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A Peek At The Exquisite Downton Abbey Costumes On Display At The Driehaus

By Jessica Mlinaric in Arts & Entertainment on Feb 8, 2016 6:44PM

Fans of the BBC series Downton Abbey may have started watching for the historic period drama, but they undoubtedly keep tuning in for the sumptuous sets and costumes.

The characters’ wardrobes speak volumes about the changing world of a British aristocratic family and their servants in the early 20th century. And a new exhibit at the Driehaus Museum (40 E. Erie St.), Dressing Downton: Changing Fashion for Changing Times, features of 35 of those costumes from Feb. 9 to May 8, 2016.

For Downton’s Crawley family, there is an outfit for every occasion. Visitors to the exhibit will recognize Cora’s white day dress and statement hat worn to the village flower show, Violet’s purple afternoon tea dress, and Matthew’s military uniform. We learn about the strict social mores that dictated their dress. For example, the gorgeous outfits seen at Rose’s presentation at Court in season four adhere to the rule that women had to wear a headdress of three white Prince-of-Wales feathers attached to a tulle veil. Even a servant like Ana had a fancier ruffled apron to change into after her morning chores were done.

Viewing their costumes up close brings Downton Abbey’s characters to life. Exhibit placards and audio input from the show’s costume designers describe how much a garment can reveal about each character. Rose’s youthful spirit is conveyed by her wardrobe’s light pinks and whites, while the Dowager Countess is dressed in dusky sages and mauves of the last century. The Dowager Countess is presented in direct contrast to another matriarch, the brassy American Martha Levinson, who flaunts her wealth with furs and birds of paradise feathers and embraces modern Art Deco influences.

The exhibit spans social classes as Downton Abbey’s downstairs is also represented. We see the household keys hanging from Mrs. Hughes waist belt, Branson’s chauffer uniform, and the snazzy livery of the footmen, who were hired for their good looks and referred to as the “peacocks” of the household staff.

“It’s fascinating to see the evolution of fashion over the course of four seasons of Downton Abbey,” says Driehaus Museum Guest Curator Ruta Saliklis. “Throughout the exhibition, visitors learn about the historical and cultural influences evident in these visually stunning costumes.”

The impact of WWI is seen in the family’s wardrobe. In Sybil's nurse's uniform, for example, we see the hem line is raised from the floor to avoid contact with blood or other hospital germs. After the war, looser styles prevail as formality in fashion is relaxed and Jazz Age influences make their way to Downton. Although Lady Rose denies being a flapper, her silk rose pink dress with metallic embroidery is fit for dancing with a Chicago jazz singer.

Visitors to the exhibit also learn about the inspiration behind many of the series’ iconic outfits. The costumes are produced by Cosprop Lt. of London using original period fabrics or re-creations from old photographs and patterns. Just as the characters would have done in their era, the costumers reuse vintage embellishments. Cora’s velvet gown worn to Rose’s presentation at Court includes original lace and beadwork from the 1920’s. An embroidered floral tablecloth found at a vintage fair was converted into a jacket for Cora.

The exhibit is exquisite, due in no small part to its setting in the Driehaus Museum. The museum is a restored Gilded Age mansion that was home to some of Chicago’s most affluent families. The lavish interiors, including a stained-glass dome and several varieties of marble, rival the stunning costumes on display. The costumes seem perfectly suited to the Driehaus, and the juxtaposition of an aristocratic British story with Chicago’s industrial new money is an interesting one not unlike that of Cora’s lineage on the show.

Guests looking to indulge their inner aristocrat will enjoy taking tea in the Murphy Auditorium before or after the exhibit. The garden-inspired setting features seasonal scones, sweets, and tea cakes and two specialty teas locally sourced by Rare Tea Cellar. Tickets to the Tea Experience are sold separately from the exhibit.

Whether or not you’re a fan of the show, the exhibit is recommended for any history, architecture, and arts enthusiasts. If Dressing Downton and the Driehaus Museum address any plot line, it’s that beauty and excellent craftsmanship are appreciated through the ages.

Museum hours: Tuesday through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tickets for the exhibition and tea are sold separately. Tickets are sold at 30-minute entry intervals. Purchase online or by calling 312.482.8933, ext. 21.