Downton Abbey and Us

The Spadina House exhibit, “Dressing for Downton” runs to April 13th but tickets for die hard Downton Abbey fans to be up close and personal with garments worn by Maggie Smith, Michelle Dockery, Hugh Bonneville, and Elizabeth McGovern are sold out! No surprises there! The British television show has enthralled many of us over the 3 years it has been on the air.


Costumes from Downton Abbey on display at Spadina House

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Lord Grantham’s suits on display at Spadina House

Downton Dresses on Display at Spadina House

Dresses from Downton Abbey on display at Spadina House

The cost of admission to the exhibition also included a special treat – a chance to tour the whole house. After viewing the costumes, a wonderfully knowledgeable tour guide led us upstairs/downstairs and gave us the unique perspective of the lives of the house’s owners, the Austin’s, real-life contemporaries of the fictional Grantham household of Downton Abbey.

Frequent comparisons between the families as we wandered the halls of the great house, allowed all of us to step back in history, and think about what it would have been like to be a privileged member of the family who danced at a ball in the living room or in contrast, scrub potatoes in the kitchen as a hardworking maid.

Family Portraits of the Austin Family

Family Portraits of the Austin Family

Like the Grantham’s, the Austin’s had a long and lovely history with Spadina House. They were the first, last and only family in residence having built the house in 1866 and lived there continuously until they made an arrangement to donate the house to the City of Toronto in 1982. In 2010 the house was renovated to replicate the period between the two world wars with wallpaper, furnishings and décor of that period. This is the same period of time in which the family at Downton is shown.

Left: Spadina House, Right: Set of Downton Abbey (Highclere Castle)

Left: Spadina House, Right: Set of Downton Abbey (Highclere Castle)


Left: Drawing Room of Spadina House, Right: Dowager Countess of Downton Abbey played by Maggie Smith (Images from Toronto Star: 01, 02)

There were other parallels drawn between the two families. Fictional Lady Sybil spent the First World War as a nurse and one of the Austin’s daughters did the same. With the deaths of so many young men during World War I the social institution of marriage and therefore the position of women changed radically. Like Lady Edith, one of the Austin daughters’s missed out on marriage as a result of this, and remained a “spinster.” We can all wait in anticipation to see whether Edith is able to recover from being first left at the altar and then having her fiancé disappear into Germany.


Left: Lady Sybil’s nurse uniform on display at Spadina House, Right: Image of Lady Sybil from PBS

The Austin’s elegant dining room resembled (on a smaller scale) that of the one at Downton Abbey with beautiful antiques, silverware and the requisite gallery of family portraits. The butler’s pantry just behind the dining room brought to mind the character Carson, lovingly polishing silver and determining what wine should be decanted. I could easily see him working in this little room.

Dining Room of Spadina House

Dining room of Spadina House

Downton Abbey Dining Room

Downton Abbey Dining Room. Image from

The great day at Spadina House has inspired me to provide another opportunity for fans to view garments from this era which are housed in our Fashion Resource Centre Collection. The exhibit, “Downton and Us” will run for just one week – April 28th to May 2nd from 10:00 to 5:00 in the Boutique, Newnham Campus, Rm. B2024, Seneca College, 1750 Finch Ave. East. It will hopefully provide one more opportunity to enjoy the elegance of the era. Although we do not have any costumes from the program we do have beautiful examples of the same types of garments that would have been worn by these characters.

Opening night will be on Monday April 28th from 6:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. and, as all well-mannered inhabitants of both Spadina House and Downton Abbey would know, the favor of a response regarding your attendance would be greatly appreciated.

If you would like to attend our opening night please email me at: so that we may be sure to put the kettle on for a sufficient number of cups of tea!


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