Dressing Downton: Changing Fashion for Changing Times
There are many striking similarities between the Biltmore Estate, the largest home in America, and the amazing Highclere Castle which becomes Downton Abbey. The exhibit is throughout the Biltmore House with the clothing of 1912- early 1920s displayed in appropriate rooms. Placards describe the garment with a photo of who wore it for which occasion, then impart the social and economic circumstances that surrounded that particular garment. It was very interesting.
Some of the highlights for me, aside from seeing the elegant fashions, were the surprising things. Many of the gowns are constructed in panels, and often the beading or other craft work is on one panel. This allows the panel to be removed, stitched onto another garment and worn again. The design was inspired by the shortage of materials during World War I.
Golfers would enjoy seeing the Plus 4s. These are nothing like Paine Stewart’s wardrobe of bright colored nickers he called Plus 4s. These are good woolen or tweed dress pants. They have a sharp press down the center, a matching suit coat, and a wide sharp cuff. However, the cuff is midcalf. Long socks and short boots complete the outfit. It was designed for shooting, surveying the property, or anywhere one might encounter mud or wet grass. Only the country gentlemen could wear them, and they were only worn on the estate. Like maids’ white aprons.
The Downstairs is just as interesting to learn which servant wears livery, which wears white tie, and who are considered to be the peacocks of the estate. I was sad to learn poor Daisy is the lowest on the social stratus of the downstairs, which is why she has only one dress and a faded apron. Downton Abbey films all their Downstairs scenes off the set of Highclere and on a stage set. The stage setting looks remarkably like the Downstairs of the Biltmore House. I wasn’t at all surprised to see Mrs. Patmore’s dress standing in the kitchen. The large laundry room of the Biltmore for washing clothes and airing secrets belongs on the Downton set.
The Biltmore is always a wonderful place to visit anytime of year with the gardens, the winery and farm and 8,000 beautiful acres and views of the Blue Ridge. But visiting a period in history through the fashions of Downton Abbey was very special. It’s a fair view also of the life of the Vanderbilts. My research file just expanded.