As Night Falls on Downton Abbey

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The dazzling dinner parties on the period drama Downton Abbey are known to yield some of the character’s best one-liners, especially those uttered by the Dowager Countess of Grantham played by Dame Maggie Smith. Responding to Matthew’s statement about working five days a week, “What is a week-end?” In addition to these delicious quips from the characters the evening costumes showcased on the period drama series are as equally delightful.

harem exhWinterthur is fortunate to display a selection of the exquisite costumes and accessories worn by the upstairs and downstairs characters on Downton Abbey in the original exhibition Costumes of Downton Abbey.  The exhibition divides the costumes into sections based on the stages of the day on the country estate: Early Morning, Leisurely Afternoon, and Dazzling Dinnertimes. While summer dresses and leisure activity clothing reign during the Leisurely Afternoon section for the upstairs characters, the evening attire takes center stage for its beauty, elegance, and tailoring.

_JIM2897The costume designers for the series try to reflect each character’s personalities in the costumes, especially the evening gowns worn by the upstairs women. Lady Mary’s character is outfitted in elegant, tasteful dresses that reflect her traditional values. The beaded evening dress displayed in the exhibition is in the style of 1919. In the same respect, for Lady Sybil’s costumes, designers seek to show her free spirit and her more individualist style. On display are the harem pants worn by Sybil in Season One. This costume was one of the most popular ever worn on Downton Abbey. The pants, first introduced by couturier Paul Poiret in 1911, were shocking at the time because, as author Jessica Fellowes notes in her book The World of Downton Abbey, “no woman of her class, before Poiret’s harem look, had ever been seen in trousers.”

While about a third of the costumes are made entirely new, costume designers try to use vintage pieces wherever possible. The evening dress worn by character Cora, Countess of Grantham, that is displayed in the exhibition is modeled on a similar dress by high fashion house Lanvin. The costume features a strip of vintage embroidery down the front.

Downton Promo shot_5The upstairs men were equally as dapper in evening attire. One of the most beautiful scenes from Downton Abbey, Matthew’s proposal, is captured in the exhibition. On display, character Matthews’s evening white tie and tails is in the style of 1919. Also on display is character Mary’s beaded, silk engagement dress, inspired by 1920 tiered dresses designed by Lanvin. The exhibition adds a charming interactive element accompanying the costumes—the screening of the proposal scene as “snow” falls all around.

Henry Francis du Pont would have dressed in a fashion similar to the high-style Crawleys during his dazzling evenings on the Winterthur estate. On his first trip abroad, in 1901, du Pont became a client of Henry Poole & Co., considered among the best of the gentleman’s bespoke tailors on London’s Saville Row. The company is known to have introduced the dinner jacket in England and what would become known as the tuxedo in America.

Layout 1A dinner party planned by Henry Francis du Pont at Winterthur was as elaborate as the scenes that play out on screen at the fictional Downton Abbey estate. Throughout its history, Winterthur has been a destination for entertaining. During the weekends, Winterthur was filled with elegantly dressed guests lounging by the pool, enjoying the grounds, and, of course, cutting a rug to tunes from the jazz age. Like the downstairs characters on Downton Abbey, who make it look like entertaining comes together effortlessly, du Pont and his butler would plan meticulously for the event down to every last detail of the menu and table setting. The head butler, like the character Carson on Downton Abbey, had the dining room under his care. Wearing a black dinner jacket, waistcoat, trousers with white tie, the butler would serve at dinner but would not wait on the table, except to pour wine.

“A good butler knows everything, from the antecedents of the guests to the time-tables of most suburban railways. He is very apt to have a fine taste in the arrangement of the flowers, and the weather probabilities are seldom hidden from him.” —Vogue’s Book of Etiquette (New York, 1924)

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Character Charles Carson’s evening costume on display is in the style of 1912–30. The butler and his employer’s white tie evening clothes are very similar except for the quality of fabric and tailoring.

P62 OV Dancing in MMV    003The du Pont’s entertaining traditions were not unlike those enjoyed by the Crawley family. To honor this tradition, Winterthur invites guests to join us for “A Night at Downton: Costumes of Downton Abbey Cocktail Party,” July 25. Guests are invited to arrive early and enjoy a summer night, strolling through the garden. Inside, visitors will be treated to delicious food, fizzy drinks, and the exquisite Costumes of Downton Abbey exhibition on display in the Winterthur Galleries.

Downton-inspired costumes—though not required—are heartily encouraged to transport you back in time. Be sure to bring your dancing shoes and dance the night away to the live Downton-era jazz and swing music, courtesy of “Songbird and the Tweeters.”

Reservations required. Members $75; nonmembers $90, includes entrance to Costumes of Downton Abbey. For more information, please visit

Costumes of Downton Abbey is on display in the Winterthur Galleries through January 4, 2015.

For more information, please visit

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Fellowes, Jessica. The World of Downton Abbey. Harper Collins, September 2011.

Post by Hilary Seitz, Marketing Communications, contributed by Regina Lynch, Public Programs

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