The Atlanta Time Travelers at Biltmore Estate

Exhibit Visit - "A Vanderbilt House Party - The Gilded Age" at Biltmore Estate

I made my annual pilgrimage to Asheville, North Carolina, to see Biltmore Estate's latest costume exhibit. This year it's A Vanderbilt House Party - The Gilded Age

The country home of George and Edith Vanderbilt, completed in 1895, hosted a constant stream of wealthy friends and family, who stayed for months at a time to relax and play in the cool, isolated, mountain landscape.

This year, in addition to meeting my knowledgeable (and fun) companion, Lizzie (a.k.a. The Vintage Traveler), a couple of my fellow Atlanta Time Travelers joined in for a dress-up adventure.

Here we are, just before heading over to the country's largest private home to see what sartorial treasures Oscar-winning British designer John Bright and his crew of period-costume magicians at Cosprop had in store. 

Liza, Lizzie, Bobbie Jo, and Randi at the Biltmore Estate visitor's center.Liza, Lizzie, Bobbie Jo, Randi

Lizzie doesn't dress in period costume, but she wore a beautiful linen coat she'd recently made. The photo doesn't do it justice. And I don't know why I look like a sunburned pumpkin. But you get the idea. I'll tell you about my ensemble after the tour. 

The weather was gloomy, but we were in high spirits as we headed inside the house. As annual pass holders, Randi and I were handed free audio-tour gadgets. The recorded program was billed as essential to the immersive experience, but once we discovered it held no additional intel on the clothing, we returned them. 

What made this exhibit special was that Cosprop had used original photographs and family records to faithfully recreate the clothing worn by George and Edith Vanderbilt, their family, houseguests, and servants.

The reference photos were black and white, so wardrobe palettes were a best guess based on each person's known preferences, the popular colors of the time, and other clues such as receipts and diary entries.

Pink 1895 dress combo

This pink and cream dress, worn by newlywed Adele Burden while honeymooning at the estate just after its completion, was my personal favorite. I wish my photo were clearer, but Biltmore's display lighting is challenging.

As Lizzie points out in her own review and you can see in the original photo, the reproduction's sleeves are not nearly poofy enough. That year was the pinnacle of the giant-sleeve craze. Only the sleeves of the 1830s could outdo those of 1895 in wacky ginormity. Bonus: really big sleeves make your waist look tiny. More on that, later.

Doesn't husband James look as if he should be walking in the parade of athletes at the modern summer Olympic games, decked out in custom Ralph Lauren? Very modern preppy.

The main floor's formal hallway and sitting area, paralleling the veranda, always features beautiful vignettes. First up was George holding infant Cornelia wearing what appears to be her Christening gown.

Christening scene with recreated and borrowed clothing.

Edith's relatively simple dress above was my other favorite. It's not a photo recreation, but one of several Belle Epoque fashions borrowed from Cosprop's collection. The majority of those, including this one, are from the Merchant-Ivory film, The Golden Bowl (2000). 

I wore one quite similar to dance in the upcoming film Bolden! (see it May 3). Grab your magnifying glass. Here I am:

Liza dancing in Belle Epoque finery in Bolden!Yours truly, dancing in the movies, in original Edwardian clothes.

Our film costumes were Edwardian originals, and of course I was in heaven. It helped that I was wearing my own comfy cotton corset, while the other women suffered in their heavy, ill-fitting, polyester contraptions.

But back to the exhibit and a recreation of a black velvet evening dress worn by Edith in 1898. 

Edith Vanderbilt black velvet dress recreated by Cosprop.

Let's talk about her impossibly small waist. Yes, she's been wearing a corset all her life. No, that doesn't mean her ribs were broken, her internal organs damaged, or that she regularly keeled over. It does mean that her ribs, unlike ours, have been molded into a more conical shape. Think orthodonture, not plastic surgery. Yes, her waist is probably smaller than yours. But, maybe not. 

She's almost certainly wearing bust improvers to widen and plump her upper body, and pads to bolster her hips. When combined with an S-bend corset forcing chest forward and derriere back, the effect is a tiny waist. Also, look how she's posed -- strategically! 

Compare the reproduction dress on its uncorseted, unpadded, stock-straight mannequin. More evidence that underpinnings make the silhouette. And look how much lower the entire bodice sits on Edith's frame. 

John Singer Sargent portraits brought to life by Cosprop at Biltmore.
John Singer Sargent portraits brought to life by Cosprop at Biltmore.

The last hallway vignette featured George Vanderbilt and his mother, Maria Louisa, in portraits by John Singer Sargent. Note that George is shown holding a book. A studious man, George was an avid reader and book collector. His library of more than 20,000 volumes contains many first editions by noted authors, including several newly popular at the turn of the 20th century. A previous exhibit at Biltmore showcased several of these books with fashions from their film versions.

Upstairs in the main foyer sitting area -- site of last year's "shoe debacle" -- we found Lila Vanderbilt Sloane Field, William B. Osgood Field, and friends, lounging about, in 1902. 

1902 guests lounge at Biltmore

Once again, note how the overall effect is slightly thwarted by mannequins without the proper undergarments and posture. Lila's beautifully recreated dress needs a pigeon-bust silhouette to look precisely right.

Mauve ensemble recreated from 1902 photo

This beautiful mauve ensemble, worn by Edith in 1900, was a group favorite. I didn't care for the oddly wide ribbons at the elbows. We know they're ribbons, because an informative film about the making of the costumes was showing in the basement. The polka dots were applied to the ribbons, and the ribbons to the blouse. I loved the jabot, the belt, and the soft purple hues.

George is shown with Russian wolfhound Iwan in 1902. His recreated look seems a bit slimmer and tighter than the original. Sporting clothes are meant for active use. Some ease would be needed.

servant attending to guest's wardrobe

While family and friends socialize, the servants are busy putting the guest's belongings away. We couldn't get close enough to see if the maid is holding a real gown or a dressing gown. And doesn't that trunk just scream for a "rom-com makeover montage"? Put me in, coach.

Cornelia and her aunt Pauline in 1904

Also in the sitting area, little Cornelia and maternal aunt Pauline Dresser Merrill stand ready for a 1904 outing. Perhaps Pauline's jacket is open to show the lines of her skirt? The original image provides another real-life example debunking the "everyone was skinny back then" myth. Lizzie and I wished they'd recreated doggy Iwan for the tableau.

For the wealthy, each activity and time of day required a change of clothing. The Vanderbilts' personal servants must have spent considerable time gathering and preparing each ensemble.

Personal butler and maid readying the Vanderbilt's clothing.
In George's room, his butler holds driving essentials, including goggles and duster coat. Edith's lady's maid, Martha Laube, carries beautiful shoes (all the shoes in this exhibit were lovely). She wears a skirt the same length as mine. I'd thought mine was 5" too short on me. Perhaps not.

At the time, skirt fronts were smooth and sleek, while the backs were still gathered to accommodate a small bustle pad or wire frame. When shorter-than-floor-length, these skirts may be easier to move in efficiently, but the silhouette becomes odd and unflattering.

Your skirt is too short.

We headed down the long, portrait-lined hallway and convinced the friendly operator to let us take a ride in Biltmore's antique elevator. Click for a video.

On the lower level, in the servants' dining room, we find George's coachman William Matthews. His seems to be another more-sleek-and-snug-than-the-photo-suggests ensemble. 


We saw sporting ensembles modeled in the bowling alley and swimsuits modeled at the pool. You can see images of those on Lizzie's blog. Biltmore's indoor pool terrifies me, even empty. The room is windowless, with an oddly low ceiling. Have you ever seen the movie The Legacy? I saw it in a theater in 1978 and this scene has stuck with me. It comes to mind and makes my heart pound every time I visit the Vanderbilts' oddly claustrophobic pool.

The tour wended its way through the various service areas of the lower floor, including the laundry room and a butler's pantry none of us had ever visited.

Servants at work at Biltmore Estate.

well-dressed servant sends refreshments upstairs from one of several dumbwaiters. The original telephone is protected behind plexiglass. By this point, I'm getting a bit tired.

Getting tired.

Heading upstairs for the last leg of the tour, we are directed into the dining room. The table is lushly decorated with fruits and flowers. I've never seen it so lovely. Guests assemble for dinner. 

Edith's butterfly gown.

I like Florence Vanderbilt Twombly's smile in the original photo. She seems genuinely happy. The recreation of her butterfly gown from 1900 is one of the projects detailed in Cosprop's short film. The photo shows only the gown's upper bodice, so I don't know what the skirt looked like. If I had my druthers, the butterflies would form a less-symmetrical, swirling arc up and around the skirt, rather than the somewhat static oval. Then again, no one asked me.

Just because it's pretty and I thought you might like to see it, here's another dress from The Golden Bowl

Dress from The Golden Bowl. 
On the other side of the enormous room was another recreated dress. 

Net dress controversy.

Bobbie Jo noticed that the new dress had net insets and straps at the shoulders. We were unable to tell if the original had them. At right, Randi and I discuss how we'd go about giving a mannequin the S-bend posture, to more accurately recreate Edith's 1903 look.

I point to the blue underskirt showing unevenly and suggest it should be completely covered by the lace. Perhaps a sewing miscalculation came into play. Randi didn't agree. 

I'm Not So Sure About That

UPDATE: Cosprop confirms our suspicions that yes, the net overskirt should and does completely cover the blue underskirt, all the way around. I feel compelled to make another 7-hour round-trip to jump that velvet rope and set things right. Just kidding (sort of). I'll let the folks at Biltmore handle it.

One fun thing about this exhibit was the addition of costumed mannequins in unusual spots. In addition to servants at work and guests at play in the normally empty lower-level rooms, we saw guests in other places we'd never before seen occupied.

Mannequins in unusual places 
Someone is browsing the books on the upper level of the magnificent library. In the dining room, a guest (do I recognize that dress from Titanic?) looks down from the pipe organ balcony. This scattering of additional mannequins helped bring the "house party" theme to life, showing servants working and guests enjoying themselves as they would have at the time.

Last, but not least, a few views of the truly splendid floral arrangements that decorate nearly every room of the house. From what I've been told, the flowers are grown and arrangements created on site. For me, they're always a highlight.

floral arrangements at Biltmore

After the tour, we headed to lunch and a spin around the gift shop. Lizzie set off to see the exhibits on the other side of the property, while my dress-up friends and I went outside and headed toward the gardens. 

exterior views of BiltmoreNo longer raining, but still cloudy.

The Atlanta Time Travelers at Biltmore Estate

My ensemble, from the inside out, consisted of:

  • antique one-piece underwear (cotton, open crotch)
  • modern cotton corset (Playgirl brand)
  • antique white cotton combination corset cover + petticoat (like a full slip)
  • antique black polished cotton petticoat 
  • black cotton knee socks (in lieu of stockings)
  • modern flat shoes with a mid-19th century silhouette (best I could do)
  • antique taupe wool skirt with black velvet trim
  • antique black cotton blouse with fleur-de-lis pattern
  • antique chatelaine with antique watch, button hook, and pencil (all purchased separately, and all fully functional)
  • antique brooch (my great-grandmother's) over a slim, black velvet ribbon
  • vintage kid gloves
  • antique black velvet frame purse
  • relatively modern earrings with an antique vibe
  • about 45 hairpins (really)
  • modern straw hat from thrift store "cobbled" with a mix of modern, vintage, and antique ingredients (to be described in a future post)
  • antique hat pin of illegal length (one must be on guard) 

Getting ready Doing my hair. All laced up. Some wardrobe options. The final selection.



Liza Dolensky

We did have a great time! Wit all the money Biltmore spent on the costumes, one might hope they would be able to commission properly shaped mannequins.

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