Costume tour charms guests

Actress Maggie Smith (center) stars on Downton Abbey, a show known for its accurate costuming. (credit: Courtesy of Evian Tsai via Flickr) Actress Maggie Smith (center) stars on Downton Abbey, a show known for its accurate costuming. (credit: Courtesy of Evian Tsai via Flickr)

The way the event was advertised, one would have thought that costumes from the immensely popular British drama Downton Abbey would have been on display in the lobby of the Purnell Center for the Arts last Friday afternoon. Instead, it ended up being a tour of the costume shop and a commentary on both the drama school’s collection of historical clothing and on the clothing used in the BBC show, which — while a bit of a surprise to the 20–30 visitors who attended — was nonetheless fascinating.

The tour began with a short interview with the school’s costume design shop manager Ken Chu, who described his job and that of students and staff working in the School of Drama’s costume shop. He half-joked that his department is one of the busiest in the school, providing costumes for about 22 shows per year, which is a staggering number compared to the 10–12 shows per year produced by regional theater companies. “But everyone says that [they’re the busiest],” he said smiling.

Chu and Amanda Jenkins, the wardrobe supervisor and rentals manager, then led the group upstairs to the costume shop, where some of the school’s period dresses were on display. “Some of these dresses are from as early as 1870,” Chu said, pointing at a floral-pattern dress that was originally white, but has since faded and thinned like old parchment.

Chu and Jenkins were joined by costume staffers Marlene Speranza and Leslie Maxson, described by Chu as the staff tailor and draper, respectively. Jenkins then took the floor to talk about what everyone was actually there for: the costumes of Downton Abbey.

She pulled out two copies of what looked like a ragged, book-bound newspaper with miniscule type and expert drawings of extremely tall, turn-of-the-century-fashioned women. These were fashion magazines from around the era of the second season of Downton Abbey, around the beginning of World War I. The costumes in the show attempt to be true representations of how the wealthy “upstairs” people would have dressed at the time, Jenkins said.

In the first season, set in the late Edwardian era (the season opens with the sinking of the Titanic in 1912), the in-style look was slim and column-like — a “tunic/hobble-skirt look,” as Jenkins called it. Since women weren’t exactly industrial workers at the time, the dresses — although more comfortable than the corsets and voluptuous gowns of earlier eras — were still not made for quick movement. “They’re not called hobble-skirts for no reason,” Jenkins said.

As time progresses in the show, so does the wardrobe: In one episode, one of the younger female characters, Sybil, wears “harem pants,” much to the horror and surprise of some of the other characters (actress Maggie Smith’s character was not amused).

Jenkins, who often works with clothing rentals for film, noted that the show is very realistic about how often women changed their clothes in this period. Even wealthy families were not so rich as to have closets packed with hand-made dresses and gowns; thus, women would have a few choice morning and day dresses, and would dress again later in an evening gown. If one watches the wardrobe in the show carefully, one notices that characters reuse their gowns very often.

Speranza commented that, while the show is rather true to the past, the women’s hair is toned down in Downton Abbey from what it actually would have been like in the 1910s. The costumers also have to think about their audience, she said. “It would have been much more extreme, and pretty distracting, if they made the hair how it would have been at the time,” Speranza explained.

The Carnegie Mellon costume shop staff suspects that Downton Abbey’s third season will open with more Jazz Age-style costumes, since it will be set in 1920. Season three won’t begin airing until next year.