Exhibit Visit - "Dressing Downton" at Biltmore Estate
Atlanta is woefully lacking in costume-related exhibits and events. So I was very excited to learn that Dressing Downton was headed to Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina. Even better, my best friend currently lives in the artsy mountain enclave, so we could go together! Monday morning I took the pleasant, 3+ hour drive*.
I'd already decided to dress up. Was it ever a question? There are so few reasonably appropriate opportunities to do so. Here I am, beforehand, deciding which shoes work best. Clearly, the blue.
My dress came from VFG trade member Marzilli Vintage. Lynne's magnificent stock is a sartorial reflection of her kindness. Here are better views of the dress, from the original listing. Don't you love the back detail?
Other than its too-snug amscyes, it feels wonderful. And of course I'm happy to suffer a bit for fashion. Disposable dress shields protected the underarms. Even if I didn't perspire (I should say not), antiperspirant would degrade the fabric. I tried not to reach, twist, or lift my arms more vigorously than necessary. Yes, I wear my antique garments, but I do so with care.
We'd bought our tickets in advance, opting for a weekday visit (weekends are timed entry only). But when the forecast showed rain, we pushed the trip forward a few days. No fun if you can't safely carry your antique parasol, right?
So... the exhibit. We skipped the house-specific audio tour this time, although I highly recommend it for first-time visitors to Biltmore. Without a single informational placard, if you don't buy the audio tour or a guidebook, you're on your own as far as the house itself is concerned.
Not so for the costumes. Well-written placards at each installation offered a wealth of information. Details for each garment included who wore it and in what season/series and scene, and most important, its historical, political, and social context.
As the writers stressed, Downton Abbey may be fictional, but it reflects the realities of the time, and the costumes showcase the sweeping changes taking place in the 1910s and early '20s, precipitated by WWI. And of course, Biltmore Estate was and remains the country's largest privately owned home, run on a scale and in a manner very much like Downton Abbey.
The costumes were exhibited sensibly, to enhance this integration of reality and fantasy. Tea dresses were shown by a tea table in a parlor, servants' garments in the dining room and kitchen.
This juxtaposition was so seamless (hehe, clothing pun), I had to remind myself more than once that I was not at Downton Abbey (or Highclere Castle where it's shot), but at Biltmore Estate. Other visitors experienced the same, slightly disconcerting confusion.
We were told that the selection of 45 garments on view at Biltmore had been expanded from previous venues to include the men's and servants' garments. There were no wedding gowns on display.
I was pleased with the variety of clothing, which included day, afternoon, evening, and military wear, with examples from different seasons. There were hats, coats, and a few accessories, as well. And I appreciated how the producers divulged what was original, what was recently fabricated, and even the sources of some of the materials. One beautiful coat was newly fashioned from a period tablecloth. Very creative!
In one room, showcasing the pre-flapper dresses of the early 1920s, they pointed out how the beading on the recently crafted dress could never exactly replicate the patina that age and use had provided the original garments. Nonetheless, the workmanship was excellent, and even the entirely modern garments were magnificent.
There is no photography allowed inside Biltmore Estate, so please click through to the official Dressing Downton at Biltmore page to view a slideshow of exhibit tableaux.
Kudos to Biltmore Estate and to exhibition producers Exhibits Development Group and Cosprop Ltd. It's a wonderful exhibit.
I hope each of you gets a chance to see it**. And if you have even the slightest inclination to dress up -- whether in original garments or your best approximation -- please don't hesitate. Do it! I received nothing but positive feedback and kind comments from other visitors and Biltmore staff***. If anyone thought I looked ridiculous, they kept it to themselves. And in the end, who cares (insert Taylor Swift "haters gonna hate" lyric here)?
Dressing the part, to the best of my ability, enhanced my experience immensely. It led to conversations I may not have had otherwise, and new acquaintances who may well become friends.
Here are Ellen and I in our official, overpriced, cheesy (but worth it) souvenir shot. It comes in a pretty little frame, which refused to scan properly. Note the image is copyrighted by the photographer:
Here we are on the veranda:
And here I am, caught in a gust of wind without a proper slip as we await the shuttle back to reality. My dress, parasol, hand fan, and compact (in the purse) are period-correct originals. My purse is 1880s or possibly older. My hat, shoes, hankie, and pendant pocket watch are vintage, but not antique:
* As usual, I listened to unabridged audiobooks en route. The selection this time was a non-fiction account titled "Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief" by Lawrence Wright, 2013. So far, fascinating. It's been made into a documentary film that premiered at Sundance in January.
** Click here for upcoming U.S. exhibit cities and dates.
*** An excited gift-shop employee, captivated by the exhibit and my outfit, asked: "Is this what you used to wear?" To which I responded, laughing: "How old do you think I am?" I then quietly commented to Ellen that perhaps coloring my hair prior to the trip had been for naught.
I thank Lynne Marzilli, Tiffany of PinkyAGoGo (I have another splendid period dress, so stay tuned), Maggie of DeniseBrain Vintage (um, yep, another one), all my supportive friends at the Vintage Fashion Guild, and most of all my longtime partner-in-crime, Ellen, for helping me indulge my vintage fantasies.