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!
CASSIDY: 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…
C: 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.
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.
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?
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.
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!
**All images (c) 2018 The Biltmore Company unless otherwise indicated.