It's been just a year and a half since the series finale of "Downton Abbey" aired, and yet, it feels like a lifetime ago. We miss all the soapy storylines involving Lady Mary's love life, classic burns from the Dowager Countess, snappy repartee between Daisy and Mrs. Patmore — and the costumes. The absolutely sublime costumes that transitioned from the grand, corseted Edwardian era to the less restrained and definitely more decadent '20s, especially when accompanied by Lady Mary's revolutionary flapper bob. Well, happy holidays to Stateside fans of the show: The trials and tribulations of the aristocratic Crawleys and the beloved downstairs staff will live on through "Downton Abbey: The Exhibit," which opens Saturday, Nov. 18 in New York City, with further stops in the U.S. to follow.
The immersive exhibit, which had a successful soft launch in Singapore over the summer, essentially brings fans of the show into Downton Abbey, with a specially filmed welcome video by Carson (Jim Butler) and an actual downstairs and upstairs with "to the millimeter" (oh, British metric system) recreations of illustrious rooms in the show, like Mary's bedroom (framed photo of Matthew on the vanity, check), an impeccably set Crawley dining room with handwritten menus of Mrs. Patmore's culinary creations and her downstairs kitchen, complete with a steaming stew in mid-prep and a wafting scent of not-so-basic pumpkin spice.
Obviously, a "Downton Abbey" exhibit wouldn't be complete without the celebrated costumes, a collection of which were curated by costume designer Anna Robbins; Robbins came on board for seasons five and six, just in time to put Michelle Dockery as Mary, Laura Carmichael as Edith and Lily James as cousin Rose in flapper dresses. Robbins received two Emmy nominations for her work on the show. (Rosalind Ebutt, Susannah Buxton and Caroline McCall designed seasons one through four.)
"It was actually really difficult," Robbins said, over the phone from London, about editing down the options in order to showcase the memorable stories, time periods, beloved characters and etiquette-demanding occasions that required different types of clothing. "We've got the iconic costumes, like Sybil's harem pants, Edith's Criterion dress and Mary's proposal [dress to Matthew]," she said. She made sure to include audience fan favorites, along with other important and significant pieces from all six seasons to complete the full costume retrospective.
The upstairs costumes feature a daywear section, which includes Lady Mary's regal tweedy hunting suit from the season four Christmas episode and Edith's editrix cape-skirt-suit and yellow tie-neck blouse look, as well as a breathtaking evening gown display with so many stunning beaded and lace-detailed pieces, including that sublime seafoam green and gold dress that Mary not-so-modestly refers to as "this old thing" during dinner with Henry and Tom. You'll also swoon (and maybe get a little teary) over the wedding gowns, including both of Lady Edith's (poor Edith, but she got her happy ending) and Mary's, plus Lady Rose's bridal-like crystal, beaded and floral-adorned debutante dress with the head flourish.
Costumes from the entire cast of characters come from all seasons — including Matthew Crawley's World War I uniform (RIP) and American heiress (and Cora's mom) Martha Levinson's feather-cuffed brocade skirt — are on display in various vignettes. The costumes are accompanied by fascinating historical background and relevant props from the show, like notes and papers that were actually (and impeccably) handwritten for authenticity.
Robbins and her team also commissioned special mannequins to be made for the exhibit to illustrate the full effect of how fashion was worn in the early 20th century, by the specific costume and the character at that moment in the story. "[The mannequins] have articulated fingers, so we can develop those poses and bring the costumes to life," Robbins explained. "I didn't want it to feel like they were just clothes on really static, anonymous bodies. I wanted to feel like you could get a sense of Lady Mary and her attitude when she's standing and holding her sunglasses or holding her gloved hands in a certain position."
Visitors should also take just as much time appreciating the downstairs staff's costumes, which are displayed throughout memorable and familiar settings, like Mrs. Hughes's skirt suit accessorized by her famed chatelaine next to Carson's tuxedo in the butler's office. "You tend to gloss over the uniforms to talk about the aristocratic upstairs costumes," Robbins pointed out. "With the livery, we had buttons cast — so little tiny models made with the crest and then embossed and then cast and antiqued. So, the button itself has so much detail that you probably would never get a glimpse of on camera, but is there with the same attention to detail as the beaded and embroidered family-wear. Hopefully you can see the whole thing marries together with craftsmanship."
"The men's costumes are really cool to look at," Sophie McShera confirmed, who played feisty kitchen maid-turned-assistant cook Daisy Mason. She and her Downton boss Lesley Nicol were both on-site filming b-roll ahead of the exhibit's opening. "They're so imposing and grand, aren't they? Even the footmen."
"They're so smart," Nicol agreed, without missing a beat; the duo has just as much funny, infectious chemistry off-screen as they did on. Nicol and McShera also got a little verklempt while sitting in the exact replica of the servants' dining hall — complete with the wall of bells in case Lady Mary needs help putting on a dress — and revisiting the uniforms that they and their fellow cast members wore on the show.
"You just look at your costume and it takes you right back to that moment and, when I look at other people's costumes, I honestly just see the person in their costume," said McShera. "So, when I look at Phyllis's [Logan, who played Mrs. Hughes] costume, I see Phyllis. It's just her."
The two are just fine with their not-as-elaborate (and definitely not as plentiful) costumes receiving a little less attention than the abundant finery worn by the "posh girls" upstairs — because they have a little behind-the-scenes knowledge.
"People say, 'Do we have costume envy?' Well, I don't know about her, but I didn't," Nicol shrugged, while gesturing to McShera. "Because we only had to get dressed once in a day. Those girls never stopped changing their clothes."
"Oh, we were so lucky because their costumes were maybe uncomfortable, as well," McShera agreed. "Our costumes were so easy and comfortable."
"You could drop your dinner down it," Nicol added.
"Which we did," McShera said. "Often."
"Downton Abbey: The Exhibit" opens on Saturday, Nov. 18 at 218 W. 57th St. in New York City and runs through early 2018. For full details and updates on future cities, visit DowntonExhibition.com.
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