'Downton Abbey' comes to Anaheim in Muzeo exhibit

ANAHEIM – “Downton Abbey” was the most-watched drama in PBS history, drawing millions to the story of the aristocratic Crawley family and their servants on a grand English estate. Now, 39 of the costumes that populated the show have come...

'Downton Abbey' comes to Anaheim in Muzeo exhibit

ANAHEIM – “Downton Abbey” was the most-watched drama in PBS history, drawing millions to the story of the aristocratic Crawley family and their servants on a grand English estate. Now, 39 of the costumes that populated the show have come to Orange County, their only West Coast stop, in a traveling exhibit at Muzeo Museum and Cultural Center. It’s open through May 7.

The clothes, especially the women’s elaborately embroidered gowns, are every bit as handsome as you might expect from a privileged English family of the period. Most are meticulous, faithful reproductions of garb men and women might have worn in 1910s and ’20s England. A handful are original dresses from the time, or parts of dresses, such as the intricate and extensive beadwork on several of the gowns.

Muzeo expects this could be the museum’s best-attended exhibit ever, given the wide popularity of the TV series, said Executive Director Daniel Finley.

There’s the star appeal of seeing costumes worn on a hit show, but there’s also something about the period that made “Downton Abbey” so popular. It was a time of huge shifts, with World War I, changing social norms for women and evolving styles.

“It’s a time capsule for that period,” Finley said of the costumes. “It was an enormous time of transition because we went from, if you will, the old ways, to a dramatically changed society.”

The exhibit follows the chronology of the show, from the sinking of the Titanic, through World War I, and up to 1925 and the decline of the aristocratic class.

That’s reflected in the fashions, especially in women’s clothes. Hemlines went up, corsets were loosened and women’s clothes allowed for more freedom of movement. Lady Edith Crawley’s bicycle riding costume includes pants. Lady Sybil Crawley’s cotton nurse’s costume had a relatively shorter skirt than dresses that came before, reflecting wartime fabric shortages.

The heavy, rigid purple dress that actress Maggie Smith wore as Dowager Countess Violet Crawley opens the exhibit. It makes a contrast with the other gowns, showing just how much fashion changed. Near it is a cream-colored linen suit worn by Robert Crawley, aka Lord Grantham, played by Hugh Bonneville – who apparently is very tall, by the looks of his costume. Its light color reflects the carefree nature of the time, according to the accompanying text, just before the outbreak of the Great War made the world a darker place.

The character of Cora Crawley, the American wife of Lord Grantham, wore clothes that bridged the gap between the dowager’s prim dresses and her daughters’ 1920s attire that veered toward art deco styles.

Some of Cora’s gowns at Muzeo are the most elaborate due to the number of beads sewn onto them. But a beaded dress worn by Mary Crawley when Sir Richard visits Downton in Season 2 is a real show-stealer. The art deco pattern of diamond shapes cascading down the column-shaped dress is made of hundreds of tiny beads.

The exhibit does a nice job of noting the scene and season in which these costumes appeared, complemented by life-size images from the series placing the costumes in context. Muzeo has added some of its own items, culled from the city of Anaheim’s collection, to complete the picture: A costume worn by Mary Crawley is placed in front of an antique mirror to put us in Mary’s bedroom.

Men’s costumes from the show reflect what was happening at the time, such as a military uniform worn by Matthew Crawley as he goes off to war.

There is also the chauffeur’s uniform worn by the Crawley family’s onetime chauffeur and later son-in-law, Tom Branson; cars were replacing horse-powered transportation around this time.

Curator Joyce Franklin borrowed local antiques and clothing to add a bit of context to the show. The clothing in this last section, unlike the fancy dresses worn by the Crawley women, is black, practical, no-nonsense attire worn by women who lived in Orange County.

“I wanted people to see what Anaheim was doing at the same time,” Franklin said.

Sprinkled throughout the exhibit are the dowager’s pithy quotes, the great one-liners delivered by Smith that fans loved: “Nothing succeeds like excess,” “Vulgarity is no substitute for wit” and “Hope is a tease designed to prevent us accepting reality.”

You’ll also be able to see clips and behind-the-scenes footage of “Downton Abbey” on video at the end of the exhibit.

Contact the writer: aboessenkool@ocregister.com

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