One of the most fun things about volunteering at a small, local museum is finding the treasures and oddities within. For example, one wouldn’t expect to find in a house dedicated to local history and mountain handicrafts a garment that once belonged to the mistress of the renowned Biltmore Estate, located about thirty miles away. But according to family history, this cape did belong to Edith Vanderbilt.
In case you are not familiar with Biltmore, it’s the 1890s house built by George Vanderbilt, grandson of Cornelius Vanderbilt who made millions from railroads. Even after the money filtered down to the grandchildren, there was enough to buy 125,000 acres in Western North Carolina, and to built this huge vanity project. In 1898 George married Edith Stuyvesant Dresser, and it is she who supposedly owned the cape.
This garment was donated to my museum by the daughter of a women who worked for Mrs. Vanderbilt years later. By that time Edith had remarried and was living part time in the new luxury housing development, Biltmore Forest. Biltmore House was inhabited by her newly married daughter and her young family.
There’s no hard proof that the cape came from Edith, but there are some things to consider. Biltmore House is huge, with dozens of rooms that could have stored the family’s out of date clothing, but according to a curator I talked with twelve years ago, there was little old clothing to be found in the home when they went looking for it. The oldest things dated to the 1920s, and probably belonged to the daughter.
So where did the Victorian and Edwardian clothing go? It is likely that Edith did give it all away to people who worked for her. This was a somewhat common practice among royalty, and American nouveau riche loved to imitate royalty. Even today it’s said that Queen Elizabeth gives her castoffs to her dressers.
The family history seems to be pretty solid, with the donator providing details about the gift. And the big question is, how would a woman who worked as a maid come about such a luxurious garment?
And it is a very fine object. It’s made entirely of silk from the ties at the neck to the tassels and silk-covered beads at the hem.
It is constructed of black silk strips joined with silk netting, and decorated with chenille trim. Except for a few beads, the cape is intact and is in great condition.
I was able to unmount the cape and to examine the interior. I was really disappointed to see there was no label.
So is there any way to prove this cape came from Biltmore House? The only way I can think of is to find a photo of Edith (or maybe another family member) wearing it. The Vanderbilts’ lives were well-documented by photography, so it is possible the evidence is somewhere in the Biltmore Company’s archive. As of yet, I have not been able to find it in books and online.
The pink flowers are not original to the cape.