You don’t have to be introduced to Lord and Lady Grantham of “Downton Abbey” 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, 1900-1925, 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,” Leavell said. 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,” Leavell said.
All of the historical clothing was donated by local residents. She salutes volunteer Bonnie DeLorenzo for helping keep them intact, stored and cataloged.