Court dresses featured on ‘Downton Abbey’ mirror those in IU’s Sage Collection

Full disclosure: I’m a huge fan of the PBS show “Downton Abbey.” Yes, I was just as disgruntled as everyone else at the way last year’s season ended and vowed not to watch this year … but I couldn’t help myself.

Carson’s eyebrows alone would make the show worth watching, but there are also the fabulous, lovely, gorgeous, fantastic clothes. Lady Edith, in particular, has garnered plenty of media buzz for how her Season Four wardrobe has signaled changes in her personal life.

Linnie Irwin Sweeney, left, and Elsie Irwin Sweeney in 1923.

Linnie Irwin Sweeney, left, and Elsie Irwin Sweeney in 1923.

That’s what excited me so much when I saw IU Sage Collection curator Kelly Richardson’s Facebook post about the similarity between the garments worn by Lady Cora and Lady Rose during the season finale’s court presentation scenes and three dresses held by the university.

“I loved seeing art imitate life on the show,” she told Art at IU via email. “Rose and Cora both wore the three feathers of the Court of St. James in their hair and had long trains on their dresses, just like Linnie Irwin Sweeney and Elsie Irwin Sweeney did upon their presentation to the King and Queen of England in 1923.”

The Sage Collection, part of the Department of Apparel Merchandising and Interior Design, received the Sweeney dresses from family friends. Designed by couturier Edward Molyneux, the dresses were featured in the 2011-2012 exhibition, “Fashioning a Legacy: The Irwin Sweeney Miller Family” at the IU Center for Art + Design.

The Sage Collection is also home to a dress worn three years later by Clementine Miller Tangeman, niece and granddaughter to Elsie and Linnie. Her shorter dress was made by famed couturiere Madeleine Vionnet, the first designer to fully utilize the bias cut.

'Downtown Abbey' stars Lady Cora and Lady Rose, who was presented in court on the popular TV show.

‘Downtown Abbey’ stars Lady Cora and Lady Rose, who was presented in court on the popular TV show.

So, just how did one decide what to wear when meeting the monarch?

“Formal, fashionable evening wear was required of those being presented. Historically, most hierarchical cultures required certain styles of clothing be worn while in the presence of the ruler, and regulations for court attire might vary according to the status of the person being presented,” Richardson said. “The women’s ensembles display the interplay between tradition, innovation and the modernity of the 20th century. The veiled, feathered headdresses and long trains, regulated traditions required by the court, coexist with their glittering dropped-waist dresses. The gowns worn by the Irwin Sweeney Miller women as well as Lady Crawley and Lady Rose on the show are the height of stylish evening wear, and feature the rising hemline of the 1920s, which forever changed women’s fashion.”

And the giant headdresses? Richardson said the court of King George V and Queen Mary required women wear a veiled tulle headpiece adorned with three white ostrich feathers arranged to feature a taller middle feather, symbolizing the Court of Saint James.

“Interestingly, the trains on the dresses at the Sage Collection do not detach, as trains often did,” Richardson said. “The lengths of cloth suspended from the shoulders are permanently stitched. This means that it’s very likely Linnie, Elsie and Clementine wore their dresses only once — other than maybe some show-and-tell back in Columbus, Indiana.”

The court presentation ritual was replaced by garden parties in the 1950s. The Queen now hosts at least three garden parties each year, which are attended by more than 30,000 guests.

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