PhilaU Design Center Displays 1920s Fashions at Downton Abbey Premiere Party

Sarah Moore (left), curator The Design Center at PhilaU, and Chelsea Lawler, graduate student in Fashion Apparel Studies, displayed 1920s fashions at the WHYY Downton Abbey preview event. Photo credit: jpg photography

Fabulous dresses that could have been worn by aristocratic British ladies in the 1920s, which are part of The Design Center’s historic collection, were displayed at the season three premiere party of Downton Abbey at WHHY in Philadelphia on Jan. 6.

The hit PBS show, which reached more than 17 million viewers last season, depicts the lives of the fictional aristocratic Crawley family and their servants in the early 1900s. To kick off the new season, WHYY, the local PBS member station, hosted an event for fans of the show, debuting the first episode of the new season and giving attendees a glimpse of life in 1920, the year in which season three starts.

Sarah Moore, curator of The Design Center at PhilaU, assembled an exhibit of Downton Abbey-inspired apparel and accessories for the premiere party.  The latest season, which takes place shortly after World War I, marks an important turning point in social conventions and culture, which are reflected in the fashions of that time.

“Women participating in the workforce while men were in the trenches changed the course of fashion,” Moore said. “Our selections from The Design Center’s historic fashion collection focused on the new looser, cylindrical silhouette that became popular in the 1920s. Hemlines were raised and corsets fell out of fashion for women of all classes, allowing freedom of movement for new Jazz Age dance crazes.”

The Design Center dresses selected for the exhibit reflected popular fashion trends of the time period. A black dress in hand-painted silk with tulle and burn-out velvet trim was chosen because of its “robe de style” silhouette, which was popularized by French designer Jeanne Lanvin in the 1920s, Moore said.

Two of the dresses featured Asian-inspired metallic woven designs that also were popular during the time period, including a green dress made of silk satin with a metallic jacquard woven pattern and chiffon inset at the hem. A pink dress made of silk velvet with Asian-inspired panels under the arms also indicates that some women were reluctant to embrace the era’s broader trends and culture. “The sleeves and modest inset at the neckline suggest this look was for a customer who wasn’t ready to adapt to the daring new fashions of the decade,” Moore said.

While very fashionable for the time, none of the dresses Moore selected for the exhibit have designer labels. “During the time period, it was typical for upper-class women to work with their local dressmaker to create fashionable custom garments,” Moore said. “For example, Sybil, the youngest daughter in Downton Abbey, has her dressmaker create avant-garde bloomer pants in the first season of the show.”

View the video below, courtesy of WHYY, to hear Moore talk about the fashion trends of the period and a few of the garments she selected for the exhibit.

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