Currently exhibited at the North Carolina Museum of History, Dressing the Abbey presents 35 original costumes worn by the stars of Downton Abbey, the Emmy and Golden Globe-winning British television drama series. The exhibition “weaves popular culture, fashion and history” to showcase the progression of early twentieth-century British aristocracy fashion through Downton Abbey‘s stunning, historic, and iconic wardrobe. The costumes come from all six seasons of the series as well as the first movie, spanning 1912 to 1927. Through fashion, the exhibition evokes memorable and treasured moments from individual episodes and captures the historical changes that occurred as the British social hierarchy advanced through the late Edwardian era, through World War One, and into the 1920s and the jazz age.

Walking into the exhibition, one is greeted by music from audio specialist Joel Rhodes, including the Chamber Orchestra of London’s “Downton Abbey – The Suite,” the emblematic main theme of the television series composed by John Lunn. Rather than feeling like a gallery space, entering the exhibit transports you into the characteristically beautiful world of Downton Abbey. The costumes range from formal wool suits and opulent evening gowns with elegant, intricate details; casual day dresses, country suits, and riding outfits; to servants’ uniforms including a butler’s outfit and housemaids’ dresses and aprons. The costumes themselves are an assortment of original period garments, pieces made from both original period fabric panels and new materials, as well as certain garments created exclusively for the television series. All the clothing in the exhibition was created for and worn by the Crawley family and their servants who reside in Downton Abbey, the fictional English country estate of the series. However, the costumes presented are representative of the attire worn by the British aristocracy of the early 1900s, including the Earl and Countess of Carnarvon who inhabited Highclere Castle, the filming site for the series. 

While previously seen gradually in the seasons of Downtown Abbey, as one takes in one outfit after another in the exhibition space, it becomes increasingly apparent that fashion evolved from the early 1910s to the 1920s. The First World War produced striking social changes and shifts in class and gender barriers. As women took on jobs previously reserved for men and materials became scarcer, fashions became simpler and the line between gendered clothing began to blur. The costume descriptions and text panels in the exhibit provide details of such changes, particularly the drastic changes in women’s dress. Rather than the corseted silhouettes and billowing fabrics of prewar fashion, wartime and postwar styles opted for slimmer, straighter, shorter, and less restrictive attire for women. The epitome of such an evolution of fashion in the 1920s is evident in the evening gowns of Lady Rose MacClare (Lily James) and her friend, Madeleine Allsopp (Poppy Drayton). Both original to the 1920s with their sleeveless silhouettes, beaded silks, and layered chiffons, the highly embellished gowns are considered “flapper” dresses and represent the rise of women embracing jazz, bobbed hair, and dancing.

Like Lady Rose MacClare, the daughters of the Earl (Hugh Bonneville) and Countess of Grantham (Elizabeth McGovern) also welcomed changing fashions. Lady Mary Crawley (Michelle Dockery) desired to be at the forefront of fashion, and therefore, many of her costumes featured drop waistlines, straight and loose silhouettes, lower necklines, and less restriction. The attire of Lady Edith Crawley (Laura Carmichael) reflects the influences of her being in London and witnessing more romantic, mature styles and handcrafted decoration. The evening gowns of Lady Sybil Crawley (Jessica Brown Findlay) with embroidered wide hems and cuffs demonstrate the growing influence of the French Bohemian style. 

While the younger generations embraced fashion changes in the early twentieth century, the older women integrated new fashions much more slowly. The Countess of Grantham, Isobel Crawley (Penelope Wilton), and the Dowager Countess of Grantham (Maggie Smith) all gradually departed from structured gowns with corseted waists and eventually transitioned to straight-sided dresses with drop waists and narrower skirts. The costumes designers Susannah Buxton, Caroline McCall, and Anna Robbins excellently created and maintained distinctions between the characters’ costumes while simultaneously depicting the progression of style throughout the show’s seasons.

The exhibition combines the beauty of the costumes themselves with the history of the period. History of the grand fashion changes of the 1920s is interwoven throughout the exhibition and, while the Crawley family is fictional, connections are drawn to Highclere Castle and its real-life inhabitants of the period to further situate the plot of the television series within a historic context. While it is likely to remember (or guess!) which character wore which costume on Downton Abbey, the clothing tells a deeper story of the societal and style changes of the British aristocracy and reveals details to each garment that are nearly invisible on-screen. This exhibition is not just clothing in a gallery from a famous television series; this exhibition illustrates the changing nature of fashion in relation to early twentieth-century history.

Each article of clothing is situated in such a delicate, precise manner. Even the headpieces including crowns, hats, and feathers are perfectly showcased on small pedestals when not atop the mannequin heads, some of which are beautifully affixed with fabric to resemble hair, created by textile conservator Paige Myers. The costumes are surrounded by carefully selected museum artifacts and accessories to provide a beautiful and consistent backdrop. With a saddle positioned with the riding outfit, a trunk next to the traveling attire, and a church pew behind the costumes from Lady Edith Crawley’s first wedding, the set dressing by the museum curators Diana Bell-Kite, RaeLana Poteat, and Michael Ausbon brings new life to the exquisite costumes. Further, the exhibit itself unites all the costumes together to tell a single story about fashion evolution during the early twentieth century. And, doused in warm light, the costumes seem to glow. The creativity taken with by lighting designer Lindsay Davis shines through as subtle shadowed forms are cast on the white walls to differentiate whether outfits were worn inside or out and upstairs or down. Designed for installation at NC Museum of History by Whitney Watson, all the moving parts of this traveling exhibition piece together to create a splendid experience that will open eyes to the stories that clothing can tell. Dressing the Abbey will thrill fans of Downton Abbey and leave newcomers eager to begin the first episode.

The exhibition is presented by Exhibits Development Group, USA, in cooperation with Cosprop Ltd., London, England. The exhibit is sponsored by PBS North Carolina, WHQR Public Media, WUNC Radio, and WFDD.

Dressing the Abbey is open through January 17, 2022 on the third floor of the North Carolina Museum of History. For more details on this exhibition, please view the sidebar.