After twenty years, we are moving away from the mid-Atlantic region. Suddenly, things that we were going to do “someday” have moved up in importance. One of those things was a visit to the Costumes of Downton Abbey exhibit at Winterthur, Delaware. It’s on until January 4, 2015. It’s a hugely successful exhibit; you’ll want to get your timed-entry tickets in advance to avoid disappointment.
Your ticket gives you the right to tour the mansion and gardens, built in 1837 by Jacques Antoine Biderman and his wife Evelina de Pont. It was later massively enlarged by Henry Francis du Pont who turned it into a museum in 1930. The du Pont family left France in 1800 and established themselves in the Brandywine Valley of Delaware where they made a fortune in the gunpowder business. Other nearby du Pont family estates worth visiting are Longwood Gardens and the Nemours Mansion.
The grounds cover almost 1,000 acres, a fraction of its size when the estate was a working farm with prize dairy cows. In the spring, swaths of azaleas are a display worth making the trip for. On my mid-June visit, there was lots of verdant greenery. You can either walk from the Visitors’ Center to the Mansion in about seven minutes, take a direct shuttle, or take a twenty-five minute tram tour. Due to threatening rain, I opted for the tram and it was pleasantly informative about the history of the estate and the particularity of some of the rarer trees.
Then, there is the tour of the house. You’ll have a separate timed-entry ticket for a one hour guided tour. There are 175 room displays in the museum and nearly 90,000 objects, but only a few rooms are on any given tour. The collection spans two centuries of American decorative arts, from 1640 to 1860, as well as some fine examples of English and French pieces. It’s particularly beautiful when decorated for Christmas.
But I was there for Downton Abbey. Like millions of others, I’ve followed the upstairs-downstairs period drama since its inception. In addition to Maggie Smith’s tart one-liners as the Dowager Countess, the costumes and décor had my full attention. This exhibit brings together forty costumes, video clips or photos showing when the costumes were worn during the show. Sometimes tidbits of life at Winterthur were compared with life in the home of the Earl and Countess Grantham. There was information about subtle distinctions of class revealed in the clothing. The costumes were often an amalgamation of a scrap of vintage lace applied to modern fabrics or simply the idea of a garment from the past. French designers Lanvin and Poiret, notably for Lady Sybyl’s daring harem pants, were the inspiration behind some of the costumes.
The word un costume (uhn kostoom) does not always mean the same in French and English. If you want the type of costume you might wear at Halloween, you need un déguisement. If you want a man’s suit, that’s un costume (but a woman’s is un tailleur). And if you’re looking at a costume at the Downton Abbey exhibit at Winterthur, that’s also un costume.