By Alan Burke
---- — PEABODY — You don’t have to be introduced to Lord and Lady Grantham of “Downton Abbey” in order to know they are part of early 20th century Britain’s version of the 1 percent, the wealthy class. You can tell just by looking, by noticing how they behave, how they speak and, more importantly, how they dress.
In that era, more so than our own, you were what you wore. For most, clothes were expensive items limiting your choices. If you had a wardrobe large enough that you could change during the day, that was a clear signal of an exalted status. Such people, notes Heather Leavell, curator of the Peabody Historical Society, “dressed for dinner.”
The producers of “Downton Abbey,” well aware of the significance of clothes, spared little expense in creating fabulous costumes for the cast, particularly the female members, to wear. But then, these are indeed costumes, re-creations.
If you’d rather look at the real thing, you needn’t head for England. Instead, go downtown to the Historical Society’s General Gideon Foster House and Cassidy Art Museum on Washington Street, which are offering a new summer exhibit, “Downton Abbey Style, 1900 to 1925, Women’s, Men’s and Children’s Wear.”
The clothes are genuine — not made for TV. They are the actual items worn, most often by Peabody residents, going back over 100 years.
“Each gallery represents a different era,” says Leavell. So, the togs, artfully mounted on mannequins, match the styles seen on the popular television show, which covers a period from 1914 to the 1920s, as well as on “Mr. Selfridge,” another PBS program about the American tycoon who founded Selfridge’s department store in London in 1909, and the new film version of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby.”
“The Society has a large collection,” says Leavell. All of the historical clothing was donated by local residents. She salutes volunteer Bonnie DeLorenzo for helping to keep them intact, stored and cataloged.
Thus, the exhibit reveals the evolution of styles reflecting a world moving from the frivolity of the Edwardian era, through the brutality of World War I to the freedom and rebellion of the Jazz Age. The outfits also signal the bonds of class with the elaborate dresses of well-to-do Peabody matrons contrasted with a maid’s uniform. Also displayed are work clothes, wedding gowns, kids’ outfits, hats and the ultimate Victorian secret, underwear.
In the early 20th century, notes curator Lyn FitzGerald, “the undergarment shaped the body.” It wasn’t always comfortable, but it could look fabulous. Somewhere beneath all those layers of clothes were women who, at various times, saw their bottoms pushed back and tops pushed forward, fronts transformed into “monobosoms” (“like a rack,” she explains) and “dropped waists” revealing the slinky figure of the flapper.
“We are showing some menswear, too,” Leavell adds, including a World War I uniform.
It’s not an accident that clothes once worn in Peabody reflect what’s seen on “Downton Abbey.” Both American and British styles of that era were heavily influenced by fashions developed in Paris, according to the curators.
A lady’s duster, on the other hand, marks technological change; the coverall was worn by those driving newfangled automobiles over dirt roads on the outskirts of Peabody, their horseless carriages barreling past pig farms and forests. As the name indicates, it’s an outfit designed to protect the wearer from all the dust.
In the aftermath of the war, when women were often introduced to what had been strictly men’s work, their styles are decidedly freer, enabling them to play tennis, swim and ride bicycles.
Programs like “Downton Abbey” are admired as much for their settings — including costumes — as the stories they tell. Leavell expects a lot of people would like to know more.
“And if you are a fan of these shows, now you can come and see what the clothes really looked like,” she says.
The museum is open Tuesday to Friday, 10 to 3 p.m., and the first and third Sunday of every month, noon to 3 p.m. Admission is free. The museum is at 33 and 35 Washington St. in Peabody. For more information, call 978-531-0805 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.