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Visiting the 1900s

A trip to Winterthur Estate in the United States, which is currently hosting an exhibition of costumes from the cult British period drama, Downton Abbey, shows Meher Castelino how flapper dresses and asymmetric hemlines, featured in the series, have inspired designers on the global fashion scene

For me, till recently the name DuPont meant only one thing — lycra. The American chemical company developed this wonder fibre, which helps clothes mould your body, and has now become an integral part of everyone’s life.

The costumes of the serial span several time periods in England, starting from 1912 and ending at 1922-23
The costumes of the serial span several time periods in England, starting from 1912 and ending at 1922-23

But during my recent visit to the USA, I discovered Winterthur, the estate that is backed by the genealogy and rich history of the du Pont family. Winterthur was founded by Henry Francis du Pont (1880-1969), a descendent of Pierre Samuel du Pont de Nemours and a lover of art, culture and nature.

The European edition of GQ magazine had a special feature on menswear from Downton Abbey
The European edition of GQ magazine had a special feature on menswear from Downton Abbey

It is said that no American family has made such a significant impact on a single state longer than the du Ponts of Delaware, French immigrants who arrived in January 1800 and created the globally-renowned DuPont Company.

The Winterthur estate, spread over 1,000 acres, is a premier museum of American art full of history as well as 60 acres of natural gardens. Besides that, there are the Enchanted Woods for children, the Azalea Woods, an eight-acre wonderland, large open meadows and rambling forests.

The award-winning serial’s global success has inspired elegant styles of Edwardian Britain on the global fashion scene.  PICS/MEHER CASTELINO
The award-winning serial’s global success has inspired elegant styles of Edwardian Britain on the global fashion scene. PICS/MEHER CASTELINO

A 30-minute tram tour through the estate is like a journey through wonderland where century-old trees and flowers from around the world are carefully nurtured. The 175-room mansion houses some of the most fabulous exhibits such as the American Tin Ware line, porcelain, ceramic, vintage costumes, jewellery, paintings, artefacts, textiles, chairs and clocks.

The costumes for the serial were designed by award-winning designer, Caroline McCall
The costumes for the serial were designed by award-winning designer, Caroline McCall

The abode of Downton Abbey costumes
The museum is now attracting people in large numbers as it is hosting an exhibition that has on display 40 costumes from the hit British serial Downton Abbey. The exhibition, which started from March 1 this year, will continue till January 4, 2015. The costumes of the popular British period drama television serial are displayed to contrast with the clothes worn in the first half of the 20th century in America. It was a feast for the eyes to see the vintage creations of an era long gone by.

A selection of evening gowns from the exhibit
A selection of evening gowns from the exhibit 

Downton Abbey revolves around the fictional life of Earl and Countess of Grantham. The vintage look of the costumes, created by award-winning designer Caroline McCall, was a delight to behold upfront away from the small TV screen. The fictional but historically accurate British country costumes and the real-life American version of the same era in Winterthur show an interesting contrast. The style reveals intricately executed lace, pleating and beading.

Top couture labels such as Alberta Ferretti, Elie Saab, Louis Vuitton, Carolina Herrera, Blugirl and Bluemarine have been inspired by the serial for their collections
Top couture labels such as Alberta Ferretti, Elie Saab, Louis Vuitton, Carolina Herrera, Blugirl and Bluemarine have been inspired by the serial for their collections

Shot against the backdrop of the Highclere Castle owned by Earl and Countess of Carnarvon, the costumes of the serial span several time periods in England for which McCall did extensive research and referred to photos and paintings from 1922-23.

Muse of many designers
The award-winning serial’s global success has inspired elegant styles of Edwardian Britain on the worldwide fashion scene. The serial and costumes have had such an overpowering impact that many designers’ fashion shows such as Ralph Lauren’s Fall/Winter 2012 show featured fitted checked trousers and narrow blazers.

In 2013, top couture labels such as Alberta Ferretti, Elie Saab, Louis Vuitton, Carolina Herrera, Blugirl and Bluemarine along with several e-commerce sites and stores were inspired by the serial for their collections. Hair and make-up too followed the Downton Abbey trend. Beaded headpieces by Nicole Richie for House of Harlow and flapper dresses were
sellouts.

Accessories such as hats, long silk gloves, pearls and shrugs inspired by the 1900’s look are now in great demand along with feminine garden party dresses. The European GQ had a special feature in their December 2012 edition on men’s wear from Downton Abbey while magazines around the world promoted the look from
the serial.

The lady behind it all
Dressing the 20 main characters for the show was no mean feat for McCall, who has earlier designed for Hollywood top grossers such as Snatch (2000), the Constant Gardener (2005) and Robin Hood (2010). For the tele-series, she effortlessly moved from creating pretty party dresses and sophisticated gowns, to tailcoat tuxedos, luxurious fur collared and cuffed coats, bridal wear, hunting attire, cricket and tennis gear as well as uniforms for the maids, house help, cooks and butlers.

She dressed each character as their role and personality changed. When the ladies of the TV series moved from one suitor to the next, the costumes appropriately matched the situation.

The serial starts in 1912 with Season 4 moving into 1922-23. McCall observed that it was in 1926 that the flapper look turned into a trend but the early 1920s had designers like Lanvin, Chanel and Madeline Vionnet who used global trends as inspirations.

For one of the scenes McCall used a few original dresses of that era and reworked them to suit the mood of the series.

Dressing the divas
Dressing the top screen divas such as Oscar-winner Shirley MacLaine and the amazing Maggie Smith must have been an experience to cherish. Dress silhouettes moved from wasp waist to waist less evening wear of the 1920s.

In season one, which spans from 1912-14, characters sported turn-of-the-century vintage dresses which had defined waists created by corsets and embroidery with net over satin or silk.

The 1919 look reveals the asymmetric hemline which was loose but with bound breasts and a girdle to cinch the waist, thus pointing to the start of a boyish look.

For Shirley MacLaine it was the rectangular-shaped dress, more like a kaftan with embellished sides, to show her more flamboyant character of American origin. Maggie Smith who plays the dowager had a look that featured the hourglass shape with a bustle at the back and a “V” shape in front to give the illusion of a smaller waist.

Sweet memories
For die-hard fans of Downton Abbey the souvenir shop adjoining the exhibits has everything from the serial that one could take home and cherish. Jewellery, gloves, hairbands, coats, kerchiefs, books, hats, and even a magnet with WC on it! Many predict that Season Five will be the finale of this fashionable, romantic but emotionally charged serial. But loyal viewers are keeping their fingers crossed for more fashion and drama.

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