'Glamour on Board' sets sail at Biltmore

J. H. Osborne • Feb 10, 2018 at 6:30 PM

ASHEVILLE, N.C. — Jack and Rose. Rose’s mother, Ruth DeWitt Bukater. Molly Brown. Madeleine Astor. Capt. Smith. They and other characters — fictional and factual — from the 1997 blockbuster film “Titanic” have taken up temporary residency at Biltmore. Or, at least, more than 50 of the Academy-Award-winning costumes worn by actors portraying the characters in the film are adding the perception of a Biltmore filled with guests in clothing typical of the styles worn during the lifetime of the estate’s creator. The new exhibition, “Glamour on Board: Fashion from Titanic the Movie,” is the fourth costume display in as many years at Biltmore. It opened to the public Friday and runs through May 13.

The costumes give Biltmore’s visitors perfect examples of the luxurious wardrobes favored by transatlantic travelers like George and Edith Vanderbilt in the early 1900s. The Vanderbilts and their daughter Cornelia actually planned to sail on the Titanic’s ill-fated maiden voyage. An “11th hour” change to a week-earlier departure on Titanic’s sister ship, Olympic, kept the Vanderbilts safe. A recently discovered letter from Edith to a friend after Titanic sank attributes the change to plain old homesickness and the family’s desire to get back to Biltmore rather than to wait to sail on the Titanic.

This is the first large-scale exhibition of fashions from “Titanic,” which won a record 11 Oscars including Best Picture and Best Costume Design, said Leslie Klingner, Biltmore’s curator of interpretation. Showcasing the work of Oscar-winning designer Deborah L. Scott, the garments evoke the lifestyle of the era when voyages on the great ocean liners of the early 20th century offered high society and luxury on ships known as “floating palaces.”

First class passengers took every opportunity to see and be seen in the finest fashions of the time. And, just like Jack and Rose, the fictional couple at the heart of the film, the days at sea fostered friendships and romances, including Vanderbilt’s courtship of Edith Stuyvesant Dresser (you can read more about that in the exhibit).

“We are all fascinated with Titanic and this moment in history,” said Klingner, who traveled to California to select costumes for the exhibit. “It’s intriguing to think about what was happening in the daily lives of the Vanderbilts and how closely that connected to what the filmmakers showed onscreen.”

For example, the formal dinner scene in which Jack joins the first class passengers takes place in the ship’s dining room. Costumes from that scene are set in the Banquet Hall, where the Vanderbilts and their house guests dined in full evening dress for their evening meals.

Klingner notes that many of the gowns displayed in the Second Floor Living Hall were worn by an actor portraying a real person who actually sailed on Titanic. They included the Astors and the Guggenheims — couples the Vanderbilts would have known or were familiar with. The costumes are luxurious and highly detailed, featuring accessories such as fans, elaborate jewelry and long gloves.

“Guests at Biltmore would have dressed in a very similar manner. I can imagine them assembled in the Living Hall, taking a moment to visit with fellow guests or admire the paintings before going down to dine in the Banquet Hall,” Klingner said.

The exhibit includes costume displays in rooms throughout the chateau, from the basement to the third floor guest rooms and living areas. In many, if not all, cases, costumes complement the style or colors of the room they inhabit, and floral displays have been keyed to highlight the color schemes as well.

A “jaw-dropper” moment comes toward the final portion of the exhibit on the third floor, where in the Louis XV room you will find displayed the glitzy, exotic kimono worn by Rose as she prepares to disrobe so that Jack can paint her like one of his French girls. And, yes, the mannequin wearing the kimono is also wearing “the Heart of the Sea” necklace.

The exhibition is part of the self-guided tour through Biltmore House and is included in the cost of admission. Guests interested in a more in-depth experience may wish to take the “Glamour on Board” Guided Tour, created and designed by Biltmore’s museum services team especially for this exhibition. Hosts conducting the tour will provide colorful details about the costume design process, with insights into the elegance of the era’s fashions, culture of the times, connections with the Vanderbilts and the making of the film. The guided tour requires a separate ticket.

And beginning March 15, guests will be able to learn even more about the family who called Biltmore home by visiting the Biltmore Legacy in Antler Hill Village. “The Vanderbilts at Home and Abroad” exhibition will again be there to provide deeper insight into the family’s time at the estate and on their extensive travels throughout Europe and the Far East. Complementing “Glamour on Board,” the Legacy exhibition delves into the Vanderbilt family’s daily lives and unique personalities. Guests will get a close-up look at many of the exotic and rare treasures the family members collected throughout their lives.

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