Fashionable Romance at the Biltmore Estate, Part II

Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet as worn by Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle.  What more can I say except this dress looked much better in person.

Also on view were these dresses from the 1996 version of Pride and Prejudice.  These dresses belonged to Miss Bingley and her sister, Mrs. Hurst.

Probably my favorite costumes from the exhibition were the ones from Out of Africa.  The designer Milena Canonero was nominated for a Best Costume Design Oscar, but she did not win.  That’s a bit of a shame, actually, because the costumes were quite influential in starting a trend for “safari clothes.”

Here’s another ensemble as worn by Meryl Streep in Out of Africa.  I really do wish you could see just how wonderful this suit is, with construction of silk.  Truly, it was my favorite.

This wedding dress is from a 1996 production of Hamlet.  Yes, Hamlet.  I don’t remember this film, but director Kenneth Branagh set it in the Victorian era, rather than the Middle ages of the original.  I didn’t quite know what to make of this dress, but I loved the way it was displayed, with the mirror view of the front.  It was worn by Julie Christie in the role of Queen Gertrude.

I really, really disliked this dress, and I can’t decide if it is the dress or the portrayal.  It was worn by Billie Piper as Fanny Price in Mansfield Park, and while I’m quite sympathetic toward Miss Price, I hated the way Piper played her.  Oh, well, the dress is all sparkly and looks like something a modern mother of the groom would wear if trying to compete with the bride.  Remember, this is a Regency era film, and the dress just did not look true to era.

A better known Jane Austin adaptation was the 1996 film, Emma.  Played by Gwyneth Paltrow, it was a sweet movie, convincingly played.  The fact that Paltrow’s figure was perfect for Regency dresses helped, though on this wedding dress, the mannequin was a bit too busty, and thus the dress is riding up where it should not be.  Still, I like this and the other Emma costume.

Again, as mentioned before, the way the tour winds through the house opened up opportunities to show off more than one view of some of the clothes.  This is the veil on Emma’s wedding dress.

And here is the second dress from Emma, though the lighting was terrible.  This was worn in the picnic scene.

This is the wedding dress worn by Frances O’Connor in the 2000 film, Madame Bovary.  It was set in the mid to late 1850, in the era of hoops and pagoda sleeves.

And another dress from Madame Bovary.

What was really interesting, was that not all the costumes were in the historic house.  There was one in the visitor’s center, and another, this one, was in one of the gift shops. This is a costume from Tess, the 1979 Roman Polanski adaptation of Tess of the d’Ubervilles.  The dress was in a glass prison, but that allowed one to see it on all sides.

I think this is supposed to be late 1880s, after the bustle collapsed and sleeves started getting puffy.  It’s a lot of look.

And finally, there was this dress, which is not a film costume, but is rather, a reproduction of Cornelia Vanderbilt’s 1924 wedding dress.  It was re-created by Cosprop, the company that produced the exhibition.  I find it interesting that the original does not exist, or maybe it does and is too fragile to display.  But for some reason, very few of the Vanderbilt family’s clothing survive.  You would think that with all those rooms they’d have plenty of storage space.

Biltmore House was opened to the public in 1930. From what I’ve read, the family was in need of cash, as most of their assets were tied up in the house and the many acres of land.  The estate was a working farm, and some money was being made from dairy cows, but it was during the Depression and money was tight.  The city of Asheville asked Cornelia Vanderbilt Cecil, who had inherited the house in 1925, to open it to the public to draw tourists to the area.  For years only a small part of the house plus the gardens were open, with the family continuing to live there at times.

Over the years, the business at Biltmore has grown considerably.  The dairy is long gone, but in its place is a popular winery.  There are two hotels on the property, and a number of restaurants and cafes.  Much more of the house has been opened, including the downstairs area where the servants worked and lived.

What I found interesting on this trip was how Biltmore seems to have looked at other more touristy, attractions to increase revenue.  One thing that stood out was how they are now targeting children in some of their branding.  Using the “character” of a former St. Bernard owned by Mr. Vanderbilt named Cedric, they have made a special audio tour for kids with Cedric as the guide.  In the gift stores there were Cedric items for sale, and I saw several children carrying around Cedric stuffed dogs.

There is an attempt to market Biltmore, not as an historic site, but as an experience.  Professional photographers take each visitor’s photo as they pass through the house, much like is done in Walt Disney World, and the Titanic attraction in Branson, Missouri and Pigeon Forge, Tennessee.  There are Segway tours, river rafting and carriage rides.  For shoppers, there are a total of twelve gift shops.

If you plan a trip to Biltmore Estate looking for a purely historical experience, you are not going to find it. I suggest to any first time visitor that they take the audio tour, and try to tune out the rest of it.  It is a beautiful house, nicely situated, and it’s always interesting to see how the other one percent lived.



Filed under Museums, North Carolina

20 responses to “Fashionable Romance at the Biltmore Estate, Part II

  1. The commercialization is a shame. We visited Biltmore about 13 years ago. Definitely a tourist attraction, but of the tasteful historic house variety. Enjoyed your photos.


  2. The costumes from Out of Africa have always been a favourite of mine. Thank you for showing that lovely suit, which I remember well from the film.


  3. Thanks for sharing this exhibition with us, Lizzie. Great insights, as ever.


  4. Ruth

    Really irritating–went to the website to see if I could learn more about the exhibition and there is almost nothing there! it’s really nice when museums and other historic places keep in mind that not everyone lives withing visiting distance. I doubt if I’ll ever be able to visit some of the places I go online, but it’s nice to see what’s going on there. The Met is one of the best with a great database you can search, and definitely the V&A. It’s nice to know that if you can afford a visit, what there might be at a place to interest you. I can’t tell if some of these places are afraid of losing out to web viewers who might not visit them, or just don’t care enough to let the public know what’s there to see.


    • It could be that because Biltmore does not own the clothing, that they could not – or did not want – to give more detail. You might try Cosprop’s website to see if there is more detail there.


      • Ruth

        I hadn’t thought of them not owning the clothes affecting what they post, that does make sense, but there wasn’t much about the rooms, either. I did try Cosprop, but I think they are more worried about some other company stealing their designs maybe than having them up for researchers or casual visitors, which I can also understand. I love some of the vintage clothing sites that are kind enough to leave things in their archive, and have good pictures, to research things. What can I say, I’m limited to the computer most times and I love to look at pretty things!?


  5. I’ve toured a couple historic homes here and in Detroit, and always enjoyed it. Clearly, though, none of these places are anywhere near the level of the Biltmore Estate–twelve gift shops!?! It does look like a beautiful place, and how interesting to see it alongside all these costumes. Thanks for the tour!


  6. I think the most important piece of fashion history was glaringly overlooked! The family veil worn by Margaret Meritt Lee to A V Cecil (Grandson of George Vanderbilt circa 1903). Then properly handed down thru the family to Jackie Kennedy is the real connection here-in the historic and romantic sense!? The costume bridal dresses were interesting. I like staying at the Grove Park Inn (old section)the Mission furnishings and the views from the rooms -beautiful! to me the most interesting part of the house is downstairs!


  7. Susan Maresco

    Great display you shared with us, Lizzie, thank you. Please note that Colin First is really Colin Firth.
    I am wishing these costumes and those of the decades of “Downton Abbey” would be photographed and published in a splendid book.


  8. Dear Lizzie- Please accept my apology for any misunderstanding -I was trying to point out to you -the fashion history re: veil. Please read Judy Ross-“Carrying on a Wedding Tradition. You will appreciate the family connection-and the “social geography”! I was just saying – the out of all the costumes in the exhibit-perhaps- one single piece -the Lee veil-was the most important!? Your new site is wonderful!


  9. Lizzie….come back to the Biltmore on April 20th!! I’m having a “Tea & Flowers & Costumes” soiree that’s right up your alley…you’ll love it! A few seats available….be my guest!

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Lizzie, it was a pleasure touring the exhibit with you. It’s always a better experience when you get to view costumes and vintage with a fellow enthusiast! And I see I managed to unintentionally photobomb your post ; ).

    Yes, Biltmore is a tourist destination. But I disagree that it’s all bad, or even “a shame.” For one thing, they’ve done a good job. The house and grounds were not modified in any way that detracts. Even the parking — a necessary evil — is kept well away from the house itself. Nor do signs, logos, advertising, etc. mar the views.

    And really, if there weren’t diverse offerings to attract a variety of visitors, the house, its outbuildings, and all its glorious, landscaped acreage would be inaccessible to the public or, more likely, have become subdivisions and shopping malls by now.

    As is, there is still plenty of peace, quiet, solitude, and nature to be found in wandering the vast grounds, and if you visit the house during the week, you can find yourself alone, or close to it, in many of the rooms.

    Interestingly, on a recent behind-the-scenes tour of the grounds, I learned how Vanderbilt was thinking “green” a century before it became popular or advisable to do so. The estate still functions as environmentally responsibly as possible — they grow their own bio-fuel and irrigate with collected rain water, for example.

    And we can all agree that the winery is a worthwhile addition (wink, wink).

    Looking forward to our next vintage-related jaunt. Just say when and where!

    p.s. Cornelia Powell — I’d love to attend your next event, if possible! How do I sign up? Here in Atlanta, I’ve just started a costume/vintage outings group. If you’re even in the neighborhood, please join us! Search “Atlanta Time Travelers” on Facebook.


    • Didn’t we have a blast! I bet I photobombed your photo as well.

      I see your points, and they are well taken. I can remember the days when the parking was along the front entrance and the access roads, so that is a definite improvement. I can’t find too much fault because they are a good employer, one of the biggest in WNC.

      pss. I’ll make sure you are aware of Cornelia’s next event. Or subscribe to her blog:


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