As many wait patiently for the big screen return of the much beloved series Downton Abbey, the Sippican Woman’s Club enjoyed a walk down Masterpiece memory lane during their September 13 monthly meeting. The guest speaker would take the group on a virtual trip to the stately home by way of her deep appreciation for period clothing and interest in all things vintage.
On the theme of fashion as seen in the TV series and soon in movie theaters, Karen Antonwicz is an expert. She earned her master’s degree in textiles and fashion merchandizing with a concentration in historic clothing from the University of Rhode Island. She has also owned a vintage clothing store, taught in various college settings, and has given innumerable lectures on the subject of period clothing.
But nothing seems to strike her fancy more than when she has the opportunity to talk about fashion as it relates to that grand show aired on PBS, Downton Abbey. In the five seasons the drama aired on TV, Antonwicz found all the things she loves the most – vintage clothing, antique furnishings, and, oh yes, juicy drama.
Antonwicz’s presentation did feature a discussion about women’s clothing from the late 1800’s through WWI, but she also led the audience romping through those five seasons the Crawley family graced TV screens using video clips. Club members were guided from one glorious room to the next and through every outrageous event to the next when, all the while, the ladies of the estate never had a hair out of place.
Antonwicz explained how the evil corset scaffolded those fashions popularized by the unnatural but highly regarded look of the Gibson girls. The female figure was idealized the most when the waist was cinched by tightly held bone stays, which also had the effect of making the bosom tilt forward into a “mono-bosom” while pushing back the rear-end. In profile, the women resembled the letter “S”.
Over time, fashions turned away from the impossible layers of the Edwardian and Victorian styles. Waistlines, like the empire waist, became more fluid like the dropped waist. Hemlines rose from sweeping the floors to the tops of shoes to just below the knee. And while heavy clothing faded out, fabrics, colors, and design options increased.
But before we completely leave behind those complicated articles of clothing, it’s interesting to note that because getting dressed was so difficult, the well-heeled lady of privilege needed a maid to help her dress. First, there were the drawers and chemise worn against the body, followed by the corset. Over this went the corset cover, and then the dress itself. “Corsets and dresses were never laundered,” said Antonwicz, “but underclothing was.”
One can only imagine what a bathroom call must have required.
Downton Abbey’s cast of characters donned fabulous articles of clothing that left viewers in awe. As Antonwicz pointed out in the stills and video clips from the show, the younger women were the first to embrace the changing designs. It is later in the series that we find the Dowager dispensing with her bird-plumaged hats for more sedate choices – much later.
Antonwicz is not only thoroughly versed in fashion and all its trends, she is a natural entertainer, making her material and subject matter less like a presentation and more like a show in itself. In spite of struggling with modern technology that several times failed to cooperate that afternoon, Antonwicz’s good humor and promise that the upcoming video clip “will be worth the wait” averted any awkwardness. The audience was willing to wait for the next slice of Downton Abbey to be served before their eyes to once again be transported by motorcar to an imagined castle wearing silk velvet and silver beads as the butler greeted us at the door saying, “Good afternoon, my Lady.” Oh, Carson, how we’ve missed you…
For more information about Antonwicz’s presentations, visit www.spiritsoffashion.net. The Sippican Woman’s Club meets monthly every second Friday. For more information go to www.SippicanWomansClub.org, or call Jeannie Lake at 508-748-0619.
By Marilou Newell