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Winterthur exhibit offers close-up look at costumes from hit television drama "Downton Abbey"

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WILMINGTON, Del. - A new exhibit of costumes from the hit British television drama "Downton Abbey" at the Winterthur Museum could turn out to be the most popular in the history of the former du Pont family country estate.

The exhibit, which opens Saturday and runs through January 2015, will offer visitors a firsthand look at the design and creation of the period fashions that are a focal point of the television show, in the context of comparing country house life in Britain and the United States.

Museum director David Roselle said Wednesday that advance ticket sales are strong, and 11,000 tickets have been reserved for bus tours alone.

"I believe it will be the largest attendance for an exhibit in Winterthur's history," said Roselle, who came up with idea for the exhibit, seeing an opportunity to seize upon the popularity of the television show while giving visitors a comparative look at life at the fictional British estate and at its real-life American counterpart.

Winterthur officials worked tirelessly to turn Roselle's idea into reality, taking advantage of an indirect connection between Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes and Winterthur director of museum affairs Tom Savage. Savage knew a former associate of Fellowes and was able to connect with Fellowes in New York City last year. Fellowes, in turn, worked with the show's production company, Carnival Films, to help bring the exhibit to Winterthur, which will be its sole venue.

"Julian Fellowes' advocacy for this exhibit has been a great help," said Chris Strand, Winterthur's director of garden and estate.

Winterthur is renting 40 Downton Abbey costumes, most of which are owned by Cosprop Ltd. in London, one of the world's largest theatrical costumers. Carnival Films also is providing some of the costumes, including the infamous harem pants worn by Lady Sybil, the engagement dress worn by Lady Mary, and Lady Edith's wedding dress.

"Getting the costumes was the easiest part," said co-curator Amy Marks Delaney, who found that securing the rights to intellectual property, including photos and script excerpts that serve as backdrops to the costumes, far more difficult. Sculpting museum-quality mannequins to properly fit the costumes also required time-consuming work by Winterthur staff.

In conjunction with the exhibit, Winterthur is offering a series of lectures, workshops and other events, including afternoon teas and English brunches. Those interested in a truly behind-the-scenes look at post-Edwardian fashion can take in a May 15 lunchtime lecture on "Downton Undressed: Underwear and the Fashionable Ideal in the Teens and Twenties."

The exhibit is organized chronologically, with visitors moving from morning to night, and provides a look at life both upstairs and downstairs at a British country estate.

"There was a true regime about what was worn at different times of day," explained Jeff Groff, director of public programs for Winterthur.

The exhibit opens with three servant costumes displayed in front of a working re-creation of the wall of brass bells used to summon help at the Yorkshire estate and concludes with examples of the evening finery worn by the Earl and Countess of Grantham and other members of the fictional Crawley family. In between are a host of other fashion statements, including garden dresses, cricket uniforms, walking and hunting tweeds, and housemaids' aprons.

To complement the Downton Abbey costumes, Winterthur brought out several holdings from its own collection, including a well-worn dinner jacket that Winterthur founder Henry Francis du Pont bought from his favourite Savile Row tailor, Henry Poole & Co., and his wife's custom-made leather travel case.

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