Behind the Scenes of A Vanderbilt House Party
Estate History 01/09/19
Written By Amy Dangelico
In anticipation of A Vanderbilt House Party – The Gilded Age exhibition, we met up with Leslie Klingner, Biltmore’s Curator of Interpretation, to chat about what it took to recreate clothing from the Vanderbilts’ original wardrobes.
1. Why recreate these pieces of clothing? Are the original pieces not in the Biltmore collection?
While we are lucky to have some of the Vanderbilts’ original clothing in the collection, textiles are, by their very nature, fragile and not easily retained. Recreating these pieces that were captured in archival photography allows us to show what the family and their friends wore at the turn of the century.
Fashion also conveys so many details—about personal style and social mores. We are excited about the opportunity to show recreations of clothing from this era against the colors, textures, and impressive scale of Biltmore’s original historic interiors.
Our curators consulted more than 100 photographs drawn from our archives to accurately recreate the clothing, accessories, and hairstyles worn by the Vanderbilt family.
2. How did you decide what colors to use from black and white photos?
This was one of the more complex and more fun parts of the process. We looked closely at archival imagery and did quite a bit of research into what the Vanderbilts were wearing, paying particular attention to colors and fabrics that were mentioned in newspaper articles or journals.
We also looked at receipts and any information we had in the archives. We know that Edith favored certain colors like greens and metallics and we even have some samples of suiting fabrics for George Vanderbilt that helped guide our decisions.
Celebrated costume designer John Bright drew from his own collection of antique lace and trimming in order to recreate Edith Vanderbilt’s gowns with the utmost authenticity.
3. In addition to the archival photos, what else helped to inform these recreations?
We also looked at historic examples of work by the same fashion designers that the Vanderbilts favored—like Jeanne Paquin and Jacques Doucet as well as the House of Worth. There are many related pieces in museum collections like the Metropolitan Museum in New York and the V&A in London.
Ultimately, we conferred with the designer John Bright of Cosprop, London, and his team, who are all very knowledgeable about clothing in this period. They’ve created costumes for Downton Abbey, Gosford Park, and other productions focused on this era.
This velvet and ostrich feather headpiece is a recreation of that which Edith Stuyvesant Dresser wore in the 1898 photographs marking her engagement to George Vanderbilt.
4. From start to finish, what was involved in this process?
After researching color and tonal range, we worked with the Cosprop team to select fabrics. Then, John walked us through his recommendations on constructing the garments. We were able to determine sizing based on additional archival documents—like the Vanderbilts’ passports, for instance.
Throughout the process, samples and correspondence were sent back and forth between Biltmore and Cosprop’s team in London. Eventually, the completed garments were shipped to us. Each item was then photographed, documented, and numbered before being put on the mannequins.
We have sourced authentic shoes, jewelry, and accessories to make sure every detail is just right. We even worked with a local jeweler to make exact reproductions of the buttons on the footmen’s jackets and vests!
One of the most complicated projects of the exhibition was the recreation of a House of Worth gown worn by George Vanderbilt’s sister, Florence Vanderbilt Twombly.
5. What do you hope guests take away from this exhibition?
I’m not sure there has ever been another exhibition created anywhere that is quite like this one. It is bringing to life what it was like to be a guest at Biltmore.
I think it’s a special opportunity to get an insider’s view on entertaining at the turn of the century—and to learn not only more about the Vanderbilt family and the fashion of the time period, but also the stories and the people behind Biltmore.
To me, the lives of the staff and guests who visited are equally fascinating. This is the first opportunity to see this very special side of Biltmore’s history and we can’t wait to share it.
A Vanderbilt House Party – The Gilded Age premiered February 8 and ran through May 27, 2019.