Photo: Facebook Page of Downton Abbey
TORONTO–Lady Mary Crawley’s blood-red dinner gown. Her youngest sister Sybil’s stiffly veiled nurse’s uniform. Lord Grantham’s informal three-piece suit worn for a garden party, where the family patriarch announced the beginning of the First World War.
These iconic outfits from “Downton Abbey” are among 20 costumes from the award-winning TV series on display at Spadina House, a Toronto museum that takes visitors back to life as it was for an upper-class Canadian family during the 1920s and ’30s.
“Dressing for Downton: Costumes from Downton Abbey,” which opens Tuesday, also includes outfits and accessories from the City of Toronto’s artifact collections, representing clothing and fashionable items worn during the “Downton” period, said Karen Black, manager of the city’s 10 historic site museums.
“The Austins were not as aristocratic as the Crawley family of Downton Abbey, but they did face many of the same challenges, including a shell-shocked son returning from the First World War, the changing role of women, the new technology _ everything from radio to the automobile and the telephone,” she said.
And like Sybil, the youngest Austin daughter, Constance Margaret, also became a volunteer nurse during the Great War, Black said.
“These costumes trace those huge changes that happened in the world because of the impact of World War I. And Toronto was very much a part of that changing world view.”
The show includes two red gowns worn by Lady Mary (played by Michelle Dockery): an embroidered dinner dress with tightly pleated cap sleeves from season 1 and a waistless, sleeveless, jewel-bedecked number from seasons 2 and 3.
Dresses worn by her fictional sisters also make up part of the exhibition, including a two-toned rose-coloured, high-waisted gown with cap sleeves worn by Edith (Laura Carmichael) and an embroidered French blue dinner dress with overlaid lace donned by Sybil (Jessica Brown Findlay).
The elegant and sophisticated styles worn by Lady Cora, Countess of Grantham (Elizabeth McGovern), are also represented in the Spadina show, including a floor-skimming floral-embroidered day dress, embellished with dozens of tiny pearls and crystals, and a red waisted gown with a highly stylized decoration on the bodice.
Two of the high-necked and many-layered outfits, trimmed with lace and ruffles, worn by Maggie Smith in her role as the Dowager Countess are part of the exhibition. Reminiscent of the clothes worn by Britain’s Queen Mother, Alexandra, they illustrate the conservative style favoured by the more mature woman of the period.
Also on display are costumes _ including hats _ donned by other characters, from the brown suit and overcoat worn by Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens) on a family trip to Scotland to the practical and more serviceable daywear suits of his forward-thinking mother Isobel (Penelope Wilton).
All the cast outfits on display were supplied by Cosprop Ltd., a London-based costume house that specializes in period clothing for professional productions.
“Decoration and beadwork are the keys to 1920s costumes and dresses,” said Ann McDougall, a historical interpreter at the museum, who sported an electric blue reproduction dress and jacket typical of the period at a recent pre-opening tour of the exhibition.
“This is a time when the cut was really simple, and so to embellish something you had incredibly complex beadwork and embroidery. Sometimes hundreds of hours would go into a single garment.
“And now in an age where we’re used to factory-produced clothing, it’s really amazing to see that detail. If you come, you will see a lot of sparkle.”
Fabrics of the time were natural cotton, linen, silk and wool and clothes were beautifully tailored with attention to detail and delicate stitching. Lacework was often incorporated into designs, as were pearls and other semi-precious stones.
McDougall said the location of the exhibition is a natural fit because, like Downton Abbey, the 55-room Toronto manor has been set up as an “interwar house” and many of the plot points of the series “actually occurred here in the history of the house.”
“We wanted to bring over the costumes so fans could see how they’re made and what their favourite costumes look like close up, but also so we could have a chance to invite fans of the show to have a look at the real Canadian history of the 1920s,” she explained.
The original 32-hectare Spadina House property was purchased in 1866 by businessman James Austin, a founder of the Toronto-Dominion Bank and president of Consumers Gas. After his death, his son Albert, wife Mary and their children moved into the house.
Their daughter Anna Kathleen Austin lived in the three-storey home until the early 1980s. She deeded the brick mansion, its furnishings and the remaining grounds to the City of Toronto for a museum.
Unlike the nobly born Earl of Grantham and his family, the Austins were business people, financiers and arts patrons, who were “incredibly successful Canadians,” said McDougall. “They worked their way up, but they ran in very aristocratic circles.”
That circle included the Eaton family of department store fame (Lady Eaton lived next door) and activities were similar to those of the Crawleys attending and hosting festive balls, hunting parties and garden teas.
Another well-heeled neighbour until he lost his fortune in the early 1920s _ was Sir Henry Pellatt, who had Casa Loma built on a large swath of land just west of the Austin property. The regal building is now a city-owned tourist attraction and special events facility.
McDougall said Spadina House also employed servants but nowhere near the number that keep Downton running smoothly.
“Unlike the big staff you see on ‘Downton Abbey,’ here there were two housemaids, one cook, one chauffeur and one gardener. That was the full-time permanent staff. But they would also bring in big staffs when they had parties,” typically caterers, extra gardeners and a laundress, she said.
“So sometimes the house would be bustling with servants like you see on ‘Downton.’ Sometimes it would be a little bit quieter.”
The upstairs-downstairs dynamic of the sprawling Yorkshire country house was very much in evidence in its non-aristocratic Toronto counterpart of the period, with similar formal etiquette and strict rules governing behaviour according to one’s social station.
While cooking staff like Daisy (Sophie McShera) and Mrs. Patmore (Lesley Nicol) are relegated to the basement of Downton, the kitchen at Spadina House is on the ground floor, flooded with light from big windows and replete with a gas stove.
“We have what we think of as Mrs. Patmore’s dream kitchen,” said McDougall. “There’s no more digging around with flame and smoke _ now you’ve got clean, efficient gas, which in the 1920s was a very big deal. So we’ve kind of got the kitchen of the future here.”
McDougall believes visitors to the exhibition, which runs March 11 to April 13 and costs $25 plus tax on weekdays and $30 plus tax on weekends, will find they get double the bang for their buck.
“Of course fans of the show are coming to see the costumes,” she said, “but I think one thing they’ll be surprised by is how much they also like the house.”
Follow (at)SherylUbelacker on Twitter.