If you’re anything like me, it always seems to be the attractions that are close by that I never get around to visiting. For years I’ve wanted to visit Winterthur and for years I just never got around to it. Funny how that works out. Fast forward to the announcement last year that Winterthur would have a special exhibit of costumes from the television show Downton Abbey. Then all of sudden, I made time to go to Winterthur. Funny how that works out.
So with my partner in crime for the Downton Abbey exhibit — in this case, my mother — we headed down to Delaware on a Friday morning to indulge in the dress of the English wealthy being exhibited in an American mansion.
The Winterthur property is quite impressive. For those unfamiliar, Winterthur was the estate of Henry Francis DuPont, a wealthy antiques collector. The parking lot and visitor center are set far off the road and after you pick up your tickets at the visitor center, you take a short bus ride over to the mansion. You can, of course, opt for the tram tour that goes through the gardens. Unfortunately as there isn’t much in bloom yet and there was a chilly rain, we opted to skip the garden tram. The museum had lots of people assisting, giving directions and generally guiding you throughout the property.
The Downton Abbey exhibit, which was clearly the big draw for everyone there, was small but nice. The exhibit gives you a chance to get quite close to the clothes and see all the details: from hand beading to the odd stain and to minor rips and tears. There are video clips projected above you and excerpts from the scripts on the walls which offers a neat effect. There are also a few small “interactive” pieces, like a chance to ring one of those famous bells that are mounted Downstairs. What struck me the most about the exhibit was how authentic the clothes look. On the mannequins they looked not like costumes but like authentic vintage finds from the 1910s. But when on the actors and on film, the clothes come alive.
Parts of the exhibit are confusing. There are large scale photos behind many of the costumes and you find yourself trying to pick out the costume in the photo. Only, many times, this isn’t the case; the costume isn’t in the photo. Instead you have to look to the floor for a photo of the costume on set and on an actor. Also, not all of the costumes offered descriptions. I found the descriptions with quotes from the costume designer from Downton Abbey to be particularly interesting and wished they all had such detailed information. Winterthur tried very hard to offer a real life American parallel to Downton Abbey. To do so they incorporated collectibles and quotes from Winterthur, when it was a working household. It makes sense but I found it distracting.
At half-past the hour, Winterthur offer 45 minute long tours of the mansion. We had an informative tour guide and the tour shows you a number of rooms in the mansion. Unfortunately, most of the rooms are cordoned off and the rooms are small, as is typical with old homes, so you get cozy with the other nine people on the tour as you squeeze in. The house tour is definitely worth taking if you’re already there for the Downton Abbey costumes exhibit.
Fans of Downton Abbey will no doubt make time in their busy schedules to get out to Winterthur for the exhibit. As long as you go with the right expectations, you won’t be disappointed. But do what I didn’t and wait for the garden to come into full bloom. Something tells me you won’t regret it!