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Downtown Abbey Comes to Town
By Elizabeth Graham
From modern, innovative, fashionforward styles to classic, opulent, tailored, vintage attire — the Lightner Museum finds itself in the center of the fashion world once again. Last September, the historic museum welcomed the artistic talents surrounding St. Augustine Fashion Week: MODA Alcazar. The designers, models, stylists, volunteers and spectators brought a new and heady mix of vitality and creative energy the building was once famous for. It is in that same spirit that the Lightner is thrilled to announce its hosting of the Dressing Downton: Changing Fashion for Changing Times exhibition, beginning October 4, 2017 and running through January 7, 2018. While the exhibition might not include many of the same sights and sounds of a modern fashion show, it is nonetheless certainly a fashion show of its own kind.
The beauty of an exhibition such as this can be found in its title. The time period covered in the PBS series Downton Abbey was a tumultuous one in which societal, political and economic norms that had been withheld for centuries and across the world were being turned upside down. Fashion, an entity that is often considered a frivolous endeavor by some has, however, always been a good reflection of times in which it is created. If one were to only consider the fashion plates from the 1890s through the 1920s, knowing nothing of world history, it would be very clear that society had changed dramatically within a generation.
The designs exhibited during St Augustine Fashion Week reflected a broad range of aesthetic tastes, historical inspirations and creative interpretations of modern sensibilities in a complicated world. This was no-less true in the fashions you will see when you experience Dressing Downton — those worn at the turn of the twentieth century as women in particular were beginning to enter the labor force in far greater numbers and beyond the usual domestic occupations that had consumed their energies previously. High-fashion designers and seamstresses were tasked with creating new clothing to reflect the greater freedoms of self-expression women were experiencing.
Perhaps the greatest designer of the late nineteenth century was Charles Frederick Worth, who really changed the entire fashion industry forever. Previously, it had often been a collection of influences and a customer’s personal tastes that had dictated what seamstresses created. Worth, however, began releasing sets of designs four times a year that he would then create for clients who sought out his specific fashions. In other words, he drove fashion trends instead of a broad range of ideas dictating what he would sew. A protégé of Worth’s, Paul Poiret is yet another great icon of the early twentieth century, most notably because of his use of Harem pants, a design that reflected the Western fascination with the Ancient societies of the Middle and Far East. These will be instantly recognizable to those who have seen Dressing Downton as one of the characters shocked her family by wearing such outrageous clothing.
The outbreak of hostilities leading to WWI would see European fashion becoming more simply elegant as reflected by the designs of the worldfamous Coco Chanel. While the chaos of the War took some time to reach American shores, there is no doubt that American women were eager to adopt the more austere, yet still beautiful, lines created by Chanel that are considered classic today.
It’s difficult to appreciate the true art of these legendary designers through looking at pictures or even seeing them on film — seeing them in person and seeing the attention paid to every detail, it is obvious that recreating period dress of this kind is no easy task. Hundreds, even thousands of hours research necessary to get everything right, because a misplaced dart of too high hemline might not mean much to the casual observer, but it means everything when a show is trying to stay true to a specific timeline.
Bringing them to life was the responsibility of Cosprop, the company who created all the outstanding costumes of the award-winning program. Costumiers Susannah Buxton, Rosaline Ebbutt, Caroline McCall had to adapt to changing sets, outfit actors of differing ages, sexes, sizes and shapes and their dedication and talent were noticed not only by the show’s viewers, but the industry as well. In its six seasons, the show was nominated by the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences four times for Emmys for Best Costume Design, as well as many other prestigious film and television awards, winning the 2103 Costume Designers Guild Awards for Outstanding Period/ Fantasy Television Series.
Downton Abbey’s run ended in 2015 but the obsession continues on and the popularity of the Dressing Downton exhibition is proof that the characters will remain in the consciousness of our culture for many years to come. Your chance to see this one-of-a-kind display of craftsmanship and beauty comes to town next fall. For more information, visit the Lightner Museum’s webpage HERE.