Review: Biltmore Estate's 'A Vanderbilt House Party'

Ever since I was a little girl, my family has been visiting the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina. My mom likes to tell stories about how when she first visited when she was in college, you could park around the lawn in front of the house. It was an integral and formative part of my childhood and helped spark my love for history at an early age. So I was thrilled to get to visit while they have this exciting new exhibit on.

The Biltmore Estate is the largest privately owned home in the United States and was built in the 1890s by George Vanderbilt of the illustrious Vanderbilt family. George Vanderbilt was an intellectual who wasn't particularly interested in high society and sought out a place in the beautiful mountains of North Carolina to escape from New York City life with his friends and family. There was something sort of beautiful and poetic about heading to Asheville from New York City to celebrate my little sister's birthday a couple of weekends ago.

The Biltmore currently has an exhibit on called "A Vanderbilt House Party" that has placed beautiful recreations of period clothing on mannequins throughout the house. The costumes are based on items from the Vanderbilts' and their friends' wardrobes and accompanied by photos of them in those outfits.

The costumes were designed and recreated by John Bright and Cosprop, London, with the help of Biltmore's curators. Bright is an Oscar-winning costume designer known for his work on A Room with a View (1986), Howards End (1992), and Sense and Sensibility (1995). From elegant suits to stunning dresses to faithfully recreated servants' uniforms, the clothes do a great job of giving you a better idea of what it would have been like to be at the Estate in its prime.

There is also a brand new audio guide created to go along with the exhibition that shares stories from people who attended house parties at the Biltmore in the early 1900s ranging from George and Edith Vanderbilt's family members to friends like author Edith Wharton. It uses 360º sound techniques to give a fully immersive audio-visual experience.

One of the coolest things for me was seeing photos that I had grown up seeing brought to life in front of me through the clothing. A great example is the ensemble above which shows George and Edith's daughter Cornelia and her cousin at play. It's one thing to see a photograph of a historic figure, but seeing a recreation of their clothing somehow makes it easier to grasp the reality of their existence.

I also appreciated that they didn't just include house party guests in fancy outfits. They also have recreations of servants' uniforms and outfits for swimming in the indoor pool and working out in the gymnasium. It gives a beautifully holistic view of life on the Biltmore Estate at the turn of the century.

For those who have visited the Biltmore Estate before, this exhibit gives you a glimpse into life there as you've never had before. The audio guide is definitely worth the additional fee as it gives you a lot of new information including quotes from people who attended the house parties. I almost started to feel as though I could turn a corner and somehow re-enter the world of the Biltmore Estate when it was a bustling private home.

If you've never been before, it's well worth a visit even if you can't make it before the exhibit ends on May 27. In addition to the beautiful house, the Estate boasts a farm area where you can pet animals and see old farm equipment, a winery, and lots of outdoor experiences including horseback riding. The Biltmore is something truly special and the closest thing we have to a European castle here in America.

For more information, visit the Biltmore website.
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