Monday, March 26, 2012

Inherent Vice in Downton Abbey

By Erin Doane, Curator

Like many people lately, I’ve become a fan of the PBS series Downton Abbey.  The characters and story are great but what I’ve really fallen in love with is the clothes.  For those unfamiliar, the series follows the lives of an aristocratic English family, the Crawleys, and their servants.  The first season began with the news of the sinking of the Titanic on April 15, 1912 and continued through to the outbreak of the First World War on August 4, 1914.  The second season took the household through the war and to the end of the decade.

The fashions of the Crawley women in the first season are what really caught my eye.  I have always been fond of the delicate gowns of the early 1910s.  Opulent is a word commonly used to describe those years before the First World War and the term is very fitting when specifically talking about the fashion.  It was a time of experimentation, with both the cut and drapery of fabric and with materials.  Designers were taking inspiration from the exotic Middle and Far East.  Corsets were loosened or discarded entirely and layers of soft flowing fabrics were decorated with silver and gold stitching, tiny beads and spangles, and all sorts of decorative trims and embroidery. 

All these details made gorgeous gowns but, unfortunately, also made them very fragile.  Over time, the weight of the decorations can pull apart the fine weave of the fabrics.  Trims and beads can catch on each other and careless handling through the years can cause unintended damage.  It is fairly rare to find one of the diaphanous gowns from the early 1910s in pristine condition.  I wonder sometimes if the designers and seamstresses at the time realized that their creations were so ephemeral.  It sort of makes sense that the almost frivolous opulence of such gowns could only last a short time.

Another problem with the long-term preservation of gowns from the 1910s comes from the very nature of their materials.  The natural physical properties of some objects make them deteriorate without any outside influence.  This specific inborn fragility in historic objects is known as inherent vice and has always been the bane of museum professionals and preservationists.  Some fabrics used to make gowns in the 1910s had real silver and gold threads woven into them.  Over time the metal reacts with the silk and causes it to shatter or tear apart.  The same is true for certain types of dyes that weaken the fibers.  Because these vices are part of the nature of the materials there is nothing that can be done to stop the deterioration process.  It can, however, be slowed. 

Careful handling of fragile gowns is essential to their longevity, as is proper storage.  Limiting exposure to light and maintaining an environment with constant, appropriate temperature and humidity levels also helps preserve them for a longer time.  Here at the Museum, we are working to get digital images of our textile collection so that the gowns can remain undisturbed as much as possible.  We may not be able to entirely stop these lovely, intricate, vice-ridden creations from deteriorating but we can slow the process so that future generations can enjoy the beauty of these fashions.


  1. Intriguing. I know the CCHS has a great dress collection. I hope it can be preserved as much as possible. Since the dresses of the 1910s are even more fragile than others, are you starting the digitizing process with them?

    Bryan Reddick

  2. Thank you for sharing these gorgeous dresses. While their preservation may be daunting, it is more than worth the effort.