While I was at INCS in Asheville, I spent a morning visiting Biltmore House, part of the Vanderbilt Estate. I wrote about my visit to the house and grounds in my travel blog (here), but I thought the exhibition at the house deserved its own post.
The exhibition was of the wedding dresses (and some other dresses) used in period dramas based on novels. The implications of this seemed to me particularly apt for an audience that was attending an interdisciplinary conference on the nineteenth century, which included plenty of Neo-Victorianists. I certainly had my own views about the exhibition, which I hissed to my husband as we pushed our way through the crowds.
My main gripe was that the wedding costumes were presented out of context. And I mean completely out of any context whatsoever. The effect was impressively postmodern, but I don’t think that’s what the exhibition’s designers were going for…
In a way that (again I’m pretty sure unintentionally) mimicked the chaos of architectural style that characterises Biltmore House, the dresses from the various period dramas (therefore representing a variety of historical periods) were placed randomly throughout the house. Very few of them reflected the time periods in which the house would have been occupied, and the effect was to reduce the historical past to ‘once upon a time in period drama land’.
Further, as my husband pointed out, the information panels about the dresses often neglected to give any details about the original texts upon which the period dramas were based. In a way this actually shows a concern for accuracy – these are not the dresses of Lizzie Bennet and Elinor Dashwood after all, they are the dresses worn by the actresses portraying those characters. And ‘Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein’ is not in fact Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, but a very new and different text. However, I don’t think it would have been out of line to at least credit the original authors of the texts which inspired the adaptations…
Context of the text itself…
Finally, I was most disturbed by the emphasis on wedding dresses from period dramas based on texts which questioned the state of Victorian marriage. The dresses for George Eliot’s heroines Dorothea Brooke (Middlemarch) and Gwendolyn Harleth (Daniel Deronda) were on display in the same spirit as those of Austen’s heroines. Reducing Austen’s complex novels to ‘happy ever after’ plotlines for period dramas is one thing, but George Eliot’s??
I was left wondering what the point of the exhibition really was – it shed no light on the original texts, or even really the new texts of the adaptations. I went back to the information provided by the exhibition designers themselves for answers:
In celebration of Biltmore’s long history as a location for weddings and romantic getaways, the estate is hosting a new costume exhibition highlighting love stories from iconic films. Fashionable Romance: Wedding Gowns in Film, presented by Belk, showcases wedding dresses and attire from major motion pictures spanning centuries of design.
More than 40 award-winning costumes from 19 classic films will be displayed throughout the grand rooms of Biltmore House. Costumes illustrate changing styles in wedding fashions from the 1700s through the 1940s and the exquisite attention to detail that Cosprop Ltd., London, brings to its film costume projects. Accenting the costume displays will be elaborate floral arrangements complementing each film’s era, created by Biltmore’s Floral design team.
At this point I realised that this exhibition was really advertising masquerading as a historical exhibition. If you count, in this exhibition description there are references to at least four commercial organisations, as well as the motion picture industry arching over the whole thing. Belk is a department store/online retailer, and at least one of the purposes of the exhibition is to advertise Biltmore’s wedding industry. Really only half a sentence of the description provides an indication of the historical value that the exhibition might have (highlighted above) – and that’s probably debatable by historians of fashion.
In the process of becoming veiled with history though, I realised that the exhibition could actually, unintentionally, turn into something that could be read as postmodern art. And this enabled me to enjoy it far more.
What do other people think? Did anyone else from the conference have thoughts on Biltmore or the exhibition? Let me know by leaving a reply below!