A transatlantic collaboration: Recreating a Vanderbilt family heirloom
Written By Leeann Donnelly
Biltmore’s Curator of Interpretation Leslie Klingner was anticipating the arrival of a special delivery when we met recently to talk with her about a unique collaboration that would result in the re-creation of a Vanderbilt family heirloom.
Due in the very next day from England was the result of that collaboration: a replica of the wedding gown and veil Cornelia Vanderbilt wore in her 1924 wedding to John Frances Amherst Cecil. The gown is part of our new exhibition opening on Feb. 12, “Fashionable Romance: Wedding Gowns in Film.”
Because the new exhibition contains a section devoted to wedding stories about the Vanderbilt and Cecil families, Leslie and team decided to have the ensemble recreated for our guests to enjoy. The original gown and veil are not in Biltmore’s archival collection, yet many photographs exist of Cornelia in the dress including one of her standing on the Grand Staircase in Biltmore House.
Leslie and members of Biltmore’s Museum Services Team joined forces with John Bright and his team at London-based Cosprop, Ltd., a respected costumier to film, television and theater. Biltmore has enjoyed a friendship with Bright and his company since working together on bringing their costumes from “Downton Abbey” to Biltmore for an exhibition in 2015. And of course, Bright’s team is responsible for creating the gorgeous film costumes to be featured in “Fashionable Romance.”
Leslie, staff archivist Jill Hawkins, and curator Lori Garst set about scouring the archives for every photo of Cornelia in her wedding gown they could find. They gathered newspaper clippings about the wedding and descriptions of her dress. They made copies of the material, packed it all up and sent it overseas to Bright. (Back in 1924, news of Cornelia Vanderbilt’s wedding was akin to coverage of what a modern-day celebrity receives when getting married.)
With all of that information, Bright’s team would create a straight satin foundation with long sleeves and a shortened hemline; and an antique lace stole that forms the lace outer layer of the dress. They would also make Cornelia’s dramatic voluminous veil and its lengthy train.
“The silhouette of the dress was very elegant and its unique structure was more common in the 1920s. It’s modern, and closely cut with an undersheath made from very luxe materials. The draping and length were very much in keeping with the changing fashion of the Jazz Age,” Leslie said.
Before any sewing took place, the teams spent many hours planning by conference call. Fabric and lace samples traveled between Asheville and London. In all, the planning process took one year. Actual construction of the dress took a five-person team at Cosprop seven weeks.
Lessons in ingenuity
That an ocean was between the two teams was but a small technicality in recreating Cornelia’s dress. Issues more challenging presented themselves along the way:
- Cornelia’s exact measurements were unknown. Leslie and team employed their research skills and came up with a composite for Bright. They knew she was tall, and her 1922 passport application confirmed that she was about 5 feet 10 inches tall. For the remaining crucial details, Biltmore Conservator Anne Battram measured one of the few pieces of Cornelia’s clothing in the archives: her French Renaissance page costume she wore during her 21st birthday masquerade party in 1921.
- Textiles used in the original dress are no longer made. Despite the absence of the same satin weave fabric used for the sheath of the dress, Bright knew where he could find the closest thing that would match the lustrous sheen of Cornelia’s gown. “He did a fabulous job,” Leslie says.
- The silk tulle required to create the veil’s volume is no longer available in the original width. Bright is an Oscar-winning costumer designer, so his expertise and experience informed his ability to take the widest silk tulle available and work with it to create the right proportions.
- The silk tulle is ethereal and light making it subject to wilting in humid conditions. To ensure the veil remains as airy and voluminous as it was on Cornelia’s wedding day for the duration of the exhibition, Bright added a layer of nylon tulle underneath to help maintain the body of the fabric.
The dress indeed arrived the day after our talk with Leslie. We checked back in with her about the results.
“We are absolutely ecstatic with the outcome,” says Leslie. “This was a complex project, particularly since many of materials were antique originally and impossible to source, so we knew we would never be able to create a perfect facsimile. But, John Bright and Cosprop created an astounding likeness of the gown – down to the orange blossoms on Cornelia’s veil.”
You can see the dress for yourself when “Fashionable Romance: Wedding Gowns in Film” opens Feb. 12.
Featured image: John Bright and his team at Cosprop, Ltd. in London worked from archival photography and newspaper accounts of Cornelia Vanderbilt’s 1924 wedding to John F.A. Cecil to replicate her gown for Biltmore’s new exhibition.
Also featured: Biltmore’s Leslie Klingner compares lace and silk fabric samples sent to her in Asheville, N.C., from Bright in London.