Changing Fashion for Changing Times: Dressing Downton Abbey in St. Augustine


The Dowager Countess, Lady Mary Crawley, Bates and Lord Grantham — or at least their clothing — are going to feel right at home at St. Augustine’s Lightner Museum as Dressing Downton opens for a three-month visit.

Beginning in October, expect Britain to rule again—at least in the corridors, hallways, and ballroom of the Lightner as special tours, speakers, and events enhance the exhibit at the former Alcazar Hotel. Dressing Downton displays 36 authentic Victorian-era costumes and accessories from the television drama in the third floor ballroom.

“We’ve been told over the three months to expect 80,000 people,” says Bob Harper, the executive director of the Lightner. Normally the museum hosts about 100,000 people each year.

It says something for the incredible popularity of Downton Abbey that half the people reading this don’t need an introduction to the castle or its inhabitants. If you’ve been in a coma for the last seven years, the hereditary Earls of Grantham, the Crawley family, and their staff, people the cast of one of the most popular PBS shows ever. 


Subtitled Changing Fashion for Changing Times, the exhibit offers a look at the clothing worn in the show, which is set between 1912 and 1925. It also provides insight into lives above and below stairs.

You get an extra treat at the Lightner as they’ve opened their vast resources to enhance settings from the dining room to the stables. There’s even an Egyptian Room as a reminder that the real Highclere Castle, that stands in for the Abbey, was once the seat of the 5th Earl of Carnarvon. He’s the man famous for discovering, along with archaeologist Howard Carter, the tomb of the Egyptian Boy King, Tutankhamen, in 1922.

If you’re of a certain age you may remember Upstairs, Downstairs, another PBS production that turned even harrumphing colonials into Anglo-wannabes. But the Upstairs crowd never had the elaborate sets, clothing, or real estate of this mob.

To make all this happen, the Lightner is making some changes, including nearly doubling its staff. 


The Lightner already has a hint how popular the event will be. Grants Coordinator Megan Mosley says after St. Augustine was announced as one of the nine places for the exhibit, they got a call from Chicago and a booking for four. There, the exhibit was so popular it was held over, yet the caller still couldn’t get tickets. The four looked at the remaining venues and decided St. Augustine was the place where they wanted to make reservations.

Putting on the exhibit isn’t cheap, but officials are optimistic this is going to be a boost for the Lightner and St. Augustine.

Longtime curator Barry Myers is excited at the opportunity to show off some of the museum’s pieces. “We’ve repaired and reupholstered some of Otto Lightner’s original pieces. Some of it hasn’t seen the light of day in 50 years.”

Lightner was the Chicago publisher who in the 1940s visited St. Augustine for his health and realized he had found a perfect place for his extensive collection of Victorian/Gilded Age antiques. Through the years Lightner had bought roomfuls of Gilded Age furniture, paintings, artwork and curios. While families were getting rid of what was then dismissed as old-fashioned, Lightner, whose publications included Hobbies magazine, was buying it up.

He bought the Alcazar Hotel to house the collection, and with the help of some dedicated volunteers and townspeople created St. Augustine’s Lightner Museum of Hobbies. In 1947 he turned it over to the City of St. Augustine, which is why half the building is devoted to government offices and shops. The courtyard has become a popular wedding venue and a wedding chapel is housed in part of the complex.


Opening with the sinking of the Titanic and the loss of the presumptive heirs, Downton continued for six seasons, ending with hints of the coming changes to the class system. But people weren’t ready to say good-bye to the Granthams. Speculation about a movie has been ongoing, and now it appears that will happen in 2018.

Harper sees that as yet another plus for attendance figures. He also sees the exhibit, unlike some events, as having a positive boost for other downtown businesses and merchants. “People will be coming to stay in the hotels. They’ll be eating in our restaurants, and they’ll be shopping downtown.” They’ll also get to see the Nights of Lights.

For the exhibit the Lightner is extending daily hours from 9am to 7pm Sunday through Thursday and 9am to 5pm Friday and Saturday. Author and TV personality Francine Segan will offer insights into cooking and entertaining on select dates.

Special tours are available including Upstairs/Downstairs at the Alcazar and are in addition to the Dressing Downton exhibition. Tickets are $45 and those tours are limited to 20 people. It’s a chance to learn the parallels between the Alcazar Hotel and the Downton Abbey time period. It’s also a chance to see areas of the museum normally closed to the public.

Cafe Alcazar will be offering “High Teas” daily, a chance to enjoy sweet and savory items plus teas. Reservations can be made by calling 904-825-9948.

All in all, there hasn’t been such an invasion of Brits since Gov. Patrick Tonyn and his British regulars kept St. Augustine on the straight and narrow for King and Country back in 1776. (Florida was not on the side of the scrappy rebels during the Revolutionary War.)


Dec 13 — Dining at Highclere with chef and TV personality Francine Segan 10:30am including information on etiquette, entertainments and the dishes of Mrs. Patmore.
Dec 13 — American Food Fads Gilded Age to Today, a VIP dinner with Francine Segan.
Dec 14. — Francine Segan offers a history of chocolates at 10:30 a.m. with Munch, Mingle and Matriculate.
Dec 31 — New Year’s Eve Soiree and Anniversary Party
Jan 7, 2018 — Final day of exhibition


What: Dressing Downton Exhibit
Where: Lightner Museum, 75 King Street
When: Oct. 30-Jan. 7, open daily
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