Tag Archives: Biltmore Estate

Getting Exercise at the Biltmore Estate

One of the things that amazes visitors to Asheville’s Biltmore Estate is the size of it. As a kid of twelve years visiting for the first time, I could not believe that this was the country home for three people. What was not explained back then was that it was home to the George Vanderbilts, but also a “hotel” for their friends, family, and acquaintances. Visitors to the estate were common, and many of the bedrooms were set aside for them.

The house was finished in 1895, and it was located way out in the country outside the very small city of Asheville. For people used to New York and Newport I can imagine that visitors wondered how they would spend the time at the estate. What would they do?

In planning Biltmore, Vanderbilt took this into consideration. He built a large library for the book lovers, and there were walking trails – eventually as far as Mount Pisgah which was fifteen miles away. He also built an indoor recreation area.

The gymnasium had been a popular idea for several years. Doctors and educators had begun to see the importance of exercise as a structured activity. But Vanderbilt’s gym area was not all work. He also had a two lane bowling alley.

It would not have been appropriate for the men and women at Biltmore to go traipsing around the house in their exercise attire and bathing suits, so a line of changing rooms was built between the bowling alleys and the indoor swimming pool.

It’s pretty much impossible to get a photo of the pool that shows it properly. It is in a tiled and vaulted room, with the deck built around three sides. It’s a large space, but feels a bit claustrophobic, as the walls are so close to the pool. If the tilework looks a bit familiar to those of you in New York, that is because it was designed by architect Raphael Guastavino, who worked extensively in New York, and designed many of the early subway stations.

There was once an outdoor swimming pool, which has been filled in.

The gym had some basic exercise equipment like the rowing machine above, but it was mainly an area for free exercise. On the wall you can see a row of “Indian” pins or clubs, which an exerciser used to swing around and build up the arms.

Or one could workout on the parallel bars, or use the wooden dumbbells located on the wall. There are even two showers.

This image is from an 1895 book, Artistic Work and Gymnastic Games by Henry S. Anderson and Stanley Schell. I love the thought of women thus attired in the Biltmore gym.



Filed under Gymnasium, Museums, North Carolina

Designed for Drama at the Biltmore Estate

For the third spring in a row, the Biltmore Estate in Asheville is presenting a costume display in the Vanderbilt mansion.  As before, the exhibition is planned and presented by Cosprop, a British costume shop, well-known for their work in “costume dramas.”  And while this is not, strictly speaking, fashion history, it does give an excellent look at how fashions of the past are portrayed in film.

As before, I went to the Biltmore with friend Liza of Better Dresses Vintage, and this time we were joined by Suzanne of Vintage Runway, and Cornelia of Cornelia Powell Weddings.   I can’t say enough about how enlightening it is to attend events like this one with people who share an interest in fashion history.  I learn as much from my friends as I do from the exhibition.

We went on the opening day of the exhibition, and were happy that it was on a weekday, and not the more crowded weekend.  Before the show opened, Biltmore had placed five (that we located, at least) costumes in the public areas of the estate, not in the house proper.  I really do not know if they will be/have been moved into the house, so I’ll give a hint as where to find those not actually in the house.

The first costume was the one above, worn by Carey Mulligan in Far from the Madding Crowd. It is in the visitor’s center.  Like all the costumes not actually in Biltmore House, this one is encased in a protective glass cage.  That makes for very poor photo taking, but the actual viewing experience is much better than my photos might suggest.

One thing I wish the production would add to the information given is when the story was supposed to have taken place.  Of course, we can dig deep into that old literary education and come up with rough dates, and we can also use the styles of the clothing, but in order to check for authenticity of style, knowing exactly when would be a big help.

Far from the Madding Crowd was published in 1874, but that does not mean the movie was set in that year.  From looking at many historical drama costumes, I’ve learned that the late 19th century is often loosely interpreted as far as fashion goes.  Above, another costume worn by Mulligan in the role of Bathsheba Everdene.

These costumes are from Finding Neverland, the story of author Sir JM Barrie, played by Johnny Depp, and his relationship with a woman (Kate Winslet) whose children inspired his character Peter Pan.

The movie was set in the last days of the nineteenth century, and the early twentieth century.  This dress was worn by actress Radha Mitchell, who played Barrie’s wife in the film.

You’d never know, but these are costumes from an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night.  This 1996 version was set sometime in the late nineteenth century, but I just could not see these dresses as actually being the style of any particular era.  They were worn by Helena Bonham Carter and Imogen Stubbs.

There were several beautiful dresses designed by John Bright of Cosprop for the 2000 version of Henry James’ The Golden Bowl.

This story was set in the very early days of the twentieth century, and the gowns for it look the most at home within Biltmore House, which was finished in 1895.

This suit was worn by Kate Beckinsale in the role of Maggie Verver.

Well, this was a delightful moment!  Mr. Darcy meets Miss Elizabeth Bennett, not on the lawn, but in the library.  These costumes were from the 1995 BBC adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.

This is from another Jane Austen story, Sense and Sensibility,  and was worn in a 1995 version starring Emma Thompson.  This dress was worn by her.

This costume is in the Biltmore Wine Shop, which seems a bit odd, but it was positioned such as to allow a really great look from all sides.

And finally for today, this costume was worn by Anne Hathaway in Becoming Jane, a story not written by Austen, but rather, about her.  It was based on a book of the same title which speculated on a supposed romance that Austen had.  Anyway, this costume was one of my favorites.  All the decoration on the dress was embroidered (but impossible to photograph) and the fabric was the most scrumptious color (again, un-photograph-able).  This costume is on the second floor of the Village Hotel.

I loved how the plaques showed each costume as it was worn in the each film.  It really does help to see them in action.  Which leads to another observation:  I enjoyed the costumes of the films which I had seen better than the ones I had not seen and had no idea of how the actors portrayed the characters.  But now I’ll have the pleasure of catching up on films not seen.

Tomorrow:  the exciting conclusion of this tour.


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.



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.


Filed under Museums, North Carolina

Asheville’s Biggest Attraction Adds *New* Vintage Clothing Collection

As part of the Costume Society Symposium last weekend, we all went to what is generally considered to be Asheville’s largest attraction, the Biltmore Estate.   Ever since the house was opened to the public in 1930 it has been highly publicized as one of the “must sees” of the area.

Built by one of the heirs to the Vanderbilt fortune, George Vanderbilt, the house was completed in 1895.  And it is huge, with over 250 rooms, it was a masterpiece of Gilded Age Show-offery.  And it is still owned by the builder’s descendants, and still has the original furnishings.

One of the reasons the CSA chose to visit Biltmore was because they have recently added clothing  to the room exhibits.  This was part of a larger, over-all effort to make the rooms more lived-in.  I’ve visited this house numerous times, starting with a 6th grade field trip in 1967, and it was true that it was very hard to imagine that people actually lived here.  The effort to make the house look more like a home includes such things as family photos scattered about, paper and pen on a writing desk, professionally made fake food on the tea cart, and clothing props.

I really don’t have a problem with clothing props; I actually think they can add a lot to a museum house.  The problem at Biltmore is that nowhere is it mentioned in the guidebook that the props being used are not original to the house or to the Vanderbilt family.  We were very lucky to have a visit from Biltmore’s curator before we went to the house, and she explained that all of the clothing items on display were new acquisitions.

While there is quite a bit of the Vanderbilt family’s clothing left from the 1920s and later, there is no clothing from the time period that the house interprets.  Thus, when they decided to display clothing, they had to start from scratch and build a collection of 1895-1900 clothing.  And they have done a beautiful job of it.  The displays are well done, and do actually give the house a more homelike feel.

Still, it seems a bit off, perhaps because the average visitor is going to go away thinking they have seen the Vanderbilt’s clothing.  I  say the average visitor, because some people are going to get the information from the tour guides.  And this leads to the second problem I have with Biltmore – the prices.

Believe it or not, the price of an adult ticket is $55.  And to make it even worse, to take a guided tour where you really learn something, you have to pay an additional $17.  It just seems to me that $72 is a bit much to see even the most magnificent home.  And there is also the cost of lunch (lots of great places to eat on site) and drinks (they have a winery) and souvenirs, and this is one pricey day in the mountains.

So the people on the tours might possibly be told that the clothing is not original, but the cheap-skates who try to muddle through with their $55 ticket and small tour booklet are going to tell their friends to be sure to see Mrs. Vanderbilt’s lovely gowns.

Just one more observation:  even though we had paid for a tour, we did not get to see all of the rooms.  There were at least two rooms that were just on a newly make tour, and so we were whisked by those, as were most visitors.  And while the group I was in had a very good guide who answered all questions and pointed out a lot of interesting things, others were not so lucky, and complained that their guides did not even mention the newly installed clothing at all!

But, I will say the the Biltmore Company is constantly working on restoration, and that they do it right.  That is not cheap.  And they are one of the region’s largest employers, with around 1800 people working for them.  Operating costs have to be high.  Still, with all they have going on – the house, the winery, an inn (rooms start at $200 a night), a whole range of licensed home decorative objects for sale, and a new shopping area, seems like the cost of admission could be a bit more in line with that of other private historic structures.

Still, if someone were to ask, I’d have to say that yes, you should see this house at least once.  Go, do the tour, drink the wine and try to imagine that the Vanderbilts are picking up the tab.


Filed under Museums, North Carolina