Last updated: 11:00 PM ET, Fri March 04 2016

Opinion Home | Far-Sighted Field Notes

  • Rosalind Cummings-Yeates | March 4, 2016 11:00 PM ET

    The Aristocratic Fashions of ‘Downton Abbey’ in Chicago

    The Aristocratic Fashions of ‘Downton Abbey’ in Chicago

    PHOTO: Maggie Smith as Violet Crawley, Dowager Countess of Grantham. (photo courtesy of Carnival Films/Masterpiece)

    Although the popular PBS series “Downton Abbey” is set at a palatial Yorkshire, England estate, you don’t need to travel across the pond to get an up-close view of the Crawley clan’s effects. Through May 8, Chicago’s Driehaus Museum, which is also a lavish estate from the Gilded Age, will showcase the costumes from the TV show with the traveling exhibit, “Dressing Downton: Changing Fashion For Changing Times.”

    I’m a diehard fan of “Downton Abbey,” a drama that follows the real-life challenges of the British aristocracy as they face the changing modern world, but you don’t need to be familiar with the show to enjoy the “Dressing Downton” exhibit. The collection of 35 costumes, some made with original fabric from the period, reflect the political and social changes like WWI and women’s liberation, that transformed Western society.

    READ MORE: Live Like a Lord or Lady – Wales for Downton Abbey Fans

    Using a self-guided audio tour as well as an exhibition guide and informative placards, the show also features still photography from key scenes connected to the costumes so that viewers can fully understand how the pieces relate to the time period.

    The exhibit showcases the intricate dresses worn by the Crawley women (which even into the 1920s, required a maid’s assistance) as well as garments worn by the men and service staff.  All of the pieces are arranged against the splendor of two floors of the Driehaus Museum, which was once the Gold Coast home of the Nickerson and Fisher families. The house is filled with period correct features, such as a stained glass dome, hand carved chairs and a crystal punch bowl that was showcased in the 1893 Columbian exhibition of Chicago.

    Opening with a luxurious fox collar coat worn by Shirley Maclaine as the scene-stealing Martha Levinson, the show displays costumes from standout scenes, including the velvet and glass beaded flapper gown that Lady Rose wore when she danced with Chicago jazz singer Jack Ross.

    PHOTO: L to R: Black coat with English Arts and Crafts embroidery, burgundy coat, and blue/green suit and hat, worn by the Crawley sisters. (Costumes courtesy of Cosprop, photo courtesy of the Driehaus Museum)

    Besides the clothing details, the exhibit reveals cultural insights — like the fact that butlers and footmen were selected for height and good looks and that the Dowager Countess wears only grey, purple and lilac in addition to black because those were the acceptable colors for half mourning in Edwardian society.

    The show ends on the top floor of the museum, but don’t miss the adjoining room that showcases Chicago counterparts to the Crawleys, including Bertha Palmer, society maven and inventor of the brownie.

    READ MORE: England As You Like It

    Top off your Downton adventure with a traditional English tea service against the elegant backdrop of the museum’s Murphy Auditorium. The Tea Experience includes scones, cake breads, tea sandwiches an array of sweets and tea by Chicago’s own Rare Tea Sellers. Tickets are sold separately from the exhibit and advance purchase for both is highly recommended.

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Rosalind Cummings-Yeates Far-Sighted Field Notes

Rosalind Cummings-Yeates Rosalind Cummings-Yeates is a journalist, author and blogger who specializes in travel and culture topics. She loves guiding readers through the richness of various cultures and discovering the essence of a destination. Her travel and culture blog, Farsighted Fly Girl, offers travel insights through the music, food, art and history of various countries and cultures. Join her on the journey at www.Rosalindcummingsyeates.
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