Fashionable Romance at the Biltmore Estate

Last week I had the pleasure of visiting the Biltmore Estate with friend Liza of BetterDressesVintage and her friend Sarah.  The occasion was a new fashion exhibition at Biltmore, Fashionable Romance: Wedding Gowns in Film.  As the title tells us, all the garments on display were actual film costumes, and there were some very interesting ones.

For those of you not familiar with Biltmore, it is one of the Vanderbilt mansions.  It was built by George Vanderbilt, and was officially occupied in 1895.  In 1930 the house was opened to the public.  It is still owned by Vanderbilt’s descendants and is today, big business.  The estate is a major employer in this area, with more than 2000 workers.

Over the years I’ve been to Biltmore numerous times and it always amazes me how they continually update the experience of the visit.  Six years ago they added costumes to the house tour after doing their research and seeing how popular costume exhibitions have become.  Last year they had the Downton Abbey costume exhibition, and this year they have followed it up with Fashionable Romance.

In all the years I’ve been to Biltmore, they had never before allowed inside photographs, so when we got there and found that photos were allowed, I was caught without my good camera.  I’m afraid we’ll have to made do with the inferior cellphone shots that I took.  And I took a lot of them, probably because it felt like I was getting away with something naughty.

One of the real treats of visiting Biltmore is how it is always decorated with flowers and plants.  On this visit there was the addition of drapery and ribbons, as if the house were a setting for a wedding.  Very effective, as you can see in the top photo.  This is the banquet hall, from the rear of the room.  The tour twists and turns, and often visitors are treated to multiple views of the same space.

And now for the clothes…

Despite the title of the exhibition, not all the costumes were wedding attire.  This is one of the dresses worn by Keira Knightley in 2008’s The Duchess.  As I study mainly twentieth century clothing, this 1770s dress is well beyond my area of knowledge.  As much as I would love to, I can’t say a thing about this dress other than it is pretty.

This is the wedding dress worn by Knightley along with the wedding attire of Ralph Fiennes.  This dress has the panniers and stomacher expected on a dress of this era.

The next set of costumes are from the 1995 version of Sense and Sensibility.  That is the wedding dress of Elinor Dashwood as worn by Emma Thompson, and Edward Ferrars, as portrayed by Hugh Grant.

And here are the clothes of Marianne Dashwood as played by Kate Winslet, along with her groom Colonel Brandon who was portrayed by Alan Rickman.  Both dresses looked like reasonable early 1800s dresses, though I thought it was a bit odd that both were white, seeing as the vogue for white wedding dresses came along in 1840 with the wedding of Queen Victoria.

These three dresses were worn in a 1992 adaptation of the E.M. Forster novel, Howards End.  From left to right, the wearers were Vanessa Redgrave, Emma Thompson, and Susie Lindeman.

You may have noticed that the three films mentioned thus far are all British productions.  That’s not a coincidence, as the exhibition was produced by Cosprop, a London-based costume production business.  Cosprop was founded in 1965 by designer John Bright, and he and Jenny Beavan (the recent Oscar winner for best costumes) designed the costumes for several of the movies represented.  Cosprop was also responsible for many of the costumes used in Downton Abbey, and they produced the Downton Abbey costumes exhibition that has been traveling around the USA.

This dress was worn by Helena Bonham Carter in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein of 1994. It was designed to be a wedding dress, but plans changed and it was worn in a ballroom scene.  I knew that Helena Bonham Carter is a small woman, but she is tiny.

Here’s another shot of the dress.  It was placed in Biltmore’s library, one of my favorite rooms.  It may be just that I’m so familiar with the house and that I was focusing on the clothes, but the interior of the house seemed to be relegated to being merely a background for the costumes.  I hope that first time visitors were not so distracted.

This costume and the one following were used in a 2002 BBC  production of Daniel Deronda. The book was written in 1876, and I’m not familiar with the story so I don’t know the time frame.  Both dresses have bustles, though the skirt on the green one looks to be a bit plain for 1876.  But then, I’m no expert.

When it comes to more recent stories that involve real people, the costumer is often able to begin with photographs, or even an existing dress.  You might recognize this as the Mainbocher dress worn by Wallis Simpson for her wedding to the Duke of Windsor.  Actually, it is a costume based on the original dress, which is now faded to grey and which is part of the Met’s collection.  This was worn by Joely Richardson in Wallis & Edward of 2005, and by Andrea Riseborough in W.E. in 2005.  I was impressed at how much this dress looks like the original, though Wallis definitely wore it better than the mannequin.

The dress is also based on an actual wedding dress, that of Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon.  The dress she wore in 1923 to marry Prince Bertie was not particularly flattering to her, and this reproduction is downright dreadful.  The fabric looked to be a heavy poly knit, though I could not swear to it.  I didn’t see the movie, Bertie and Elizabeth, so I can’t say how well or poorly the dress photographed.  I assume the headdress was improved with a bit of hair peeking out the sides.

I’ll finish this long look at movie wedding attire in my next post, where I’ll also have some things to say about historical sites.


Filed under Museums, North Carolina

21 responses to “Fashionable Romance at the Biltmore Estate

  1. I agree with you about the date of white wedding dresses coming into vogue. I hate to see “historical” clothing not done correctly. The worst is seeing zippers in some of the 18th and 19th century reproduction gowns made for movies. Nothing like seeing the actress turn around, and there is a zipper going up the back of her “period” dress.


    • Yes, there is a particularly badly costumed TV show from Canada in which the anachronisms drive me crazy! It’s too bad, as the show is pretty good, but I’m so distracted by the costuming that I cannot watch it.


      • Dee

        I don’t know if you’re talking about When Calls the Heart, but the anachronisms are so bad that they pull me right out of the show. Modern prom dresses, highlighted hair, and heavy modern makeup in the early 20th century.


  2. Thanks for taking us with you Lizzie.


  3. I visited the Biltmore at a particularly radical time in my life and so was pretty anti-wealth then but I know it’s beautiful and would like to visit again. I especially remember that the kitchens and downstairs were still intact, am I remembering corretly?


  4. I have seen the exhibit as well. Costume design is usually disappointing in person to me. Budget is always the issue-also the wear and tear must be considered .After we see the movie we realize how deceiving the camera can be. I agree re: the zipper issue a zipper up the back is never what you want in a bridal or any dress/gown you will be viewed for any length of time. (personal point of view)


  5. I recall a conversation with a costume designer about misplacing white wedding dresses in period movies, and it boiled down to accuracy vs confusion for audiences. It was considered more of a distraction to be authentic (requiring more explanation than deemed useful).
    Someday I will get to the Biltmore estate!


  6. I have always wanted to go here! I am so glad you shared the clothing. The detail is just amazing as is the history !


  7. This exhibition looks like fun. You mention Wallis Simpson’s dress, and what struck me is how essential to the look was her signature slouch. BTW I find it distracting when random mannequin’s have heads (women in this case) and others are headless (men), yet they are staged together as a couple, which seems like a screwball way to stage a costume exhibit.


  8. I could not find you today-March 24th.! miss not receiving the post-if there was one!?


  9. Jessamyn

    The idea that Queen Victoria launched the white wedding dress is an oft-repeated trope for which I can’t find backup.

    Wedding dress colors have definitely had fashions; in the late 18th century, while there was no designated color, the “lucky” color of blue was a popular choice, as were white and silver.

    By the early 19th century, white dresses were so popular for every conceivable occasion that it would be strange if there were NOT many white wedding dresses — especially because the association of whiteness with youth and purity was already being made. At the very top end of society there were some truly magnificent wedding dresses, such as Princess Charlotte’s dress of white net woven with silver, which cost more than 10,000 pounds, while at the bottom end women married in whatever their best dress was, regardless of color and material. To imagine Austen’s upper-class heroines marrying in fine white is actually very sensible. Her own niece Anna Lefroy was described by the bride’s sister as wearing “a dress of fine white muslin, and over it a soft silk shawl, white shot with primrose [yellow], with embossed white-satin flowers, and very handsome fringe, and on her head a small cap to match, trimmed with lace.”

    The few fashion plates of wedding dresses I’ve seen for the decades leading up to the 1840s were white. Here’s one from 1823:

    ID’d extant wedding gowns vary in color, but they certainly included white and off-white. Here’s a lovely example in a satin stripe:

    And then in the middle of the 19th century, it wasn’t just brides who wore white — it was considered a very appropriate color for bridesmaids, too!

    The main thing that changed in the 19th century was the idea that white was obligatory for a bride. It was a very gradual change, filtering down from the top (an expensive white dress is so impractical, and even wealthy women often had a second bodice made so the dress could be worn for the rest of the season after the marriage). It really wasn’t until the 20th century that even ordinary working-class women took it as read that they would have a special, purpose-made white dress that would be worn once and never again.


  10. Pingback: Unveiled Wedding Attire at the Charleston Museum | The Vintage Traveler

  11. Pingback: Designed for Drama at the Biltmore Estate | The Vintage Traveler

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