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Just as Season Four of Downton Abbey leaves the airwaves, Winterthur Museum, Library and Gardens in Wilmington opens its exhibit of the show's costumes March 1.

Which means that as Bates figures out who attacked Anna, Edith copes with the results of her romance, and Robert dashes off to the United States to vouch for Cora's brother ?? Winterthur conservators are madly unpacking clothes, making mannequins and readying objects for exhibit.

And it's the quietest mad rush ever. An air of busy permeates the workshops where the 40 outfits hang, many still in plastic sheeting on racks and some on mannequins, but there's little noise.

This must be what it was like to watch a bunch of ladies maids getting ready for a party at a country estate like that of Downton Abbey or Gosford Park.

Getting the clothes ready started during the summer when the costumes arrived. Before they could go on display ?? and even come in contact with other museum materials ?? the museum had to disinfect them using a freezer or a carbon dioxide chamber. It's standard practice. Not only does that protect the clothing, but it prevents anything in them from wandering or being transmitted into the Winterthur collection of textiles, which includes clothing, carpets, bed linens, curtains and more.

"It's not a reflection of our worry about those clothes," says estate historian Maggie Lidz, who is curating Costumes of Downton Abbey. "Anything that comes in has to to through that chamber, even if it's something from the property."

With the show now less than two weeks away, conservator Kathleen Kiefer is carving mannequins out of Ethafoam, a polyethylene foam similar to Styrofoam, which is made of polystyrene. Kiefer says Ethafoam lasts longer and doesn't off-gas, which protects the clothing better.

She flips sideways a mannequin that ultimately will support a dress worn by actress Maggie Smith and shows how she begins with a 4-inch-wide strip of foam, and adds smaller pieces to each side, carving the appropriate womanly curves as she goes. Dame Maggie, as it turns out, has quite the pert bum, mannequin-wise.

Across from Kiefer, Elizabeth Shaffer is carving an arm. An intern who also attended the conservation program, she's sitting in front of a purple velvet outfit worn by Martha Levinson, who is played by Shirley MacLaine in the show. There is a note pinned to the neck of the mannequin that says it needs some long skinny arms.

In the next room, Kate Sahmel pulls stocking material over a carved arm to smooth out the mannequin. She sits next to a grouping of mannequins and dresses that are artful in their arrangement as they await their turn for finishing. Sahmel will also help steam the clothes and dress the mannequins.

One reason carving the mannequins is necessary is because women in the time portrayed by Downton Abbey usually wore corsets to give their bodies an hourglass shape, and these costumes have been altered to fit the actresses precisely. A standard mannequin won't have the right shape.

Down the hall, Lauren Fair, an object conservator, is readying Ruth Wells du Pont's alligator leather-covered ladies maid traveling case, one of a number of period-appropriate pieces from the museum's permanent collection that will be displayed with the costumes.

Loaded with gold-plated jars, vials and tools, the case weighs 17 pounds without any creams, lotions or other things added. It was a gift from H.F. du Pont to his bride shortly after their marriage, and everything is stamped with the du Pont coat of arms.

Fair has a fun time showing off all the hidden compartments and travel-sized items, such as a curling iron that unfolds from a hunk of metal the size of a fountain pen. In real life, Lidz says, this case would have been carried by the maid.

Ultimately the exhibit, which runs through Jan. 4, 2015, will compare English and American country homes in the first part of the 20th century, Lidz says.

With a big eyeful of Downton clothes.

(Contributing: Margie Fishman)



Copyright 2014 USATODAY.com

Read the original story: 'Downton Abbey' exhibit to open at Winterthur

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