Category Archives: Museums

Tennessee State Museum, Nashville

With all the emphasis on country music in Nashville, it is easy to forget that the city is also the state capital.   One thing that can sometimes be found in a state capital is a state museum.

State museums are odd ducks.  They are paid for with tax money, and the workers are employees of the state.  History is often presented in a patriotic manner, with large chunks of what might be uncomfortable to present being glossed over or just omitted altogether.  For instance, one Southern state museum I’ve visited talks all about how cotton mills were important to the economy of that state, and goes so far as to talk about the mill village as a product of mill owner’s charity.  Not a word is written about the struggle of mill workers to gain safe working conditions and decent wages.

I’ve come to expect this carefully edited form of history from both state and municipal museums.  In many cases, they seem to have exhibits based on what they think will attract interest, as in the North Carolina Museum of History and its exhibit on Nascar, or the Atlanta History Center and the room full of golfer Bobby Jones artifacts.  And of course, every Southern history museum has a shrine to that enduring lost cause, the American Civil War.

Which brings me to my recent visit to the Tennessee State Museum.  I’m afraid that we really didn’t do the place justice, as the morning had been spent in the Country Music Hall of Fame, and the early afternoon in a place called Honky Tonky Central, which was loud and fun.  But we somehow made our way up the hill (who knew Nashville is so hilly?) and into the museum.

It was not the best conditions for trying to absorb more information, being tired and full of burgers and beer.  But museums are there to be visited, and Tim gamely agreed to a look, though I knew he’d rather be browsing the aisles of the great urban market and bakery we had passed.  As a result, we accidentally missed an entire chunk of the museum.  But because one of the major players in that chunk was Andrew Jackson, I was not concerned.  I’m not a fan of our seventh president.

As one enters the main floor of the museum, there is a large exhibition on the prehistoric story of Tennessee.  We decided to by-pass the fossils and early American artifacts, and headed to a lower level.  In this area we enjoyed the exhibition relating to social movements within Tennessee.  The top photo shows a banner made by members of Tennessee Equal Suffrage Association.

Interestingly, there was also a display of artifacts from the Temperance Movement.  That is a quilt made and signed by the Chattanooga, Tennessee Chapter of the Women’s Temperance Union.

Maybe because we missed part of the early story, I just could not get a sense of time in the museum.  One minute we were looking at items that were important in 1920, and then we rounded a corner to encounter a Civil War scene.

Thrown into the mix was this outfit that belonged to singer Isaac Hayes, who was a Tennessee native.

But there was a quilt room with some fantastic examples of the quilter’s craft.  The one above is the winding blades pattern and was made in Clarksville, TN in the 1870s.  The quilts are mounted on diagonal surfaces which allows for decent viewing without putting too much stress on the textiles.

I loved this idea.  I’ve been to lots of museums and have seen a lot of quilts exhibited, but I’m pretty sure this is the first time I’ve ever seen a quilting frame set up in a museum.

Finally, the museum had what is probably the finest crazy quilt I’ve ever seen.  It was started in 1884 by Elizabeth Cheney Cash, and finished in 1954 by Harold Cash.  Unfortunately, that is all I can tell you.  Was Harold the son or grandson of Elizabeth?  The museum does not share that information with the visitor.

All the photos below can be enlarged by clicking.  In doing so you will be rewarded with glimpses of some very fine needlework.

3 Comments

Filed under Museums, Viewpoint

Country Music Hall of Fame, Nashville, Tennessee

If you follow my Instagram, then you know that we went to Nashville last week.  It’s only a four hour drive, but not being fans of current country music we had never made the trip.  When the liquidation of the inventory of a huge vintage clothing shop was announced, I decided we now had reason enough to cross the mountains into Tennessee.

But a trip is never just about shopping when there are museums to be seen.  When in Nashville, one must pay homage to the Country gods at the Country Music Hall of Fame.  The place is huge, with permanent exhibits and temporary exhibitions.  It’s a lot to take in, but I thought the story of the development of country music was well told.  I’m not a fan of current country music, but the history of the genre was fascinating.  Simply put, country began as a mix of Appalachian folk, Black gospel, and cowboy tunes.

I had forgotten how much a part of my life country music has been until this visit.  My father was a big fan of both country and folk music, and by the time I was ten I knew every Johnny Cash song by heart.  As kids we thought it was pretty corny.

Country music is often referred to as Country and Western, and the “western” influences are many, especially in the way country performers have dressed over the years.  There were cowboy boots galore in the museum, all of them ornately decorated.  Above are pairs that belonged to Roy Rogers (yellow) and Dale Evans (blue).

There were quite a few items from the famous “singing cowboys” from the movies of the 1930s and 40s.  Early items, like the Roy Rogers shirt above, were quite plain, but as time went on performance costumes got more and more ornate as the stars took their cues from rodeo stars who had been influenced by the look of the Mexican vaqueros.  All this evolution of style would make a fascinating study!

By the late 1940s, many country stars were buying from Nudie Cohn, the Rodeo Tailor.  Nudie (born in Russia as Nuta Kotlyarenko!) gained a reputation for customized suits and boots and his influence cannot be understated.  He was as much a star as the men and women he dressed.

Here is Nudie’s sewing machine.

While Nudie became famous for his highly embroidered and bespangled suits, one of the most familiar suits on display is this one he made for Hank Williams.  The music notes are applique, and look carefully to see that they extend down the sides of the legs.

And don’t miss the Roy Acuff cloth flour sack.  Acuff was from East Tennessee and was instrumental in the popularization of Appalachian folk melodies as a part of country music.

Many performers used their professional clothing to capitalize on the popularity of a particular song.  Nudie made this suit for singer Hank Snow after his big 1952 hit, “The Golden Rocket.”  I assume the song was about a train.

This Nudie jacket was made for Ray Price, who was billed as “The Cherokee Cowboy.”  Price did grow up on a Texas farm, but I could not find any reference to him actually being Cherokee.

These blue suede shoes belonged, not to Elvis, but to Carl Perkins, the writer and original singer of the song.

If you were ever lucky enough to attend an Elvis concert, you know about the scarves.  Elvis’s manager, Col. Parker came up with the idea of Elvis handing out printed scarves to crazed fans during his performances.  When I saw him in Asheville in 1975 (the time when he put a bullet through the TV at the motel where he was staying) he must have given away over a hundred of them.  Stupid and shy me missed out.

One of my favorite pieces was this Mel Tillis jacket, which was made by another famous tailor to the stars, Manuel Cuevas.

There weren’t as many costumes from women singers, and I was, frankly, disappointed in what the museum chose to represent Patsy Cline.  Many photos of her performing show her in full-out cowgirl with fringe costumes, though she also performed in rather ordinary dresses of the day.  Cline died in 1963, so it is interesting that she was performing in slacks, even if they were gold lamé with matching boots.

The guitar suit belonged to singer Don Gibson, a Western North Carolina native, and singer of “Oh, Lonesome Me.”

This costume puts me in mind of a cowboy super-hero, but it is actually another song-inspired suit.  Nudie made this ensemble for Hank Garland, who wrote the Red Foley hit, “Sugarfoot Rag.”

The museum has a special section to celebrate Merle Haggard, who died back in April.  Haggard had a very troubled childhood, and was in and out of juvenile detention centers, and later, prison for a variety of offences.  He was actually in San Quentin in 1958 when Johnny Cash performed there.  Hag managed to get his life on track, and by the mid 1960s was a moderate star.  He had a string of major hits in the late 60s including “Mama Tried” and “Okie from Muskogee” (one of the all time hilariously ironic recordings ever).

To me, Merle’s best years were the “Outlaw Country” 1980s when he performed with Willie Nelson and others.  He played in Asheville in 1983 was was arrested after the show for consuming alcohol on the stage.  I still have the tee shirt I got at the concert.  During his induction into the Hall of Fame, he quipped, ” I thought you had to be dead to get in here.”  I do love Hag.

Dottie West’s outfit above was designed by that master of bling, Bob Mackie.  The boots were made by Di Fabrizio, the bootmaker who made boots for the rock group, Kiss.

And of course, there was a black suit from Johnny Cash.  We also visited the Johnny Cash museum where we saw even more black suits.

In the 1960s, the lines between country and rock continued to be blurred, a process that began with Elvis and Carl Perkins in the 50s.  By the mid 60s, rock singers were going to Nashville, and there is a special exhibition called “Nashville Cats” that focuses on the give and take nature of rock and country at that time.  Many songs of that period just cannot be put into a special box labeled “country.”

A  good example is Gram Parsons.  Here is the Nudie suit he had made for the cover of the album The Gilded Palace of Sin in 1969.  Those are pills, poppies, and marijuana plants.  I guess Gram was into drugs. (Thanks to Janey Atomic Redhead for identifying the poppies.)

By the late 1970s, old style country music was out of style.  Country singers were less flashy, and a lot less “folky”.  Dwight Yoakum ,  with his nouveau honky tonk style was making no headway in Nashville in the established country music industry, so he went to California where he released his first album in 1986.

What really makes Yoakum interesting is his look.  He went to Manuel Cuevas for his jackets which he paired with torn and repaired jeans decorated with Mexican silver conchos and a tuxedo shirt left hanging out.  It was a throw back to the spangled costumes of a few decades earlier, but at the same time, seems to predate the torn jeans look by quite a few years.  In fact, Kanye West wore a similar look to the Met Gala this year.

And finally, I really loved that the Country Music Hall of Fame had a little area where kids (of all ages) could design their own country outfit.

13 Comments

Filed under Museums, Proper Clothing, Road Trip

Reynolda House Museum of American Art

Reynolda House Museum of American Art © Reynolda House Museum of American Art

On a recent trip to Winston-Salem, we took a bit of time to visit Reynolda House.  I’ve been there several times, but there was an exhibition of Ansel Adams photographs that I wanted to see, and Tim had never seen the house.  It just seemed like the right thing to do.

Reynolda is the story of three women – Katherine Smith Reynolds, her daughter Mary Reynolds Babcock, and granddaughter Barbara Babcock Millhouse.  Even more interesting is that the main character in this story in times past was R.J. Reynolds, Katherine’s husband, and the owner of Reynolds Tobacco.  But this house is so much more than the house of a wealthy industrialist.  It was a home created by the Reynolds women.

To be fair to RJ, he only lived there a very short time before he died.  The house was finished in 1917, and he died in 1918, but it did become the family home in every sense.

In 1905, RJ married his cousin and much-younger secretary, Katherine Smith.  He was pretty much a confirmed bachelor, and I’m sure all of Winston-Salem was a bit taken aback by the wedding.  Smith was an accomplished woman for the times, having not only graduated college and having moved from the family home to the city to work, but she was also an expert seamstress who made much of her trousseau.  Over the next few years she had four children.

The family lived in Winston-Salem, but Katherine bought large tracts of land a few miles north of the city.  That is where Reynolda and its supporting farm and village were built.  As you can see, the exterior of the house was rather plain.

The Reception Hall at Reynolda House © Reynolda House Museum of American Art

But as you stepped into the front reception hall, you knew this was no ordinary country home.  This was a house to be lived in, but it was also built for entertaining.

After RJ died, Katherine and their children continued on at Reynolda.  In 1921 she remarried, and unfortunately, she died following the birth of a fifth child in 1924.  At the time her oldest child was only twelve.  Eventually, in 1934, daughter Mary Babcock became the owner of the estate.  Her own children were in part reared in the house, which Mary and her husband updated after moving there in the 1930s.

Art Deco Bar at Reynolda House © Reynolda House Museum of American Art

While the main part of the house was left intact, Mary turned the basement into a recreation center, complete with bar, bowling alley, and indoor swimming pool.  Her family lived there through the 1950s, when it was becoming increasingly hard to maintain such a huge house and estate.  In the 1960s the property was made into a non-profit that was to further arts education.

Mary’s daughter Barbara Babcock Millhouse became the next woman to shape Reynolda.  She had become interested in American art in a time when there was not much interest in it, and so she was able to start a collection that became the nucleus of the Reynolda House Museum today.  She had a simple strategy for collecting – to buy the best example she could find of who she considered to be the American masters.

The house opened to the public in 1967, and as a high school junior I visited it in the fall of 1971 as part of a statewide tour my class got to take.  I can remember that we all compared it unfavorably to the Biltmore House in Asheville, but one classmate pointed out that it was more like a home than was the Biltmore.  And he was right.

One thing of interest to the fashion lovers among us is that Katherine Smith Reynolds loved clothes, and she used a big room on the third floor of the house as her huge closet.  Over the years, the other men and women of Reynolda used this area as clothing storage, and in 1972 the room was “rediscovered” and found to be full of the clothing of three generations of the family.  Despite the fact that the room had been used by the children as a source for dress-up play, the clothes were in good condition.  Today, the attic is a display space for a rotating exhibit of the Reynolds family clothing.

After my first visit to the house in 1971, I did not make it there again until 2003.  I went because I’d read that the Reynolds clothing was on exhibit, so I went and spent an entire afternoon sketching the collection.  I can’t remember if there was a photography policy, but at the time I was so into drawing that I probably would not have taken them any way.

On this trip, I did notice the policy (Oh, now Instagram has changed things!) and photos are allowed in only two areas inside the house.  I’m sure this is a compromise to satisfy the selfie generation as the two areas are great photo opps.  Still I found myself wanting to photograph the details of the clothing, as with a husband along, the time for sketching just was not there.

But I was even more surprised later when I reread the list of rules and found that one must have permission before sketching in the house.  I really do not understand why an art museum would want to limit sketching.

I do understand the photography rule though, and like it or not, I will admit that our visit was enhanced by the knowledge that I could not whip out the phone and start snapping.  It was a quiet afternoon at the museum, and we had the little audio tour devices which told not only about the house and the Reynolds family, but about most of the works of art on display.  Still, I’d have loved some detail shots of that Boue Soeurs cape.

Click for more about Reynolda House, including some shots of the clothing.

Sightseeing hint:  As a former teacher, I know that school groups have to be at a site early, and they usually have to return to school before it closes between 2:30 and 3:00 pm.  So late afternoon is a quieter time to visit many museums that are popular with groups of school kids.

 

 

7 Comments

Filed under Museums, North Carolina

Exploring The Charleston Museum

I always love a great fashion exhibition, but it’s also fun to look for traces of clothing and textile history in places that are not “fashion” museums.  Because the clothes we wear and the business of making textiles and clothing is so intertwined with our lives, one can find fashion exhibited in almost any museum.  That’s especially true in places like the Carolinas where cotton production and cloth manufacture are important to the economy.

A recent visit to the Charleston Museum in Charleston, South Carolina, proved to be  full of stuff of interest to the fashion historian.  The Charleston Museum has a gallery dedicated to textiles, but the other exhibits have textile history as well.  One of the main galleries is a sort of Carolina Lowcountry timeline, starting with Native American culture, and then working its way to the present.

One thing I found to be particularly interesting in the telling of the the story of slavery is how the museum focuses on the culture of the enslaved Africans, rather than on the issue of slavery.  There are some artifacts that do make it clear that slaves were considered to be property, but much of what you see is like the baskets above.  Today, many descendants of slaves still make and sell these sweetgrass baskets, and so the basket weavers are a familiar sight in Charleston on the streets and in the market.  It is an object that visitors to the city can relate to, and it shows how the skill of making them dates back to slavery.

Southern museums and museum houses that date to the antebellum period (before the American Civil War) are often criticized for their glossing over of slavery.  Personally, I’ve been to a lot of museums and plantations in the South, and I’ve never had an experience where I left being shaken by how the site interpreted slavery.  This is not to be taken as a criticism of The Charleston Museum, as they only have so much space and as a general history and culture museum, perhaps the task is best left to another institution.  I will say that I could have done with fewer Civil War era guns, and more in depth coverage of human issues.

The photo at the top is of a cotton bale.  Cotton bales were large and heavy and represent a lot of human labor.  They also have on display a cotton gin (or engine), the machine that allowed cotton production to flourish, and with it, slavery.

Of course, the big event in Charleston was the Civil War, and in particular, the bombardment of Fort Sumter.  There is a large section on the war and lots of guns.  Whoever thinks the South was short on arms during the war has never visited a Southern museum.  There are enough surviving Civil War rifles scattered across the South to arm General Lee’s army.

But as we know, history is not just the battles fought.  History gets interesting when we start to see events as happening to people.  And the Charleston Museum does an excellent job of presenting life along with the battles.

Alongside the guns and uniforms, you will also see the clothing of women and children.

There are also displays of the tools used in textile and clothing making in the home and workshop, though the floating flax wheel (upper left) and yarn winder (upper right) are a bit odd.

Click to enlarge

I loved these little sewing accouterments, especially the pincushion encased in a carved walnut shell.

Click for details

My favorite object has to be this peddler’s trunk.  I can only imagine how exciting it must have been for an isolated farm family when a traveling salesman showed up at their door with this trunk of treasures.

Another section of the museum is a throw-back to the early days of its history.  The Charleston Museum was founded in 1773 and opened to the public in 1824. In those days museums were more like cabinets of curiosity than the well organized and mission statemented institutions of today.  As such, many of the oldest artifacts have nothing at all to do with the history, culture, or natural history of the region.

This mummy was acquired in 1893 by museum director and curator Gabriel Manigault.  The sarcophagus was added in the 1920s.  These are the sort of miscellaneous objects that collectors prized.  The interesting thing about this exhibit is that it is telling the history of the museum more than it is telling about the Charleston region.

Click

There is also a children’s area in the museum, with lots of hands-on activities, but also with artifacts that tell about the lives of children in Charleston.

There is also a stuffed polar bear, but I somehow neglected to get a photo.  What do polar bears have to do with South Carolina?  Absolutely nothing.

 

12 Comments

Filed under Museums

Unveiled, Wedding Attire at the Charleston Museum

Wedding attire must be the theme of March, as I was able to attend another exhibition dedicated to weddings, this one at the Charleston Museum.  I’ll write more about the museum in another post, but for now I’ll just say that it functions mainly as a history museum for the South Carolina Lowcountry region.  They have a fantastic clothing collection, most of it coming from Charleston families.  In presenting special fashion exhibitions, they explore not just the clothing, but they have the advantage in many cases, of knowing who owned a garment.  Many of their garments are also documented in period photos.

Traditionally, the museum used some of the costume and textile collection as part of the larger displays that told the history of Charleston.  About twelve years ago they started having special clothing exhibitions, but the problem was that there was no space to adequately show clothes.  I remember looking at a 1920s Worth evening coat that was displayed in a flat case, in a light-filled atrium.  Not an ideal situation, in any sense of the word.

Today the situation is entirely different, as a gallery dedicated just to textiles was opened in 2010.  It’s a beautiful light-controlled space, with a variety of viewing areas, and with seating for those who need to sit and contemplate (or sketch).  The only thing I do not like about it is that all the display areas are behind glass, and that does hinder viewing somewhat, especially if there are interesting details on the back of a garment.

The photo above shows the introduction to the exhibition which consisted of three dresses from different eras.  On the left is a dress from 1927, worn by Mary Gaillard, in the middle is a 1892 dress worn by Ethel Sanford in 1892, and on the right is a 1925 dress worn by Emily Gladys Canaday.  The rest of the exhibition is arranged in chronological order.The oldest dresses were early 1800s Regency style, but my photo is so poor that it is pointless to post it here.

So I’ll take up the show in 1830, when the dress on the left was worn. The bride was Margaret Izard, and the groom was Nathaniel Russell Middleton.  The dress is hand embroidered throughout.  In the middle is the 1842 dress of Middleton’s second wife, Anna Elizabeth DeWolf.  On the wall is a portrait of the second Mrs. Middleton in her dress.  Look carefully to note that her waist was not as small as it first appears to be.

The dress on the right is also from 1842, and was worn by Elizabeth Mary Lesesne Blamyer.  And on the far right is a lovely selection of groom’s vests, all of which were made of silk and worn between 1848 and 1860.

The Charleston Museum is very lucky to have this set in their collection.  The dress was worn by Louisa Jane Dearing, and the vest was her groom’s, Henry Edmondston.  They were married in 1859.  According to the notes concerning the dress, “The bodice laces in the back with 28 pairs of tiny bound holes.” Unfortunately that feature was not visible to museum visitors.

Yes, I know this photo is really poor, but the story behind the dress is too good not to share.  The dress was worn by Louisa Rebecca McCord in June of 1865.  The American Civil War had just ended, and materials were scarce.  According to Louisa’s diary, the bride finally located ten yards of white organdy, the only white goods available in Columbia, SC.  The price was so high that the family sold their remaining carpet, some chairs, and butter and lard from their plantation in order to pay for the fabric.

These two dresses date from 1883 and 1884, and were creatively positioned in order to show the most prominent features of the dresses, their bustles.  These were in a corner with glass on two sides and so visitors could see the slim silhouette of the front and the fullness in back.

I probably need to pause here and talk about color.  The overwhelming number of dresses shown were white, or whitish.  I made the comment when writing about the bridal costumes at Biltmore that I found it interesting that all the dresses were white when the vogue of white wedding dresses did not come along until 1840.  Of course, white wedding dresses did exist before that date, and by the look of things in this exhibition, they were common.  An interesting comment was made by Jessamyn: :The main thing that changed in the 19th century was the idea that white was obligatory for a bride.”

Here’s another look at the 1892 dress of Ethel Sanford.  The museum also has a matching evening bodice.

At this point I need to stop and put in another plug for Dressed for the Photographer by Joan Severa.  Having just read that book helped me see the changes from dress to dress.

The silk dress on the left dates from 1906 and was worn by Sarah Francis.  The suit was worn by bride Alma Grace Van Keuren in 1910.  What is really interesting is that the suit has a department store label, Louis Cohen & Co, Charleston, S.C.  Ready-to-wear for women was still in the early years, and in 1910 most clothing for women was still being made by professional dressmakers or at home.

This dress was worn by Alice Prioleau Ravenel in 1914.  Note how the train curves around to the front where it is attached to the dress with a spray of artificial orange blossoms.

These three dresses are from the 1920s.  On the left, a velvet dress worn by Harriett C. Arthur in 1922.  The middle dress belonged to Annie Kangeter and dates to 1921.  The bride’s sister made the dress, which you can see on the bride in the photograph  on the wall.  The third dress was worn in 1924 by Septima Toomer Holmes.

You can see how styles were becoming less ornamented in the 1928 dress on the left.  It was worn by Cornelia Milam, and was made by her mother.  The dress in the middle was worn by Ruth Petty Pringle in 1931.  It was bought in a Charleston specialty shop, The Frock Shop.

Left to right:  1937, bride Martha Kirk; 1942, bride Jean Walsh; 1945, bride Ruth Raymond Huegel; 1948, Bernice Alice Byrd, but altered in 1989 for her daughter Amy Bassett Cole; 1952, bride Elizabeth Lamis.

The textile gallery also has a section of casees and drawers to display accessories.

And, of course, what is a fashion exhibition without some shoes?

Unveiled runs through July 19, 2016, and I highly recommend it to anyone living or traveling in the Charleston, South Carolina area.

9 Comments

Filed under Museums

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.

 

20 Comments

Filed under Museums, North Carolina

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.

20 Comments

Filed under Museums, North Carolina