Glamour on Board: Fashion from the Titanic, an interview with curator Leslie Klingner

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I recently visited Biltmore Estate’s exhibition Glamour on Board: Fashion from the Titanic at the estate’s invitation. The exhibition, on view now until May 13, is the first large-scale exhibition of the Oscar-winning costumes from the 1997 film. During a wonderful rainy, fog-filled day, I had the pleasure of sitting down for Afternoon Tea at The Inn on Biltmore’s Estate with the exhibition’s curator—and Biltmore’s Curator of Interpretation—Leslie Klingner to talk about Edith Vanderbilt’s wardrobe and the exhibition, which includes a hidden fashion history surprise Leslie discovered while dressing mannequins for the show!

Screen Shot 2018-04-21 at 7.44.13 AMCASSIDY: To make your selection for the exhibition you visited the film’s costume archives in Los Angeles. How did you decide what pieces to choose from the film?

LESLIE: You know we had watched the film, of course, and taken screen shots but we didn’t know what might be available—they didn’t really know what they had outside of the key pieces—and the pieces in the exhibit are an interesting mix of what they have and what they don’t have.

We went with ideas and scenes we wanted to show. I really love the scene in the film where the young girl and her mother are having tea. We really wanted to show that because the Vanderbilts had tea and we had never really shown a full tea scene happening in the Tapestry Gallery. So we had a lot of screen shots of that girl and her mother but we could not find the girl’s dress exactly. We did, however, find the mother’s hat exactly. So for the child’s dress, we went through all the children’s dresses that had been retained and found the closest match.

So we had scenes in minds and then looked to fill them out…

Screen Shot 2018-04-21 at 7.44.26 AMC: The mannequins in the exhibition are wonderful! You can really tell that there was a lot of care put into dressing and styling them, especially when it came to the hair, which was fashioned after the characters in the move. All the mannequins of Rose, for instance, with her hair cascading down her back. Who was responsible for that?

 L: We worked with Carolyn Jamerson who is the Collections Manager at FIDM in Los Angeles, but it was Kevin Jones, who is the curator there who came up with that method and taught her.

C: Am I correct that the hair is made from watercolor paper?

L: Correct. Its just watercolor paper that is cut away into wavy strips. She curls it with a number two pencil and then she tapes it and pins it. It goes from looking like a big nest of paper curls to…I was in there when she did Lady Duff Gordon’s hair and I saw it on the table and wondered “How are you going to do that?” And then within minutes it was Lady Duff Gordon’s hair. And she had never done gentleman’s hair before. I was really pleased with how the men’s hair came out. I love Victor Garber and I loved the curl that she was able to put into the mannequin’s hair to represent him.

C: I think the exhibit did a really excellent job of bringing the Titanic film to life within the setting of the Vanderbilt home, but you also provided a wonderful amount of information about the Vanderbilt family and how their lifestyle and home related to the Titanic. It was a really well tied in exhibition. You also featured some blown up examples of fashion plates from Edith Vanderbilt’s personal collection of fashion magazines.

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Original Lucile dress used as a costume

L: I was excited to show how much original material Deborah Lynn Scott used because I think that is the basis behind her Oscar and the brilliance of the design. So one really fun find was the Lucile dress on display in the third floor Living Hall. It’s lace and then it has bright blue chenille.

C: British fashion designer Lucile and her husband Cosmo were actually survivors of the Titanic and she makes a brief appearance in the film as the woman who designs “naughty lingerie.” The black and turquoise beaded dress she wore in the film is featured in this exhibition. But the dress you are referring to was worn by a background player. It was based on an original Lucile design?

L: No, it is an original Lucile dress!

C: Oh, an original Lucile dress?! Wow, ok I am going to have to go back and look at it more closely.

 L: It has a new lining. I was looking at it and thought ‘Well this is period’ and then I opened it and realized ‘This is Lucile. They have Lucile dresses on this film.’ There were a lot of other really fun finds like that throughout setting up the exhibition.

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At left, in the collection of Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Paris. At right: Deb Scott design for Titanic on display at Biltmore.

C: Right. Our fantastic tour guide Wanda was talking about how surprised she was to learn how heavy the black beaded and red dress is, something like eleven or twelve pounds I believe? This is the beautiful evening dress Rose is wearing when she meets Jack for the first time, when he saves her from throwing herself overboard. Seeing it up close in person, I never noticed how much inspiration Deborah Scott took from designs by Paul Poiret, specifically two extant dresses by Paul Poiret in the collection of the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris. It’s really fun to see that mix of fashion history in there. Of course, the most obvious historical fashion reference is seen in the white pinstriped suit Rose wore boarding the Titanic with that fabulous hat.

L: Did Wanda tell you about that on the tour?

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C: Yes, Wanda started the tour making the connection between the costume and the original suit, made by Linker & Co. and photographed in the French fashion magazine Les Modes in January 1912. It was very cool to learn that Edith Vanderbilt actually had a copy of this very magazine and that you only recently discovered it was in your collection!

L: That was an amazing moment because I knew I wanted to use that image of the Linker suit in our first panels originally. I asked Lauren Henry, who is our Associate Curator, if she could try and track Les Modes down because I know it is hard to find. They don’t have it at Bard, they don’t have it at Cooper Hewitt. I thought maybe a collection in Paris. I gave her the name of a collector and asked her to check with them. She came in an hour later and said ‘We have it. We have over seventy issues of Les Modes in our collection.” It was very exciting.

 

C: Wanda shared that there is a Poiret coat owned by Edith that survives in the RISD museum. They actually have quiet a few pieces of Edith’s. I found her patronage of Poiret a little surprising—and exciting– considering how avant-garde he really was, especially in comparison with the more traditional House of Worth.

L: Edith even had some amazing Schiaparelli gloves that are later, that RISD has. They are gold threaded and net. They are incredible.

C: What about Edith’s daughter Cornelia? Do you have any of her pieces of clothing?

L: We have a few pieces, which includes her presentation outfit. We also have the costume she wore for her coming out party when she dressed as a Renaissance page and wore little knickers…in 1921. It is pretty amazing. It has a little bolero jacket and this beautiful lace. And we had all these pieces but they were separate, no one had put it together that they were from the same outfit until one day I was looking at some pictures and realizing we had everything down to the feather that she wore and the hat. We didn’t have the shoes, the tights, or the sash but we have everything else.

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Edith Vanderbilt’s Louis Vuitton travel trunk, ca. 1900, currently on view in “The Vanderbilts at Home and Abroad” at Biltmore.

C: Do you ever display their original garments?

That costume is actually currently on exhibition in “The Vanderbilts at Home and Abroad” that opened March 15th.

C: Titanic closes May 15th but are you able to share what your upcoming costume exhibition will be?

L: Stay tuned!

C: Absolutely. We will stay in touch!

Unfortunately, I will be unable to attend their current exhibition “The Vanderbilts at Home and Abroad,” but if you are in the area, Art of Dress followers, be sure and check it out. Biltmore Estate is hands-down one of the most amazing, magical places I have ever visited in America—and with such a fascinating history behind it, and wonderful staff to run it. Thank you to Leslie, Leeann and Heather and Biltmore for your hospitality and generosity in letting me get to know this majestic Estate and the Vanderbilt family. Until next time!

Please check out my previous two blog posts on Biltmore and the Titanic exhibit here and here.

**All images (c) 2018 The Biltmore Company unless otherwise indicated.

 

 

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Inside the Royal Wardrobe: A Dress History of Queen Alexandra by Kate Strasdin

“This is not just the story of Alexandra’s clothes; it is the story of the life that inhabited them.” –Kate Strasdin in her book Inside the Royal Wardrobe: a Dress History of Queen Alexandra. 

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Queen Alexandra at her coronation, 1902, Royal Collection Trust

Fashion historian Kate Strasdin was my inaugural guest on Fashion History Talks! and today, I have the pleasure of providing a glimpse into her beautiful book Inside the Royal Wardrobe: a Dress History of Queen Alexandra. The book is the culmination of years of hands-on research by Strasdin into the wardrobe and life of the woman born Princess Alexandra Caroline Marie Charlotte Louise Julia of Denmark, but history knows her simply as Queen Alexandra. I am the first to admit that prior to reading this book, I knew little of Alexandra’s importance or her sartorial legacy. I knew only that she was the supremely elegant wife of King Edward VII, the man whose reputation for philandering and a careless pursuit of entertainment defined the so-called “Edwardian” era to which the first decade of the 20th century is so aptly named.

Born in 1844, Alexandra learned how to sew as a young girl and even made her own dresses before becoming engaged to the Prince of Wales at the age of 16. Through forty plus years of marriage, first as a princess and later as a queen, Alexandra navigated her high-profile position and marriage with grace and composure, never failing to project anything in public but the height of sophistication and elegance–and with an impeccable wardrobe to match. But as Strasdin’s book reveals, there is much much more to this fashionable, impeccably dressed Queen than meets the eye. And she looks directly to the Queen’s clothing itself to prove it.

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A half-mourning evening dress worn by Queen Alexandra following the death of Queen Victoria, 1902, The Metropolitan Museum of Ar

Strasdin’s interest in Alexandra’s wardrobe was peaked while working as an assistant with a large costume collection in the 1990s, where a large number of Alexandra’s gowns by the French haute couture house Redfern were donated. An astonishing amount of Alexandra’s wardrobe survives in museum collections the world over thanks to the acumen and foresight of her servants who preserved her clothes for posterity.

Strasdin used this extant wardrobe as the basis for her research and demonstrates the roles that material culture—and in this case, specifically articles of dress—can reveal to us about a person’s life. From Alexandra’s tiered hand-made lace wedding gown to the purple be-sequined evening gown worn in half-morning for the death of Queen Victoria, Strasdin uses her clothing to paint a fuller, more detailed portrait of the Queen. A queen who was not only fashionable but fashion conscious, and a woman whose deliberate and calculated use of dressed helped her to navigate her high-profile position throughout her entire life. She used what she wore both as a tool in defining her public image and as an impenetrable armor against the world.

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Alexandra’s tailored waistcoats made by J.Busvine & Co, 1890s, FIDM.

As inanimate objects, material culture has often been undervalued by historians in terms of its cultural and social significance but as Strasdin reveals, Alexandra’s clothing has plenty of stories to tell, one just needs to know where to look.

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Alexandra’s wedding dress, Royal Collection Trust

When the nineteen year old Princess Alexandra of Denmark married Edward, then Prince of Wales, on March 10, 1863, she was already acutely aware of the importance clothing would play in her knew role, as well as its symbolic power. Her mother-in-law, Queen Victoria, ensured her wedding dress was the epitome of patriotic virtue, swathed in tiers and tiers of Honiton lace painstakingly made by hand over months in the city of the same name. That Victoria exerted absolute control over her daughter-in-law’s debut image is evident in the fact that the Princess was gifted a Brussels lace dress from Victoria’s uncle, King Leopold of the Belgians as a wedding gift. Brussels at this time was inarguably the producers of the finest lace in world. Queen Victoria quickly dismissed the dress as inappropriate for a Princess of Britain and insisted it was entirely of British manufacture.

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The Prince and Princess of Wales on their wedding day, 1863, Royal Collection Trust.

However, the hidden interior of the wedding dress hints at an act of insubordination by Alexandra. The dress survives in the Royal Collection and was thoroughly studied in person studied by Strasdin who made a wonderful discovery: stitched inside the lining, hidden from view, was a piece of Brussels lace. And while we may never be able to confirm it, if it came from Uncle Leopold’s wedding gift, its presence represents a quiet act of subversion by the new Princess, “an early attempt by Alexandra to achieve a small measure of control, albeit hidden from view at this time.”

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Queen Victoria and Princess Alexandra, March 1863, Royal Collection Trust.

In many ways, Queen Victoria and Queen Alexandra could not have been more different, and these differences were clearly manifested in the wardrobe they both wore. From the start of her marriage, Alexandra’s youth and beauty immediately earned her the public’s admiration, as she stood in such stark contrast to the reclusive Queen Victoria. Surely this young Queen, presented in the height of 1860s fashion, injected a breathe of fresh air into the life at court in which Victoria was most noticeably reserved. After the death of her husband Prince Albert in 1861, Queen Victoria wore mourning clothes until her death in 1901. Hence, where Victoria was always in black, Alexandra’s favorite color was white. Where Queen Victoria solely patronized British dressmakers and industry, Alexandra extended her patronage to the Parisian haute couture.

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Alexandra in her signature tailormade, 1876. National Portrait Gallery, London.

As a young woman of high social rank, Alexandra’s forays into high fashion were covered down to the smallest detail in the press, admired by women the world over. And after discovering the incredible amount of photographic documentation of her over the years–and I mean thousands of images–I completely understand the public’s fascination with the beguiling beauty.

Despite, the attention given in the press to her extravagant gowns, it was Alexandra’s adoption of the simple but in her impeccably constructed tailor-made ensembles for daywear in which the Queen made “her most individually distinctive contribution to fashion among her peers.” While Alexandra may have towed the fashionable line in other elements of her dress, her adoption of the two piece suit, almost as a uniform, put her at fashion’s fore.

One of my favorite stories from the book is about a visit made to England by Alexandra’s younger sister, the czarevna–and future Empress–of Russia, in the 1860s. When Maria stepped off the boat to greet her sister, it instantly became apparent that the two women were wearing identical outfits, the result of a plan months in the making. The sisters continued to dress exactly alike for the entirety of the visit! Thank goodness for photographic evidence of this venture or I might not have believed it to be true. That Alexandra allowed herself this almost whimsical sartorial experience with her sister hints at a love of the playfulness of fashion that might otherwise be prohibited in her more formal of attire.

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Alexandra and sister Maria Feodorovna, future Empress of Russia, 1873, Royal Collection Trust.

Another of the book’s highlight was the attention paid by Strasdin to the many men and women who worked behind the scenes–or seams rather–of Alexandra’s wardrobe. Alexandra did not achieve and maintain that impeccable image by herself. Strasdin provides a fascinating glimpse at the jobs and lives of the many dressmakers, dressers, lady’s maids and bevy of other staff and vendors that were integral to maintaining Alexandra’s royal visage. I learned SO MUCH and leave you with an excerpt from Inside the Royal Wardrobe: a Dress History of Queen Alexandra. I encourage you to order this book yourself or request a copy for your local library, so that you and others can enjoy it as much as I did!

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Queen Alexandra  by François Flameng, signed 1908, Royal Collection Trust.

“The role of the dresser within the royal household cannot, it seems, be too highly emphasized in maintaining the appearance of her royal mistress, through her skills as dressmaker, repairer and the cleaning of delicate fabrics…The proximity of the dresser to her mistress both physically and mentally placed her in an almost unique position within the household. Unlike the ladies-in-waiting whose weeks in service operated under a rota system, the dressers and wardrobe maids were a permanent fixture of the wardrobe room and therefore the Queen’s daily life. Their duties extended into the inner sanctum of the Queen’s morning and evening ritual of washing and dressing, preparations for which were minutely outlined in a pencilled note which was presumably written in order to instruct a dresser new to her position:

‘After the Queen comes in the dressing room the morning I am on duty give the water tepid for the face the eyes with a little camomile tea in it. Then the ears–then the large baisen [sic] with the water for the head–then put down the glass with the water for the ears–then the teeth and then the hands. After this prepare the bath and put out the sheet–then leave the room. After coming in take the table and the bath away. Afterwards ask if the back would be rubbed with (whisky?) or anything–Then fasten the stays–put the petticoat over the head–then give the drawers–then hold the box with the rings then the crinoline & the body petticoat & the tray with the brooches–then the skirt, then the body & the keys with the thinnest chain over the neck, tie the string of the body around the waist, put the brooch in & give the watch.'”

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Alexandra, Princess of Wales, by Franz Xaver Winterhalter, 186, Royal Collection Trust.