Winterthur opens ‘Costumes of Downton Abbey' exhibit

Photo by Jim Schneck, Winterthur Mrs. DuPont's travel case
Photo courtesy of Jim Schneck Lady Mary's engagement dress of Downton Abbey.

With all the hoopla and razzamatazz about the exhibit of Downton Abbey sostumes that has received nationwide articles in newspapers and magazines, the actual exhibit is open at Winterthur and it is worth all the publicity. Winterthur is the only venue for the show, but then they did all the work.

It began when Director Dave Roselle suggested the idea, and it is a natural fit. The Great Houses of England were run with a bevy of servants who stayed for a lifetime, but there were differences. The Great Houses in England stood and are used through hundreds of years. Many were torn down after World War II until the inheritance tax laws were changed so that a death in the family did not automatically mean the estate would have to be destroyed. The Great Houses in the U.S. were usually the showpieces of one generation and subsequently were also destroyed. Winterthur, with 175 rooms, would definitely be considered a Great House, although I am not certain how many rooms are required to qualify, and it was used by several generations. In this area we are lucky to have several of the Great Houses left, even though they have become country clubs or museums.

One of the other differences was the tendency for the English to lag in using advanced technologies to make living simpler and more comfortable, while the Americans were quick to use elevators, telephones, central heat and other inventions for easier living. All Great Houses needed many servants. Winterthur tended to have 34 in the house to care for a family of four, but had over 200 to care for the estate. The servants in Britain tended to be English and Irish while the American “staff,” not servants, were from numerous countries.

Visitors to the English homes tended to stay for great lengths of time, while the American visits were more or less weekend visits. Do you remember Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey asking, “What is a weekend?” Clothes were changed so frequently a guest would need 12 to 14 outfits for a three-day visit. Hence in this show they have H.F. du Pont’s trunk equipped with hangers and drawers.

When Roselle suggested the exhibition, he saw the similarities between the lives in a Great House in both countries. As it was the same time period, the first decades of the 1900s, it was an instantaneous match. Winterthur Historian Maggie Lidz first went to CosProps in England that houses over a million costumes, to choose which 40 they could obtain that were appropriate and varied. She worked hard to get both upstairs and downstairs clothing, from the crisp aprons worn by Daisy the scullery maid and Mrs. Patmore, the cook, to the dressy clothes of the fictional Crawley family from Lady Sybil’s scandalous harem pants, Lady Edith’s wedding dress, and the elaborate gowns for Dowager Violet Crawley (Maggie Smith). One interesting display is two pieces of fabric you can touch. One is the sturdy wool that would have been used for the uniform of Carson the Butler, while the more luxurious vicuna sample (in today’s prices $20,000) would have been worn by Robert Crowley, Earl of Grantham, whose family crest is on the buttons of the footman.

Once Winterthur had the costumes, they sanitized them, just in case the clothing had brought something with them, which is done to every acquisition to protect their exhibits. Then they carved life sized figures of Ethafoam, a Styrofoam-like material, only it does not give off gas, in the actual shapes of the actors. Enlarged photo backdrops of the actors in the show are mounted behind the actual garments. The one actor you will not see is Shirley MacLaine, as her agent would not allow her photo to be shown. However two of her coats are hanging on the wall. The clothes are costumes, not authentic outfits, for the most part. Some authentic fabric was incorporated into outfits, or even inspired it, with mixed results. One beautiful dress was so fragile they had to sew it back together after a filming.

The show is not just clothes, as there are many items from the duPont family from the same period. There is even a box of Hu-Kwa fragrant smoky souchong tea that you can smell: this type of tea was always served by the duPonts. The show is designed to take you through an entire day. It begins with the staff beginning the day in the kitchen. Then it goes through the day with all the clothing changes from sports to tea to dinner. It is beautifully arranged and lit with a wonderful story; truly, this is one exhibit you do not want to miss seeing. It will be at Winterthur through next January.

Cheyney

Last week Cheyney University celebrated Founders Day with two speakers. First to speak was Curtis Cheyney, Esq. whose ancestor’s provided some of their farmland for Cheyney back in 1931. Current owner of the nearby farm Curtis spoke about his ancestor, John Cheyney, who saw General Howe unexpectedly crossing the Brandywine with his troops to encircle Washington. At first he was not believed, as he had been at a tavern, but finally Washington was convinced of the truth and was able to avoid a total disaster.

The other speaker, author /historian Marion Lane, who is also a graduate of Cheyney, spoke about the large number of soldiers in the Revolution who were black or Native American. There were at least 20,000 of them, yet Washington did not allow them to serve until 1777 at Valley Forge.

The last time I was at Cheyney was over 50 years ago when I was there as a guest lecturer. What a difference a half century makes! There are large dormitories, a beautiful quad and a lovely campus. One of their showcases is their Hydroponics building where they grow basil and tilapia. This plant and this fish are symbiotic: they both like to live in the same temperature, so they can take the refuse from the large fish tank and use it to feed the basil. To go into that building and smell all that basil is a treat. The fish are sold privately, and the basil is sold in local supermarkets under the Urban Farm label.

It was an impressive event. If you have the opportunity to visit, go. You will be impressed.

Hadley

The Hadley Fund will present the “Pillow Play,” “Peter and the Wolf” on Saturday, March 15, at 2 p.m. at the Kennett Friends Meeting house, 125 W. Sickle St. The play is presented by the Wilmington Drama League Chrysalis Players. Pillow Plays are performed by children for children and the children in the audience bring pillows to sit on. Some adults will get chairs. This free performance requires no tickets. For information go to www.Hadleyfund.org or call 610-444-1855.

Arden

The Arden Gild Hall is hosting the super popular “We Were Promised Jetpacks” on Thursday, March 6, at 8 p.m. The opening acts are “Honeyblood” from Scotland and “Stallions” from Newark, Del. Tickets are $15 in advance from www.ardenconcerts.com.

Civil Rights

The Chester County Historical Society will host a lecture by two Philadelphia Inquirer reporters, Pulitzer Prize winner Daniel R. Biddle and Murray Dubin. They will talk about early civil rights activist Octavius Valentine Catto, who was murdered in 1871 during a race riot. Catto was an educator, a second baseman on Philadelphia’s best black team, an activist and an orator who shared the stage with Frederick Douglas. The lecture is Friday, March 7, at 7 p.m. Their recent book will be available.

Lectures

The Brandywine River Museum of Art will offer three lectures on “New Perspectives” on Thursdays at 2 p.m. This series, presented by Education Assistant Jane Chesson, will identify popular themes in contemporary art. The lectures will be on March 13: “The Figure and Narrative;” March 20 – “Time & Memory;” and March 27: “Science & Technology.” Tickets for the series are $30 for adults, $24 for non-members. Individual tickets are $15 and $12 from 610-388-8326.

Pianist

Steinway pianist Catherine Marie Charleton will perform original piano improvisations inspired by the works of the Wyeth family on Wednesday, March 12, from 1 to 3 p.m. This is included with admission.

Warren

The Paoli Battlefield Preservation Fund is hosting a lecture by Bruce Mowday on “Reporting the Revolution” held at the General Warren Inne on Monday, March 10, from 6 to 8 p.m. This lecture, buffet dinner, tax and gratuity are $49. For more information go to http://rememberpaoli.org.

‘Grease’

The Unionville High School will present the musical GREASE this weekend on March 6 through 8 at 7:30 p.m. For tickets go to uhstickets@gmail.com

Concert

If you missed the concert last Sunday at Lincoln University, the Kennett Symphony will perform the children’s concert “American Patchwork” again this Sunday, March 9, at 2 p.m. at the Emilie Asplundh Hall at the West Chester University. Tickets are $5 from the Symphony box office at 610-444-6363.

Bill Cosby

This coming Sunday, March 9, Bill Cosby will be at the DuPont Theatre with his humorous outlook on life. Known most for his long running “The Cosby Show” about a close knit upper middle class black family, his comedy crosses all the barriers of age, gender, and cultural differences. The one show is at noon. For tickets call 302-656-4401

‘Charlie Brown’

That lovable Charlie Brown will be at the Barley Sheaf Players, 810 N. Whitford Road, Lionville, March 7 through 29 on Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. There are matinees on March 16 and 23 at 2 p.m.

‘Phantom’

The first touring company of “The Phantom of the Opera” in three years will be in Philadelphia at the Academy of Music, Broad and Locust streets, March 19 through April 12. If you haven’t seen this incredible show yet, now might be the time, as this production has been called “the best production of this musical ever,” and it has been on Broadway for 25 years. The story of young soprano Christine, beloved by the Phantom, who terrorizes her and everyone else in the opera house, is filled with wonderfully haunting music. For tickets call 215-731-3333.

Lucky

The New Candlelight Theatre in Arden, Del., will have an evening of songs and jokes on March 15 when favorite singers from the plays join forces with local drag superstars. Tickets are $35 and include light fare buffet and show. Doors open at 6:30 p.m. The cash bar will be open all evening. For tickets call 302-475-2313.

‘Laughter’

Once upon a time the Kings of Comedy –- Sid Caesar, Carl Reiner, Mel Brooks and Neil Simon, were the comedy team writing for the Sid Caesar Hour. With these four in a room, one can only imagine the comments and banter that happened during a work session. Neil Simon has taken these experiences and written “Laughter on the 23rd Floor” that has been called one of the funniest shows ever. The Bristol Riverside Theatre, 129 Radcliffe Street, Radcliff from March 18 through April 13. For tickets call 215-785-0100.

Kennett Flash

Friday, March 7 –The Bullbuckers

Sat. March 8 – Ed Gerhard –Grammy winning guitarist

Sat. March 15 –Mary Fahl – former lead singer with October Project

Caryl Huffaker lives in Kennett Township.