“Downton Abbey” fans who can’t wait for the Jan. 5 return of the PBS Masterpiece Classic can visit the Southampton Historical Museum for a taste of the era, starting on Saturday. “Downton Abbey Style In Southampton: 1900 to 1920” explores the village’s Gilded Age with an installation of women’s clothing, period furniture, dinnerware, vintage photographs, and more.
Emma Ballou, curator and registrar, was wearing another hat when she paused to conduct a preview tour. Ms. Ballou was painting a mural of Villa Mille Fiore, the Alfred Boardman estate from 1910, modeled after the Villa Medici in Rome and since demolished. “ ‘Downton Abbey’ is such a popular show, with sets and costumes done so beautifully, that we thought this would be a wonderful way to highlight that period of Southampton’s history,” she said.
Much of the material in the exhibition comes from the museum’s collection, though several garments, including a 1918 opera coat, have been borrowed from Out of the Closet, a vintage clothing store in Water Mill. A floor-length, loose-fitting coat of luxurious fabric, meant to be worn over an evening gown, it is elaborately hand-detailed with brocade, beading, and embroidery.
Two “day dresses” from around 1915 reflect the era’s changing gender roles. Women’s clothing of the Victorian period included crinolines, bustles, corsets, and other items that created the S-curve in vogue from 1901 to 1910. Within a few years, clothes became much looser. “At this stage, the ‘debutante slouch’ was popular,” said Ms. Ballou, referring to the limp, listless pose that would not have been possible on a corseted body. “The looser clothing also allowed women to participate in sports such as tennis and golf, which were popular at the time in Southampton, at the Meadow Club and the Shinnecock Hills Golf Club.”
A woman’s suit from 1918 illustrates another fashion shift. “The tailored look became very popular during and after World War I, when more women were entering the work force and employers didn’t want men to be distracted,” explained Ms. Ballou. The result was a more masculine, less revealing, look.
The exhibition is presented in two sections, one reflecting life “upstairs,” as lived by the gentry; the other, the environment of the servants “downstairs.” A working Victrola from around 1915 is placed next to the elegant opera coat. “It’s the real deal,” said Ms. Ballou, as she positioned the needle on a record and the turntable came up to speed. Music from the period will play during the exhibition, though not on the vintage machine.
The servants’ section features an “ironing stove,” a cast-iron behemoth surrounded by irons of different weights that are heated by the device. “The bigger the wrinkles, the heavier the iron,” said Ms. Ballou. The top of the stove was used to heat water for steaming.
Another unusual item, acquired by the museum just recently from a Southampton house being torn down, is a Lazy Susan, a name that doesn’t do it justice. A large, cylindrical wooden cabinet with a hand crank, the device allowed the cook to put hot food inside and the butler to turn the crank until the dish emerged in the butler’s pantry to be plated. The Lazy Susan kept the cooking aromas confined to the kitchen and maintained a distance between the kitchen and household staffs.
In another alcove meant to suggest a lady’s dressing room, a lavender dress from around 1900 is flanked by an ostrich-feather Tiffany fan inlaid with gold and mother-of-pearl. Chairs, lamps, paintings, a vintage telephone, even a space heater, are among other objects on view.
Also featured are photographs and wall texts describing some of the colorful characters of the period, among them the Cryder triplets, debutantes who, at society functions, wore different colored ribbons so they could be told apart; Frances (Tanty) Breese, who was married at the family home on Hill Street on the same day her brother Robert tied the knot at St. Andrew’s Dune Church; Zella de Milhau, who owned a home at William Merritt Chase’s Art Village and who, according to Ron Pisano, an art historian, “always managed to steal the show,” and Helen Parrish, daughter of James Cresson Parrish and favorite niece of Samuel Parrish, founder of the museum that bears his name.
The exhibition will be on view through April 26 at the Rogers Mansion, which is open Tuesday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.