"Downton Abbey" is bringing fancy back.
The series, which focuses on British society in the early 1900s, has caused a sensation on at least two continents.
Its season three premiere, which aired to U.S. audiences on PBS in January, drew a record 7.9 million viewers for the station. About 8.2 million tuned into the season finale Feb. 17.
Two days later, about 160 fans packed into the York County Heritage Trust to pay homage to the show. The trust staff donned costumes donated by York Little Theater and DreamWrights Youth and Family Theatre. Several attendees wore gloves, decorative headwear, pearls and other vintage or vintage-inspired finery.
It felt refreshing to see people dressed to the nines in the jeans-as-fashion-statement city of York. Why did fascinators, frockcoats and feathers go out of vogue, anyway? This town needs more events like the trust's tea, especially since it can be affordable to dress up.
Barbara Antolino-Smith and Carol Nadig went shopping at Grey Beards Antiques and Collectibles in Jacobus to find vintage duds for less. Antolino-Smith sported a cream-colored pair of gloves with lace detailing.
Of course, the style is just one part of "Downton's" appeal. Antolino-Smith, of Springettsbury Township, said she admires main character Lady Mary's "elegance and sense of propriety."
"I'm addicted," Antolino-Smith confessed. She added that she never purchased a DVD before the first seasons of "Downton." "I think I watched (the last episode) three times," Nadig, of York Township, said.
But while fans revel in the fashion and twisting plotlines, they're likely to soak in some history. And the trust is capitalizing on that.
"It was inspired by the popularity of 'Downton Abbey' and our desire to get new audiences inside our doors," Melanie Hady, director of public relations and marketing for the trust, said of the tea. "At the same time, we wanted it to fit into our mission of making history accessible."
The trust used its collection of artifacts, including tea services and clothing, from the turn of the century to the 1920s.
David Walsh came to the states in the 1970s. He formerly worked for Spode, which makes fine china in the U.K. He worked for Pfaltzgraff from 1977 until his retirement in 2001. He now runs Circa Antiques in York.
At the trust's tea, he addressed the crowd of "lords, ladies, gentlemen and 'Downton' groupies." Then, he talked about his memories of tea in England - a ritual that he said any reason, or no reason at all, justifies. His tips for the perfect pot: Use loose tea leaves; Pay attention to the temperature; Steep for five minutes.
As attendees sipped, trust staff dressed as butlers and maids passed around tiny sandwiches and scones. I felt relieved that the class system portrayed on "Downton" has largely disappeared. It's worth noting that the award-winning series highlights some injustices of the time.
We can learn from the past and leave the hierarchy there. But we don't have to ditch all of the fancy flourishes.
After the Tea Tuesday sold out, the trust started planning similar events.
PopEye is a Bi-weekly column focusing on the ever-changing landscape of popular culture. To reach writer Erin McCracken, call 717-771-2051 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Life in York County during 'Downton'
York County Heritage Trust Collections Manager Cindy Brown said the biggest thing happening in America during the 1920s might have been what wasn't (legally) happening. Prohibition outlawed alcohol sales in the states.
Despite the lack of booze during the decade, which came after a flu pandemic and The Great War, it was an exciting time, Brown said.
"There was a certain mentality - life is short; enjoy it while you can," she added. The new decade ushered in the jazz age. Immigration waves that began during the 1800s and continued through the early 1900s made the country more diverse.
The war helped advance women's issues. Ladies received the right to vote and began to ditch corsets and bulky dresses.
"Women's roles had changed," Brown said. "They were working during wartime. Some were widowed and ... had to re-invent themselves."
During the Tea Tuesday event, visitors toured The Bonham House in York to see what life was like for a lady of the city's upper crust at the time of the most recent season of "Downton Abbey."
Bessie Bonham - Elizabeth - was 48 or 49. She was a wealthy woman of society - similar to the titled nobility in England. Bonham did employ servants, but not as many as lead characters in "Downton."
She never married but enjoyed a large circle of friends. Her social schedule included The Women's Club of York, York Oratory Society, war relief efforts, church events, bridge and trips to the movies.
As she got older and society changed, she could travel abroad sans chaperone.
Unlike England, America was a fairly young nation without a peerage system, which handed down titles through generations. The social hierarchy in England was even apparent in the servant staffs. The butler, of course, usually headed the downstairs part of the manor house. But during the 1920s, class systems and societal norms started to change in both nations.
"Families aren't as large anymore," Brown said of the time. When children married, they began to move out of their family homes, which was a change from the tradition of having many generations under one roof.
Despite these transitions, Brown said the period gets lost between the World Wars. "Downton," she added, is something that's peeked people's interest about the time.
"I think the (Royal) wedding and baby created a lot of interest in a country that is separated by a common language," Brown added of America's heightened interest in all things British.
- ERIN McCRACKEN
More upcoming Heritage Trust events
Friday: Have lunch with the librarians 1 to 2 p.m. at the Historical Society Museum, 250 E. Market St., York, and learn about tracing your genealogy using the trust's collection.
March 9: Paul Vaughn presents "Pullman Automobiles and York County's Early Twentieth Century Auto Industry" 10:30 a.m. during the free Second Saturday program at the Agricultural & Industrial Museum, 217 W. Princess St. York.
March 16: York County Heritage Trust Auxiliary hosts the Luck O' The Irish Yard Sale 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Historical Society Museum. Clothing, art items, collectibles, books, music, dishes and food will be available for purchase.
April 12: The trust hosts the 21st Annual Art & Leisure Auction 5:30 p.m. at the Historical Society Museum. Single tickets are $50. For details and more events, visit yorkheritage.org.
Check out photos and social media chatter from Tea Tuesday: storify.com/flipsidepa
In the U.K.: www.itv.com/downtonabbey
On Facebook: www.facebook.com/DowntonAbbey
More: Fashions from the Titanic era featured in Hanover exhibit last year