The Costumes: The True Stars of PBSs Downton Abbey

We asked frequent PieceWork contributor, Kristine Byrnes, to tell us more about her wonderful tour of the costumes from Downton Abbey at Winterthur Museum.


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Beaded tabard worn by Rose; one of the few costumes that is vintage in its entirety. Photograph courtesy of Winterthur Museum, Garden and Library, Wilmington, Delaware. Photograph by James Schneck.


The snow appeared out of nowhere on my way to the press preview for the exhibition Costuming Downton Abbey at Winterthur Museum, near Wilmington, Delaware. One minute the sky was slightly overcast; the next, the road was barely visible. It didn’t matter. Nothing could keep me from my rendezvous with the true stars of the magnificent PBS series Downton Abbey: the costumes.


After curators explained the challenges of organizing such a unique exhibition, we were escorted to the gallery and transported back in time to life on a country estate in the early part of the twentieth century. Winterthur, a real-life American estate owned by a branch of the DuPonts, is used to provide a contrast to the fictional home of the Crawley family.


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  Costumes worn at the afternoon garden party scene, during which the start of the Great War (World War I; 1914–1918) was announced. Photograph courtesy of Winterthur Museum, Garden and Library, Wilmington, Delaware. Photograph by James Schneck.

The costumes are arranged by time of day. We started out in the early-morning kitchen with the ladies’ maids and a wall of call bells. Downton’s system is compared to the more modern electric one used at Winterthur, and the rest of the exhibition follows this pattern of comparing the lifestyle shown on television, a representation of a British estate, with a real-life American estate of the same vintage.


Seeing the costumes is as exciting—perhaps even more so—than seeing a celebrity in person. Details not visible on the screen can be examined up close, and the exhibition provides a wealth of information on the origin and construction of the garments. Large photographs of scenes and quotes from key moments in the show lend context to the clothes and made me feel as if I had stepped into the show’s sets.


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Kristine Byrnes at Winterthur's Downton Abbey exhibition. Photograph by Maurice Marietti.

Any Downton Abbey fans within driving distance of Delaware should not miss this exhibition! But hurry: it closes on January 4. Click here for tickets. And you can read more about the exhibition in my article, “Costuming Downton Abbey: A Special Exhibition at Winterthur.” It’s one of several articles and 25 projects inspired by the amazing show featured in PieceWork’s special issue The Unofficial Downton Abbey Knits, which is now available.




Kristine Byrnes is a knitter and spinner whose designs have been published in PieceWork, Knitscene, and Knitty. She lives on a small farm in central New Jersey with her husband, three sons, and a flock of Coopworth sheep. She collects vintage knitting patterns and books, which provide inspiration for her designs. Downton Abbey is one of her obsessions.