Thursday, September 24, 2015


You can hear the soft serene sounds of crystal being placed on the Irish damask and lace tablecloth by a white-gloved hand in preparation for the formal dinner, a dinner served to the aristocratic inhabitants in a centuries old English manor.
In actuality this estate isn't in England but it has the look that transports you across the Atlantic and into the English countryside to an the kind of estate that has evolved over centuries of English design. It's meant to look that way. Nathan and Jessie Paine idealized their English heritage in the home they would build in Oshkosh, Wisconsin using Kasota limestone quarried in Minnesota and oak and walnut felled from the forests of Northern Wisconsin. Their souls live there but they never occupied the interiors of this illustrious mansion. What they did do was to fill the manor with the finest craftsmanship and furnishings they could find in the early to mid- twentieth century with the purpose of leaving the estate as a museum for all to enjoy.
Today the manor and grounds remain a gracious and generous gift that does just that. It is also the perfect setting for an exhibit, Dressing Downton, fashions from the PBS series, Downton Abbey.
Unlike the Chinese exhibit at the Met, the Paine was able to place the costumes against backgrounds that made you see more than the clothes. Pairing the clothes with the soft light of Tiffany lamps and the furnishings selected by the Paines you can see the characters from Downton slipping into these fashions and becoming the characters many of us have grown to love.
You can hear the clink of cultured pearls as the ladies prepared to make their entrances down the royal staircases on their way to an evening of social engagements.
The contrast of the fashions between the upstairs and downstairs occupants was never more obvious than in the starched uniforms from down below and the couture look of the gentry living above.
In one vignette inspired by the Paine mansion you could sense the anticipation of the great front door opening and a row of coachmen standing at attention waiting to take the lady of the manor and her luggage to meet her steamer that would take her abroad for a winter holiday.
Menswear was by no means left out. The protocol of military dress was on full display as the Earl of Grantham prepared for a formal event in the master suite. The royal red jacket pointed back to the adage of how attractive a man in uniform can be.
For those of us who are major Downton fans the exhibit gave an insight into the characters we've learned to love over the past five seasons as we prepare for a final farewell to the series. The Dowager Countess in her purple  half-mourning day dress, her cane in hand and her sardonic humor at the ready was perfectly placed in the breakfast room with the Oshkosh sun streaming in.
Since the series takes place over several time periods from pre-WWI through the Jazz Age there's a significant change in hemlines. Just as transportation was moving from a horse-powered time to one being propelled by automobiles
so would fashion change from the floor length bustled dresses of the dowager to the flapper length of the emerging roaring twenties.
The fact that most of the costumes, if not all, were vintage pieces kept in mint condition was one of the most amazing aspects not so much of the exhibit but a tribute to the astounding respect the shows costumers, actors and handlers gave to an art form made from such delicate threads and beads.
We were once again lucky to have caught this exhibit the day before it closed. Oshkosh doesn't usually show up in the top ten list of most critics of fashion or fine art but this museum and exhibit are a significant reason to keep an eye on the Paine's calendar.
After having toured the Paine we were all up for lunch but not sure where to go. We had gone to Oshkosh with our long-time friend, Leslie Watkins. It was her quick fingers and social media savvy that got us to a list of the best restaurants in Oshkosh on her iPhone. That might seem like an oxymoron to some. She landed on Pilora's Café and since neither Rick nor I had a better suggestion we went for it. Rick loaded the address into his iPhone and Siri did the rest guiding us to Main Street and the parking lot for the cafe. It was already 2:45 and the restaurant that only served breakfast and lunch was going to close at three. The exterior didn't look all that promising, standard diner eighties building with little to recommend it. It looked a lot like a Bob's Big Boy without the big boy statue. Rick was already looking for a backup just in case. Inside, the restaurant was a bit more promising, styled a little more café-like than strip mall diner. We took a table in the center of the room. There were a few straggling diners but you could tell by the amount of empty seats that the end of the day was fast approaching. I was nervous our late entry might be met with a sour reception but our waitress gave us a whole different vibe. She was as bubbly as a foaming Wisconsin craft rootbeer spilling out over the edges of a frosty mug.  Marilyn was a woman in love with her job. She couldn't have cared less that the sign outside said closing at three. She wiped off our table with a clean cloth and wiped out any fears I might have had about what this dining experience was going to be like.
There wasn't a thing on the menu she didn't know about. She wouldn't stop raving about the food in hyperbole rivaling the reading of the Constitution, but the highlight was the mac and cheese... and she was right. This was without question the best mac and cheese I've ever had, smooth and rich with a little kick and a crusty top. The best part was you could also buy it in one pound or two pound containers to take home. After we had licked our plates clean Rick and I ordered the two-pounder while Leslie punked out and only went for the one-pounder.
To top all this off Marilyn said there was still enough blueberry bread pudding to make a whipped cream topped plate big enough for the three of us with accompanying spoons for all. I notched out another hole on my belt and dug in.
If you ever get to Oshkosh you have to put Pilora's Café on your must see or eat list and say hey to Marilyn for us.
Gentlemen at a WWI Veteran's Parade, 1966
Tony Ray-Jones, photographer
Represented by James Hyman Gallery, London

1 comment:

  1. I have heard from a couple of people how great this exibit was, but seeing your pix proves it. And time spent with Leslie is always fun.