Shirley MacLaine as Martha Levinson | Carnival Films
One of the many things that the storied BBC/PBS series Downton Abbey did well was to dramatize the decline of the aristocracy and its way of life in England in early-to-mid 20th century. Many of the plot lines in the series play out amid concerns over keeping Downton running and keeping the support staff employed. There’s a great scene in Season 3 when Cora’s mother, Martha Levinson, played with aplomb by Shirley MacLaine, arrives from America and steps out of the car in a stunning fur-trimmed coat. It’s almost gauche, and hints at new wealth. The changing of the guard has begun.
It’s appropriate, then, that Dressing Downton: Changing Fashion for Changing Times, a touring exhibition of costumes and jewelry from the hit series, opens at Cheekwood Estate & Gardens at the same time that Cheekwood is unveiling its restoration of the Cheek Mansion. In some ways, according to Leslie Jones, Cheekwood vice president, museum affairs and curator of decorative arts, the decline of the aristocracy across the pond enabled the ascent of the American Country Place Era Estate in the States.
“When Downton ends, that’s when Cheekwood begins,” said Jones during a media preview of the exhibit. “So much was changing in the socioeconomic situation in Europe and particularly in the UK — the aristocracy was declining — and because of that decline, people like the Cheeks were able to build places like Cheekwood. The design of these grand homes (like Highclere Castle where Downton Abbey is set) and the lifestyle, the Americans wanted that so badly. So they went over and tried to buy it.”
Jones and Katelyn Bennett, Cheekwood curatorial assistant, have done an incredible job making this connection throughout the exhibition and the mansion. Many of the items in the home, some of them loaned back by the Cheek family for the restoration, can trace their provenance back to estate sales in England. Bennett has even included a blown-up reproduction of a 1929 shipping receipt in the final room of Dressing Downtown as part of a display that pairs production stills from the show with actual photos of the Cheek Family.
“I wanted to place the visitor in the context of understanding the Cheek story with the Downton story, so they could compare lifestyles and understand how all of this meshes together,” said Bennett. “After World War I, things are falling apart, and families are struggling to keep their estates running. That’s a recurring theme in Downton: how is this estate going to survive; how are you adopting to this new world? The Cheeks were of this new world — they amassed their fortune in 1928 — so they went over to England and they bought a lot of the architectural features more from these estates that were being torn down. They went over to England in the Spring of 1929 and went on a massive shopping spree. They visited Chatsworth House and that became an inspiration for Cheekwood.
“The loss of the British estate was the gain for the Cheek’s estate,” added Bennett.
Before this final room, visitors to Dressing Downton can enjoy 36 costumes from the first four seasons of the show, 33 in the upstairs galleries and three downstairs, worn by everyone from the Dowager Countess of Grantham (Maggie Smith) to Lady and Lord Grantham (Elizabeth McGovern and Hugh Bonneville) and their three children, Mary (Michele Dockery), Edith (Laura Carmichael) and Sybil (Jessica Brown Findlay). Fans’ hearts may break a little when they see Lady Sybil’s maternity dress or Matthew Crawley’s evening suit, but they’ll be thrilled at the variety of costumes and the intricacy of their designs. While the Dowager Countess’s dresses may represent the end of the Victorian Era, the bulk of the exhibit covers dress in the Edwardian Era to the 20s and ranges from “country tweeds and riding outfits; servants’ uniforms and footmen’s livery; to lavish evening attire crafted from sumptuous fabrics and decorated with intricate embroidery, lace and beading.”
Cheekwood is the second-to-last stop on a tour for Dressing Downton that started in 2015, appropriately, at the Biltmore in Asheville, North Carolina. It will be exhibited at Cheekwood through September 10 before making its way to the Lightner Museum in St. Augustine, Florida. While in Nashville, Cheekwood will host a number of accompanying programs and activities, including afternoon teas, Thursday Nights Out, Floral Arranging, Cloche Hat-Making and Jewelry Making, as well as several informative lectures. View more of these events on our website and purchase tickets to the exhibit.