Visiting the Biltmore can be best described as an ‘experience’. But Western North Carolina’s biggest tourist attraction wants to take it a step further with its latest exhibition. It wants visitors to party – Vanderbilt style.
To recreate a Vanderbilt house party in the early 20th Century, the Biltmore went theatrical in more ways than one. John Bright knows all about that. The 12-time Academy Award nominated costume designer won an Oscar for the 1985 film A Room With A View, and more recently did costumes for Downton Abbey. Bright helped create the clothing mannequins wear throughout the Biltmore, working from photographs provided by curators.
“When you work off of photographs, of course you can’t turn them over and look at the back view," Bright explains. "And so you have to understand something of the clothes of the time.”
Those photos are also all in black and white, but the clothing Bright created is in color. “The colors (of the clothes) would have been the colors you know they would have been. Because after studying them for quite a long period, you really know the color range that people chose for ‘country pursuits’ as it were.”
What makes this exhibition stand out though according to Biltmore curator Leslie Klingner is the audio tour visitors can listen along to. Actors voice the inhabitants of Biltmore, their party guests, and the house staff as visitors as they move through their tour of the mansion. “We’ve never done anything that’s narrative and theatrical in nature," Klingner says. "And this audio guide is very different from others we’ve done at Biltmore. So in this case you meet the butler right away, as Mr. Vanderbilt has asked him to give you a tour around the house, which we know did happen.”
Visitors hear George and Edith Vanderbilt convince opera singer Elizabeth Dodge and writer Edith Warton to give performances after dinner. Meanwhile the Biltmore house staff deals with the arrival of unexpected visitors like writer Henry James. In the kitchen, there’s much fretting because the Vanderbilt’s dog Cedric made off with a turkey leg from one of the birds being prepared for dinner.
While they listen, John Bright hopes visitors find the clothing just as thoughtful. “People need to look at things that are out their normal everyday range. ‘Oh why would they wear that sort of material? As soon as you spill wine on it, that’s it!’ And (this exhibit) is such a vast step away from what we look for today because we are so practical in what we wear.”
A Vanderbilt House Party – The Gilded Age runs through May 27th at the Biltmore.
The Biltmore is a business sponsor of Blue Ridge Public Radio