Head Over Heels for Hats and Headpieces
All Things Biltmore • 03/19/19
Written By Jean Sexton
For Edith Vanderbilt and her peers, the fashion demands of the Gilded Age included regular visits to their favorite milliners for stylish hats and headpieces to match every outfit and activity from strolling in the gardens to attending fancy dress balls.
Ladies also kept up with trends by reviewing elegant magazines like Les Modes for the latest looks from couture design houses in cities such as Paris and London.
Glamorous gowns and headpieces grace the covers of the June 1911 and February 1913 issues of Les Modes magazines in Biltmore’s collection
Now through May 27, experience a fabulous array of hats and headpieces ranging from beautifully beaded butterflies and dove gray velvet to iridescent peacock feathers during our new exhibition: A Vanderbilt House Party – The Gilded Age.
“We spent two years planning this exhibition,” said Leslie Klingner, curator of interpretation, “and we re-created many pieces of clothing from the original wardrobes of the Vanderbilts and their guests. We also looked at sources such as newspaper clippings and Edith Vanderbilt’s collection of Les Modes magazine in our archives for inspiration. The beautiful attire you’ll see in this exhibition would not have been complete without matching accessories.”
An engaging headpiece
One of Leslie’s favorites is a velvet gown that Edith Dresser wore for her photographic portraits commemorating her engagement to George Vanderbilt. “The color is so deep that it looks black,” said Leslie, “but we know from newspaper articles and archival sources that it was actually midnight blue.”
The matching headpiece features a diamonte ornament and a feathery black plume that adds additional height and elegance to the ensemble.
Edith Dresser’s re-created engagement headpiece on display in the Tapestry Gallery
Feeding the swans
A vignette in the Second Floor Living Hall features Edith’s sister Pauline Merrill with the Vanderbilt’s only child Cornelia, dressed for walking out to feed the swans. While Pauline’s blue-gray tweed jacket and skirt seem sturdy enough for the outdoors, her hat is a delightful confection of soft gray velvet trimmed in matching ostrich plumes.
Pauline Merrill’s stylish velvet hat draped in matching feathery plumes
Lady of the house
As the lady of the house, Edith Vanderbilt would always have been dressed appropriately for conducting her household responsibilities and attending to her family and guests. The elegant dress and hat featured in the Oak Sitting Room vignette were reproduced from an archival photograph.
Edith Vanderbilt attends to the business of Biltmore House while daughter Cornelia and her cousin play with a toy
George Vanderbilt’s mannequin sports a jaunty hat perfect for enjoying a stroll around the estate
And let’s not overlook the fashionable gentleman of the era. They, too, would have visited their trusted haberdashers for the finest bespoke styles—including hats—tailored to their needs and specifications.
Headpieces worthy of a grand gala in the Banquet Hall
“For events like grand dinner parties, Edith Vanderbilt and other ladies would have worn stylish headpieces that coordinated with their gowns and accentuated their ornate hairstyles,” Leslie said.
Edith Vanderbilt with an elegant spray of peacock feathers tucked into her chignon hairstyle
Catharine Hunt, wife of Biltmore House architect Richard Morris Hunt, is shown with a comb in faceted jet to accent her curls
The pièce de résistance: Florence Vanderbilt Twombly wears a beaded butterfly headpiece to match her exquisite gown, originally designed by the House of Worth. This stunning ensemble and many others were re-created for A Vanderbilt House Party by John Bright of Cosprop Ltd in London
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. Receive our new Exhibition Audio Guided Tour featuring custom content created exclusively to enhance your visit—FREE when you purchase your estate admission online!
Main image: Clothing reproduced from archival photos of Pauline Merrill and Cornelia Vanderbilt