Get your monocle out: 9 things to look for at the Taft's ‘Downton Abbey' fashion exhibit

Posted at 11:32 AM, Jun 28, 2016
and last updated 2016-06-28 11:33:09-04

CINCINNATI -- Over six seasons, millions of PBS viewers have tuned in every week to watch the fictional Crawleys deal with all manner of historical waves crashing at the doors of their country estate in Downton Abbey.

Now, public TV crown jewel "Downton Abbey" is leaping off the screen and into the exhibition halls of the Taft Museum of Art for a wardrobe-focused trip through the fashions of the family and their servants. The eagerly anticipated "Dressing Downton: Changing Fashion for Changing Times" opens at the Taft on Saturday.

"Charles and Anna Taft lived in their house during the same period that the fictional Crawley family lives in Downton Abbey during the course of this fictional series, so the costumes in the historical house will be in a similar period environment," said Taft assistant curator Tamera Lenz Muente of the 10 costumes (out of 36 total) that were picked for display in the Tafts' former residence.

Walking a WCPO reporter through the scale model of the exhibit, Muente pointed to highlights of the other 26 costumes created for the series by famed London costume house Cosprop ("Titanic," "A Room With a View," "Les Miserables"). Muente said those costumes, which will go on display in the general exhibition hall, represent a combination of whole period pieces and fragments, as well as painstakingly crafted re-creations that will be exhibited along with stills from the series and various other props and accessories.

It makes perfect sense that the traveling exhibit – which is accompanied by special gift shop items, an exhibition-inspired menu in the Lindner Family Café and book talks and afternoon teas – should touch down at the Taft, since Cincinnati-born Cora Levinson (the Countess of Grantham) played such a prominent role in the series.

Muente said visitors will see firsthand how the Edwardian women's styles of the day changed from the more courtly, modest floor-length dresses buffeted by corsets at the beginning of the series to shorter-length, less formal attire inspired by the flapper phenomenon by series' end.

"We play with that connection a bit in the costumes in the historic house," Muente said of the potential trans-Atlantic social visits between the Tafts and fictional Crawleys. "It's likely that Cora's mother certainly could have been entertained at the Tafts' home."

Muente granted WCPO an exclusive look behind the scenes of "Dressing Downton" and provided some pointers on what to look for when you visit:

Violet Crawley's two-piece day dress.

1. Violet Crawley's two-piece day dress: Not surprisingly, the clothes created for the Dowager Countess hew to the older Edwardian style, with a high neckline and floor-length cut that help establish her as the matriarch of the Crawley clan. "She hangs on to this Edwardian style through the '20s," said Muente.

Pay attention to: The violet-colored dress' S-bend corset, which accentuates the bosom and squeezes out the bottom to create a noticeable bend to Crawley's figure.

"Downton Abbey" (Masterpiece / PBS). Michelle Dockery as Lady Mary Crawley. ©Carnival Films

2. Lady Mary Crawley's evening dress: Worn in one of the first season's pivotal moments – when Lady Mary invites the Turkish diplomat to her room – the gown is partially made of period materials sourced from a turn-of-the-century Spanish evening dress.

Pay attention to: The embroidered lace that Cosprop laid over the red satin dress to give it more depth.

3. Mrs. Hughes' working outfit: The housekeeper's dress, as you might imagine, is very austere compared to the family's garments. "Part of that is because she was to be respected because she was the head of the household, next to the butler," said Muente.

Pay attention to: The shapes of the downstairs servant's costumes are similar to those of the family, but the fabrics are different, with plain wool or cotton replacing silk.

"Downton Abbey" (Masterpiece / PBS). Elizabeth McGovern as Cora Crawley. ©Carnival Films

4. Cora Crawley's silk evening dress: The center panel with the beads and Diamante stones is a period fragment that the dress was built around. During that era it was not unusual for a dressmaker to save a portion of an outfit and use it for a later piece.

Pay attention to: The pointed hips on the skirt (called panniers), which help extend the width of the dress at the hips in an exaggerated way.

"Downton Abbey" (Masterpiece / PBS). Laura Carmichael as Lady Edith Crawley. ©Carnival Films

5. Lady Edith Crawley's work suit: When Lady Edith begins to work on a neighboring farm during season two (joining a group of women who labored during WWI called "Land Girls"), she wore trousers, which was unheard of before the war.

Pay attention to: Though Muente said the work clothes had a more "masculine" look, they retained a "lamp shade" feminine shape. These wool pants, brushed cotton shirt and linen jacket used some of the materials from the "downstairs" staff, but the outfit is accented by posh velvet cuffs, lapels and a belt.

"Downton Abbey" (Masterpiece / PBS). Hugh Bonneville as Robert Crawley. ©Carnival Films

6. Robert Crawley's gentleman's suit: The lord of the estate wore a belted gentleman's suit when hunting, often made of sturdy wools or tweeds paired with high boots to protect against brambles. "He would never wear this to London – he would wear a proper trouser suit to town," Muente said.

Pay attention to: The trousers are called "plus fours," because they are four inches longer than the typical knee-length trouser. Also, notice the shirt has a very stiff, removable starched collar, which is attached to the neckband with studs.

Lady Rose's Debutante Ball dress.

7. Lady Rose's Debutante Ball dress: It's one of three gowns from the scene where Lady Rose is presented to the king and queen at her coming-out ball. Among the requirements for this occasion was the wearing of a pale or ivory dress, which in this case is a 1920s original period gown with a beaded and lace layer that was so fragile it had to be attached to an underlay to keep it together.

Pay attention to: One of the other dresses presented alongside Lady Rose's is Madeleine Allsopp's newly fashioned silk and silver beaded dress. See if you can spot the differences between them.

Footman uniform. Costume courtesy of Cosprop

8. Footmen's uniform: Nicknamed the "peacocks of the household," the footmen were often hired for their good looks and height. The three-piece suit is similar in shape to the upper-class white tie and tails suits, but the footmen's suits were made of wool (instead of satin) and their vests are striped, something an "upstairs" member of the household would never wear.

Pay attention to: The buttons, which have the family's crest on them.

9. Lady Rose MacClare evening dress: In a nod to the emerging flapper style of the mid-to-late 1920s, Lady Rose's silver velvet evening dress is original to the period and has glass bead and sequin decorations and a shorter to-the-knees hemline.

Pay attention to: The 1922-to-1923-period dress has slimmer straps, which eliminated the old style of wearing corsets and heavy undergarments.

Dressing Downton: Changing Fashion for Changing Times
July 2–Sept. 25, 2016
Taft Museum of Art, 316 Pike St., Downtown
Members, free. Non-members: adults, $20; children ages 6-12, $15; children 5 and under, free.
Tickets are sold at 30-minute entry intervals starting at 10 a.m.; the last entry is at 4 p.m. Guests may enter the special exhibition at any time during their reserved 30-minute timed period.