Social History of Tea

Dressing for Downton: “Yes, Milady. Spadina House Awaits Your Visit”


Toronto’s Spadina House plays host to Downton Abbey’s Costumes


Built in 1866, Spadina House sits on 5 acres atop the Davenport brow.

Season 4 of Downton Abbey has just ended and filming of Season 5 has begun, although in North America we will have to wait a year to view it. For those of us in Toronto suffering withdrawal from the series, it’s wonderful to know that we can indulge ourselves during the hiatus with an up-close look at Downton costumes.

“Dressing for Downton” is an exhibit of 20 mostly Edwardian costumes from seasons 1, 2 and 3, on loan from Cosprop in London UK. It will be on view from March 11th – April 14th, 2014 at Spadina House, a 55 room mansion built in 1866 and occupied by the Austin family for 100 years. It was bequeathed to the City of Toronto in the 1980’s. Positioned on the brow of the Davenport hill, it commands a view of the city to the south.

The exhibit is only in town for one month. The tour with tea sold out almost immediately

Spadina is much smaller than Downton Abbey (Highclere Castle) or its lands, but it gives an excellent view to the lifestyle during a parallel, but non-fiction period. While not of the aristocracy, the Austin family possessed great wealth and hobnobbed socially with visiting royals and Toronto’s privileged class.

The main foyer of Spadina House with bright sun splashing through the leaded lights

The self-guided tour of the costumes begins on the third floor of the house, the servants’ quarters, which only recently has been open to the public. It was somehow reassuring to see that the wallpaper was the original and the plaster had a grey patina from decades of soot and temperature changes. A very relaxed viewing allowed us to take pictures (without flash) and take advantage of the lovely natural light in most of the rooms.

Empty boxes from Cosprop. Costumes will be sent back to London mid-April


Downton’s Uniforms

It was tempting to reach out and touch the embroidery, lace and fabrication of many of the costumes. Clearly, every effort had been made to make these costumes historically authentic. The craftsmanship was exquisite. If I had my fashion career to do over I would work at Cosprop.

The uniforms of Downton Abbey in the costume studio atelier of Spadina House
One of my favourite Downton characters, Mrs. Hughes is rock solid & this costume from the early seasons reflects her status below and above stairs
Mrs. Hughes' keys, an enormous responsibility
This apron was worn by Anna Smith (later Mrs. Bates) in season 1. She has now advanced through the ranks to become a lady's maid.
Lady Sybil, the daughter with the social conscience. When Downton was converted to a convalescent hospital, she nursed the maimed and broken spirits of young men who were casualties of WWI.


Day Wear

The entrance banner shows Lady Grantham's (Cora) iconic summer suit, used in so many promotional posters from the 1st season
Lady Grantham's hat and iconic black and white summer linen suit, corsets in the heat...
Isobel Crawley's no nonsense suit. I'm sympathetic to her pragmatic nature and sense of social justice
Lady Sybil's day suit. Beautiful details in the lace collar and tasseled waist
The men were represented. Lord Grantham is still wearing this linen suit in Season 4. Right: Matthew Crawley's drab but practical suit.



In the style of Queen Mary, Violet, The Dowager Countess dresses for dinner
Late Edwardian evening. Lady Sybil, Lady Edith and Lady Grantham

In a recent interview Laura Carmichael, who plays Lady Edith said “I love the dresses in Season 4!! They are far more risqué which is fun & they are more comfy. I do still have a soft spot for the more Edwardian dresses though. They seem romantic in a different way.”

Rich garnet is a favourite colour for Downton evening dresses. They are seen frequently from Season 2 onwards
More gorgeous garnet! Lady Mary's gown


Toronto and the Austins

Throughout the rest of the house, the museum has successfully integrated stories of the Austin family that mirror the romantic and sometimes tragic world of the Crawleys. Spadina House’s ample rooms were often used for entertaining large numbers of guests for dinners and parties. Tragedy touched the Austin family when son Bertie died of tuberculosis at the young age of 24. The Austins had a son who enlisted in the Great War and returned shell-shocked. A daughter served as a nurse.

Historic garments from the museum's archives, reflecting the Edwardian and Jazz Age. Isobel and Cora's costumes on the far right
In this order: Shellfish, Soup, Fish, Main, Salad, Dessert, Fruit
Large silver teapot on the right saves the server any strain as it has a levered tipping mechanism. Porcelain biscuit jars to the right and left of the flower arrangement
The every day tea tins of Edwardian times in Spadina House kitchen cupboard
A more comfortable setting for afternoon tea. Spadina House museum has a full time gardener who looks after the grounds and interior plants.
The exhibit is only in town for one month. The "tour with tea" sold out almost immediately

I am unabashedly a ‘Downton’ fan, primarily because the production values are so high. Their historical adviser, Alistair Bruce, provides cast and crew with accurate advice on everything from decorum, protocol, love and even how to properly pour tea. In the meantime, I will be watching interviews with the cast and looking out for their tweets as Season 5 has begun taping, but this exhibit was the interim fix I needed. Here is a wonderful video with interviews and behind the scenes segments with the cast and crew.

For my US friends there is also an exhibit of other Downton Abbey costumes at Delaware’s Winterthur Museum, formerly the Dupont mansion and grounds, running now until January 4th, 2015.

Visit Spadina Museum’s website soon to book your timed visit.  DRESSING FOR DOWNTON, March 11th – April 14th, 2014 (only one month). Get your tickets soon as it is selling fast. The tea and tour combo is sold out!