A page of American history
I am not like the usual visitor to foreign countries. I am not crazy about seeing all the touristy spots, like museums, zoos, architectural wonders, statues, caves, and historical monuments, armed with a camera, clicking away frantically so that everything new has been chronicled. But when my daughter Christina suggested during my many visits to the USA that I must break my rule and visit Winterthur in Delaware, the estate that belonged to the late Henry Francis du Pont, I decided to take her advice.
Winterthur (pronounced winter-tour) is a sprawling nearly 1,000-acre estate with a 60-acre garden (which is listed amongst the USA’s greatest gardens), while its enormous library is a treasure trove for researchers. And there is a fabulous museum of numerous exhibits.
Gift to the public
In 1951, collector and horticulturist Henry Francis du Pont (1880-1969) decided to open his childhood home to the public. It has remained open ever since. To see every corner of this magnificent estate where a collection of nearly 90,000 objects, made or used in America from 1640-1860 are on display, required a whole day. The artefacts exhibited in the palatial 175-room house where the du Pont family lived, now has some permanent and some changing exhibition galleries.
To see the whole estate, we travelled by an open multi-seater tram that took us on a 30-minute tour of the grounds where century-old trees and flowers from around the world were carefully nurtured. We went past rolling hills, streams, forests, gardens – it felt like a magical wonderland. There were the Enchanted Woods for children that took them into fairy story land, while the Azalea Woods, an eight-acre visual delight, was a dream to behold.
Our stop at the museum, previously the Du Pont Mansion, was the start of a dream tour. As we walked through the 175 rooms, the historical architecture was captivating in its utter splendour, and so were the collections of antiques and objects.
I walked through rooms filled with rarely seen objects, like a collection of brightly-painted tinware, beautifully displayed. A giant quilt explained the techniques of quilting in eras gone by. An amazing collection of chairs in myriad shapes, sizes and designs revealed the evolution of this humble piece of furniture. A display of porcelain dolls from around the world showcased the colour and creativity of artists. And there were rooms full of clocks, jewellery, paintings, vintage costumes, artefacts and textiles.
Cottage tea room and museum stores
At Winterthur, one had to experience an afternoon from 11.30am to 2.30pm at The Cottage Tea Room and then visit the museum stores opposite the museum. The Cottage Tea Room had a quaint old world charm with a menu that offered a variety of teas along with towers of delicious savoury and sweet snacks. It was all very colonial in ambience, with the start of the service being a glass of champagne or sparkling cider followed by a variety of scones, sandwiches, pastries and chocolates. It was supposed to be a leisurely afternoon event at a place that is considered a special venue for birthdays, anniversaries, celebrations and get togethers.
The museum stores opposite the main museum were a treasure trove for vintage shoppers. There was an assortment of jewellery, seasonal décor, gifts, home furnishing, garden accessories, clothes and books, and purchases help support Winterthur educational activities.
The collection of books and periodicals amounted to a mind boggling 100,000 volumes including nearly 20,000 rare American and European imprints. The collection offers information on American household goods and uses, decorative arts and designs from the 17th to 20th centuries. The history of American paintings, architecture, children’s books, craft techniques, women’s magazines, literature, lifestyle books, directories and guidebooks, were all there for book lovers to savour.
Besides seeing the magnificent Winterthur estate my main objective in visiting this wonderland was to see the exhibitions of British TV serial costumes. My favourite exhibitions were the Downton Abbey collection of costumes that I saw in 2014 and Costuming The Crown in 2019. The videos shown on a loop revealed the making of the TV serials and the costuming of the main characters, as well as the research that went into it.
As a fashion writer, I was in heaven as I moved through the tableaux of Downton Abbey creations, which was showcased from March 1, 2014 to January 4, 2015. I was amazed at the research that designer Caroline McCall undertook through photos and paintings from 1922 to 1926. She won the 16th Costume Designer Guild Award in 2014 for the serial.
Dressing the 20 main characters of the TV serial was a massive task, as the costumes moved from party dresses to sophisticated gowns, tuxedos, fur-collared and cuffed coats, bridal wear, hunting, cricket and tennis gear, as well as uniforms for maids, house help, cooks and butlers. From 2010 to 2014, which was the run of the serial, the costumes moved with the trends of those days.
Dressing the divas of the serial, Oscar winner Shirley MacLaine and the fabulous Maggie Smith, was an experience for Caroline McCall. Silhouettes moved from vintage dresses with defined waists with corsets during 1912-14 and then to asymmetric hemlines and cinched waists in 1919. Since Shirley MacLaine’s character was of American origin, her clothes were flamboyant, while Maggie Smith’s dowager look concentrated on suitable shapes for her role.
Of course the souvenir shop was an attraction many could not resist as it offered die-hard fans of the serial a chance to own jewellery, gloves, hairbands, coats, books, hat and even a magnet with WC on it!
The exhibition of costumes from the Emmy-award winning drama, The Crown, lasted from March 30, 2014 to January 5, 2020. Designers Michele Clapton (for season 1; she is also the Emmy-award winning designer of five seasons of Game of Thrones) and Jane Petrie (designer of season 2) researched the original ensembles created by British designer Norman Hartnell and presented replicas for the serial. Especially grand were the imperial mantle, supertunica, royal stole and dress worn by actress Claire Foy as Queen Elizabeth during the coronation ceremony. The coronation ceremony ensemble worn by actor Matt Smith, who played Prince Philip, comprised robes made of crimson silk velvet and a cape of ermine with black tails in four rows. The tails were supposed to indicate rank – Prince Philip was a duke.
Michele Clapton designed Princess Elizabeth’s wedding dress, tiara, veil and bouquet, which took a team of six embroiderers seven weeks of working 10 hours a day. The hand-embroidered original was by Norman Hartnell. The wedding gown, veil, tiara and bouquet for Princess Margaret designed by Jane Petrie matched the original by Norman Hartnell.
Each year there is something fascinating and interesting to view at Winterthur, which has an annual programme of activities and even a membership scheme for lovers of art, books, fashion and nature.
(Author bio: Meher Castelino was India’s first beauty queen. A fashion journalist, she’s been contributing to a number of publications and is also an author.)
From HT Brunch, May 17, 2020
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