I t wasn’t much to look at. A line of crates basking in the glow of off-kilter studio lights doesn’t seem like much, but what they contained had the entire staff ecstatic.
A crowd gathered as two workers removed the bolts that secured the face of crate 21. Slowly, as if to intensify the anticipation, the large plywood face was pulled aside revealing a stunning evening gown plucked straight out of PBS’ popular period television series “Downton Abbey.”
After a few moments of admiration, white-gloved workers slid the mannequin onto a dolly and wheeled it off to be positioned among the vignettes that fill the Lightner Museum’s Grand Ballroom.
The moment was a direct result of two years of preparation by the staff, who have been quietly toiling away to ready the museum for the popular “Dressing Downton” exhibit.
Each crate opened brought a renewed sense of awe, but there was no time to waste. There were over 30 costumes to be uncrated and meticulously staged before the day was done, and the removal of each costume had to be supervised by one person, Nancy Lawson, costume specialist and co-curator of “Dressing Downton.”
Lawson has shoulder-length blonde hair and thick-rimmed glasses. She carries herself with the confidence commensurate with her 30-plus years of Broadway, film and costuming experience.
Her passion and respect for the costumes was evident in the way she handled them. She was constantly looking for anything that could snag them during transport, and had many of her finds taped over so as to not risk damaging the clothes.
She would often educate her assistants on proper terminology and the uses of various items of clothing, such as when she described how the English refer to undergarments as underpinnings.
Prior to appearing in a video interview, she expressed her frustrations at being caught off-guard at the end of a long day and without her makeup. Despite this, Lawson came alive when extolling the virtues of the fine craftsmanship that has been all but lost in today’s mass-produced world.
“These costumes aren’t made like the kind of costumes that you saw in high school or college,” she says. “They’re made like real clothes. … It’s the kind of workmanship that you don’t see nowadays. A huge percentage of the audience for this exhibition will have never seen this kind of workmanship before.”
Each garment was held to the highest standards of historical accuracy, going so far as to incorporate authentic materials in the design.
“There are a lot of dresses in this exhibition that have panels that are original to the period and a couple of them are originals,” Lawson says.
If clothing isn’t your passion, there are plenty of other pieces in the exhibit that may catch your interest. The Lightner Museum has included many items from its collection in the vignettes, some of which have not been on display in over 50 years, Barry Myers, the museum’s curator, says.
“The costumes are wonderful, but it’s really the museum’s collection that is my passion, and I’m so happy to have an excuse to get it all out,” he says. “I hope that they see the Lightner in all of its glory with not only the costumes here, but also being able to realize that this building, OVERSET FOLLOWS:during its heyday, was [operating] at the same time period that ‘Downton Abbey’ takes place.”
Lawson agrees, adding that the museum’s ambiance will only enhance the exhibit.
“They have a huge collection of chairs and tables and lamps and rugs and all kinds of things of the period,” she says. “So when you see these costumes, they won’t be in that very modern square box. … It works in this very environmental environment.”
Lawson and Myers tell visitors to enjoy the exhibit and spend plenty of time digesting each vignette.
“I hope they [visitors] get to spend a few extra hours with their beloved friends from this phenomenal show and that they get to see what was only seen on set,” Lawson says. “It’s exciting to see what these people saw every single day. They got to wear these beautiful costumes.”
The hope is that these costumes will help bring a piece of history to life.
“This show doesn’t cover hundreds of years, this covers a decade and a half, but during that short period of time this world changed forever,” Lawson says. “This wasn’t just another war. This wasn’t just another invention. This was the Industrial Revolution. This was World War I — the war that was supposed to end all wars, but, of course, it didn’t. It changed the world forever. … And these characters all changed forever from what happened in this very short period of time.”
Clothing, Lawson says, is something that can bring the past to life and help people view history anew.
“This isn’t fine art, this isn’t a painting. This is something you can really relate to. We all put on clothing.”