

Photos: ©Carnival Films/Masterpiece
Photos: ©Carnival Films/Masterpiece

Dressing Downton: Changing Fashion for Changing Times, the museum’s new touring exhibit, displays close to forty costumes from the iconic British period drama. The exhibition showcases fashions worn by the fictional Crawley family and their servants in Great Britain between 1912 (the year the Titanic sank, as depicted in the opening episode) and the early 1920s (the Jazz Age).

If you watch the show, you know the members of the Crawley family spend a considerable amount of time dressing for dinner, for tea, and for every occasion as each episode unfolds. The show’s Emmy award-winning costume team is renowned for its attention to detail, making careful selections according to fashion, style, and activity, whether characters were attending a formal dinner, going on a fox hunt, or walking into town for a community fair.

As you tour the exhibit, larger-than-life photos of actors in Downton_VHSMaryMatt - 1costume, alongside many of the stunning wardrobe pieces provide a realistic context for fans of the show. Exhibit guests also learn interesting little-known facts about the show.

Emphasized throughout the exhibit is how societal roles and personalities played a unique part in costume design. For example, the flamboyant American, Martha Levinson (played by former Richmond native, Shirley MacLaine), is represented in costume with extravagant fabrics and furs and modern-for-the-times fashion. Changing times are also reflected in costumes, particularly in the economic downturn of England during World War I.

Flamboyant American, Martha Levinson (played by former Richmond native, Shirley MacLaine)

Fabrics with rich textures, carefully chosen for movement and character, enable them to look realistic on the screen. Exhibit guests can get very close to the costumes to inspect intricate beading and impeccable handiwork. Some apparel is original, while others are original period designs or recreated from original fabric panels. Rebuilt from old paintings, photographs, patterns, and magazines for historical accuracy, the detail is exquisite from every angle.

Although you do not need to be a Downton Abbey enthusiast to fully appreciate the exhibit, in the time I toured Dressing Downton, it was easy to see many in attendance were fans. Guests lingered for an extended time, noting the refined details of the embellished costumes, and reminiscing about when Lady Mary wore a particular gown and recounting specific scenes. As this coming season, which airs in the United States starting in January 2016, is the last, seeing the exhibit is particularly worthwhile for true fans.

The Dressing Downton exhibit at Virginia Historical Society runs now through January 10, 2016. Museum hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily (except major holidays). Final entrance time is four o’clock daily. Tickets are $20; free for members. You can purchase tickets and reserve exhibit viewing times here.

Fiona Bessey-Bushnell is an occupational therapist and writer who lives in the West End. She enjoys exploring all the exciting places Richmond has to offer with her husband and two sons.

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