This story is a review of an exhibit at the Culture Lab that ended April 22nd, 2019.
Following a widely acclaimed New York City run, Downton Abbey: The Exhibition makes its exclusive second stop in West Palm Beach in a much larger venue and expanded show. Residents and visitors are feeling drawn to an exhibit based on the hit TV series that ran for 6 seasons and was the highest rated PBS series of all time. The show won Emmys, Golden Globes and Screen Actors Guild Awards, and now there is an upcoming feature film which started production in mid-September.
The 15-year period Downton Abbey span was a time of immense social change in England, which needed to be reflected in the way women dressed. Corsets were unstrung and silhouettes loosened up. This exhibition shows the post-Edwardian journey as envisioned by Emmy-nominated costume designer Anna Robbins.
Robbins joined the Downton Abbey show in season 5, designing and creating the post-WWI looks that embraced the Jazz Age. She was responsible for a number of the season’s jaw-dropping moments, from Lady Mary’s gold embroidered seafoam flapper dress to wedding gowns.
I spoke with Robbins in an exclusive interview by phone from the set of the Downton Abbey feature film in England.
How did you approach designing the costumes – historical references with your own vision?
“Yes it was a combination of the two. My first references are portraits, illustrations and original garments from the era. Then when I read the script I get a vision for each character and how the costumes will tell their story. From there is it also a matter of the colors used in the décor of the sets – the furniture, wall coverings, drapes – and how the costumes will look against them.”
What adjustments needed to be made for modern times and fabrics?
“Many of the fabrics are not made the same anymore though many wools, tweeds and silks are. Lamé and velvets are not the same. They are often too shiny and the weight is wrong. I source constantly in London and Paris to find the right things. Also when we sometimes use original items, the length of the sleeves and hems are way too short as people were generally smaller back then so we have to make adjustments. They are very fragile, so great care must be taken when handling and wearing them.”
How do you tell a characters story through the costuming?
“ When I read through the scripts I get a sense of the physical look of the character, also what time of day the scene is occurring in and what activities they are doing – is it outside, is it raining, are they inside, which room setting, etc. Then I look at the colors of the sets so the outfits complement the colors as well as what the others characters are wearing. The art in the rooms, the themes of the story, the palettes each character tends to wear, the emotions – all this plays into the costuming. It’s much more involved than people realize, but if I do my job well it is rather subliminal and viewers are taken by the story rather than the costumes.”
How were the costumes chosen for the traveling exhibit?
“I worked on the last two seasons and needed to pull from all the previous seasons to make sure the whole of the characters were represented in their key activities and the evening wear, day wear, estate wear, special events like weddings and parties. The key is also in the details of the hats, coat buttons, the shape of the clothes in the 1920s. Europe was undergoing a great deal of change then so had to tell that journey as well in the evolution of the costumes. Everything is saved and archived so it was a great deal of editing to do. I think it’s great to get them out of storage and into the exhibit to be seen and appreciated. Viewers also get to see them in all their angles as onscreen it’s often only seen up close or just from the front. The mannequins to feature these period styles had to be specially commissioned as the standardized mannequin shapes are just not 1920s silhouettes at all, and they didn’t reflect the proportions of our cast. They’ve also been positioned in ways reminiscent of fashion magazines of the time.”
Robbins is now hard at work on the feature film which promises to contain more lavish sets and costumes.
The exhibition, presented by NBCUniversal, offers a behind the scenes and an up close look into Julian Fellowes’ series about a wealthy Edwardian England estate family facing a world in upheaval. Visitors can see more than 50 of the show’s costumes of gowns and suits on display, from actors Michelle Dockery, Hugh Bonneville and Maggie Smith, and can walk through the sets of the drama, including the hectic gossip filled downstairs kitchen, the glamorous formal family dining room and Lady Mary’s bedroom where secrets were both kept and revealed. Also included is exclusive footage and exhibits about British culture from World War I to the Roaring Twenties.
Downton Abbey: The Exhibition runs through April 22, 2019 at 575 S. Rosemary Ave in CityPlace. You can find more information about the show, hours, and admission here: downtonexhibition.com
Downton Abbey to Exhibit in West Palm Beach