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Well Worn

Elizabeth McGovern, the lady of the (fictional) House, shows us around a dazzling new exhibition at the Driehaus Museum.

BRIGHT AS DAY Season One, 1914
Worn by: Cora Crawley (Elizabeth McGovern)
Garment: Black frogging embroidery lends some refined elegance to this light-cream day dress worn by Cora at the village flower show. The lampshade silhouette overcoat is a precursor to the A-line design that’s still seen today.

WRAPPED UP Season Two, 1916
Worn by: Mary Crawley (Michelle Dockery)
Garment: The war years inspired tailored suits modeled after military uniforms. Mary donned this burgundy wool number while returning from London, where she met her ill-fated fiance, Richard Carlisle (Iain Glen). The ensemble includes a matching velvet hat and handbag, an accessory that grew increasingly popular with the rise of rail travel.  

FORMAL AFFAIR Season One, 1914
Worn by: Violet Crawley (Maggie Smith)
Garment: The color of the rich silk fabric matches the name of the owner of this elaborate day dress, a favorite frock of the dowager countess of Grantham throughout season one. Old-school Violet wasn’t about to give up on the corset or the formal touches that pervaded high Edwardian fashion, including the back bustle and bolero jacket. “The big corset-wearing was really in the first season,” McGovern said. “We still had some in the second season, but styles were changing.”

FLAPPER FLARE Season Four, 1923
Worn by: Cora Crawley
Garment: Cora sported this vintage number during Lady Rose MacClare’s presentation in London to the king and queen of England. The gray frock incorporates an original bodice from the ’20s embellished with diamanté stones and gold seed beads. The flapper-like drop waist, relaxed fit and simple train reflect a departure from the more structured, ceremonious styles seen in earlier seasons.

EAST MEETS WEST Season One, 1913
Worn by: Mary Crawley
Garment: Mary dazzled in this exotic evening gown worn at a Downton dinner honoring the arrival of her future husband, Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens). The net overlay peppered with sparkling sunbursts exudes an air of Orientalism, a longstanding trend in European fashion that reached its zenith in the early 20th century.

Downton Abbey star Elizabeth McGovern literally breathed a sigh of relief when the show’s early 20th century wardrobe no longer involved corsets.

“That was a happy day,” says the Evanston-born actress, who weathered plenty of costume changes as Lady Cora Crawley, Countess of Grantham, during a half-dozen seasons on the period drama. The sixth and final installment debuts Jan. 3 on PBS.

“When women became more active in the ’20s, we started throwing away these fashion obsessions that were really crippling us,” McGovern adds. “But these days, we’ve embraced Jimmy Choo shoes, so there’s always something.”

The evolving outfits featured on the transatlantic hit TV series are the focus of a new exhibit, Dressing Downton: Changing Fashion for Changing Times, which will open Feb. 9 at the Richard H. Driehaus Museum. Housed in a restored Gilded Age mansion known as the Marble Palace, the decorative arts institution provides the perfect setting for the meticulous designs—36 costumes worn by both upstairs and downstairs denizens of the aristocratic Crawley family’s fictional English-country estate.

Produced by London’s renowned Cosprop costume house, the outfits—many made of vintage material—trace a tumultuous time in early 20th century Britain. Corsets, high collars and other hallmarks of the Edwardian era gave way to the stripped-down, militaristic style of World War I and the Roaring Twenties’ freewheeling flappers.

For the upcoming final season that kicks off in 1925, McGovern says, “you’ll see a lot of that straight up-and-down shape, some shorter hemlines.”

The daughter of a former Northwestern University law professor, McGovern lived in Evanston until age 9, when her family moved to Los Angeles. These days, home is England, where she’s looking forward to a post-Downton life that includes more time to write and record music with her band, Sadie and the Hotheads. 

“I feel ready for it to end,” McGovern says about the beloved Emmy-winning series. “These characters have told their story. It’s the right time to stop.” Feb. 9-May 8, tickets $25, 40 E. Erie St., 312.482.8933