On Writing

"Every fine story must leave in the mind of the sensitive reader an intangible residuum of pleasure, a cadence, a quality of voice that is exclusively the writer's own, individual, unique."
Willa Cather

Friday, April 10, 2015

Finery and Furnishings: Downton Abbey meets Biltmore

We three had been to “America’s Castle” the year before, but my daughter-in-law Pat Irelan of Portland, Oregon, had noticed it would be hosting a display of clothing from the immensely popular TV show this spring.  She and my granddaughter Molly Irelan, a graduate student in costume design at UCLA, were planning to re-visit the site mainly for Molly’s sake, though all three of us were huge fans of Downton Abbey.  They invited me to go with them again, an invitation I couldn’t refuse.

The previous year we had stayed at a hotel in Asheville, but this year we opted for the Biltmore Inn on the premises.  This gave us at least one perk, besides excellent service:  the convenience of an exclusive shuttle bus to cart us around not only to the house but also to other venues.  The weather couldn’t have been more perfect for our trip, spring-like and sunny.  The evening of our arrival, we had a light supper in the Library at the Inn, and after a comfortable night, set off via the shuttle for the house, where in an adjacent open-air café we had a breakfast of croissants, quiche and lots of hot coffee.
Inside the house, as we began to shuffle our way through the foyer, peering into the sunken garden room displaying masses of orchids, I wondered at the nature of our curiosity that drives us to gawk at sumptuousness.  Hundreds of people come to this site daily to see something they regard as worthy of the expense and trouble. But as Violet Lady Grantham says, “Nothing succeeds like excess.” 
I continued to think of this phenomenon as we
traversed the house and other venues on the property.

The first we saw of the much vaunted clothing collection was when we entered the formal dining room, craning our necks to see around and over the other visitors.  The articles of clothing fitted on mannequins were evening wear appropriate for typical dinners at the fictional Downton Abbey. A small sign board described the article displayed and also a photo was included of a scene from the show of actors wearing that particular suit or dress, a nicely informative touch. 

We three agreed that television didn’t do justice to the spotlighted close-ups of the clothes.  The evening gowns in particular, appropriately exhibited throughout the house in the more public  rooms, were stunning in the details of furbelows and beadwork.  Much research by the designers had gone into fashioning authentic styles with appropriate fabrics, even to using bits and pieces of original salvaged material to add verisimilitude.  The dress worn by Lady Grantham at court when she was presenting Lady Rose was outstanding in finest silk with sparkling beads and discreet tassels, set off by the requisite Prince of Wales ostrich feather headdress.

From the vast library and reading room that had models of day clothes, to the luxurious bedrooms with their displayed peignoirs and dressing gowns, the clothes fitting in perfectly as in the TV stately home.  Below stairs at Biltmore featured servants wear, including the housekeeper’s dress; housemaids uniforms; clothes for the kitchen staff; and livery for footmen.  The backdrop of this was indeed superb for the clothing display, and having taken a close look at the rooms last year we were able to focus almost exclusively on the costumes this year. 

I suppose we gawkers are fascinated by the outré, the unattainable that is represented by wealth and another age when such excesses were almost commonplace among the privileged, certainly in England, and also among American captains of industry.  Today, a few billionaires have magnificent homes, but I doubt they can match the Biltmore for pure exuberance of design and the magnificent accouterments so emblematic of that age.  But the clothing is a tribute to those on the staff of Downton Abbey, making real a seemingly unreal time for us plebeians. Truly it was a surfeit of finery in a highly appropriate setting, one that will not be matched in any of the other U. S. cities on the Downton Abbey clothing tour. 

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