Creating Vanderbilt House Party Hairstyles
Estate History 01/30/19
Written By Jean Sexton
For the past two years, Biltmore’s Museum Services team has been hard at work to bring A Vanderbilt House Party – The Gilded Age to life.
From February 8–May 27, 2019, this new exhibition showcases all the excitement, glamour, and boundless hospitality that guests of George and Edith Vanderbilt would have experienced during turn-of-the-century celebrations at Biltmore House.
Reproducing original wardrobes
“We’ve never had an exhibition quite like this before,” said Leslie Klingner, Curator of Interpretation. “These aren’t costumes—they’re re-creations of actual clothing worn by the Vanderbilts and their friends. We studied archival photos, newspaper clippings, and fashion magazines of the era and worked with Oscar®-winning costumier John Bright of Cosprop, Ltd of London to ensure that everything you see is as accurate as possible.”
(L–R) Pauline Merrill’s mannequin sports a casual look that complements her poolside vignette; Edith Vanderbilt’s hairstyle is more formal
Elegant paper wigs that add a sense of style and character to the clothing vignettes are one of the crowning touches of the exhibition.
Carolyn Jamerson, Study Collection Manager and Conservation Technician with the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising Museum in Los Angeles, brought her considerable skills to Biltmore to create carefully coiffed paper wigs to complement the breathtaking Gilded Age fashion of A Vanderbilt House Party.
With more than 1,000 paper wigs to her credit, including those for two previous Biltmore exhibitions, Carolyn’s custom tonsorial toolkit includes watercolor paper, No. 2 pencils, sharp scissors, T-pins, and rolls of packing tape.
Tools of the trade
She fearlessly shears through sheets of heavy, cream-colored paper, creating different lengths and patterns to suit the needs of the exhibition.
Carolyn Jamerson curls her paper creations
“I create sections of ‘hair’ with individual lengths still joined at the edge of the paper,” said Carolyn. “In the wig business, these would be known as wig tracks. They can be added as needed to create a complete hairstyle that looks much more natural than a single cap-style wig.”
Carolyn steams a male mannequin’s paper wig
For ladies’ styles of this time period, Carolyn cuts tracks that are long and wavy; others resemble shingled lines of ramen noodles. For the gentlemen, she creates shorter, straighter tracks that are styled once the hair is attached to the mannequin’s head. She uses a steamer on some wigs to achieve looser waves.
A mannequin representing Edith Fabbri sports a loosely braided hairstyle in the Gymnasium
Paper wigs can be recycled by removing the tracks from the mannequin’s head and smoothing and re-rolling them with a No. 2 pencil, a technique Carolyn refers to as “cleaning” the hair.
“There’s a definite rhythm to the process,” Carolyn said. “You need to be patient and follow the direction in which the paper was originally cut. If you go too fast, you can easily pull the track apart or lose the shape of the curl you’re trying to create.”
Stacey Kirby, a private conservator specializing in costume dressing, adjusts the lace on a glamorous gown
Designed to delight
Cornelia Vanderbilt’s paper curls
“From Cornelia Vanderbilt’s childhood curls to a sophisticated upsweep styled for opera singer Elizabeth Mayo Dodge, the paper wigs put the fashion into historical context and make the clothing even more life-like,” said Leslie.
Plan your visit now
Experience A Vanderbilt House Party – The Gilded Age February 8–May 27, 2019, and discover how the Vanderbilt family planned and prepared turn-of-the-century house party celebrations for their special guests.
FREE Exhibition Audio Tour Guide
Featured blog image: A glamorous paper wig for the mannequin representing opera singer Elizabeth Mayo Dodge; behind her, house party guest Edith Fabbri’s mannequin waits to be styled