A Titanic Adventure in Asheville, NC
I love visiting familiar places and making new discoveries! Asheville, NC is an eclectic, artsy town tucked among the Great Smoky Mountains about 4 hours from Raleigh, where I live.
Asheville has it all...beautiful scenery, a laid-back vibe, great food (especially if your palate tends toward vegetarian/vegan fare), a cool downtown with "shop-portunities" galore, including a renowned local artisans' collective, vintage shops, and chic boutiques. And, for the next few months, it will be home to a collection of the stunning period costumes worn in one of the most iconic movies of our lifetime: Titanic.
Fashion on the Ship of Dreams
I visited Asheville to attend the opening weekend of Glamour on Board: Fashions from the Titanic, on display until May 13 at Asheville's most famous landmark: the Biltmore House. The exhibit gives you a close-up look at over 650 costume items, from gorgeous gowns to gloves, brooches, hats and more, from the 1997 movie Titanic, starring Kate Winslet and Leonardo diCaprio. The collection includes the famous outfits worn by star-crossed lovers Rose DeWitt Bukater and Jack Dawson, along with those worn by both 1st class and steerage characters aboard the ill-fated luxury liner. If you're a 21st century 'fashion/travelista' within visiting distance of Asheville, you should slip on your fave espadrilles, grab your camera, and check it out!
The Biltmore House is the 225-room behemoth built in the style of a French Renaissance château by American railroad magnate George Vanderbilt, for his high-society bride, Edith.
The Vanderbilts lived at the turn of the 20th Century, the so-called "Gilded Age" in American history, when a patrician sliver of society traveled the world aboard luxury ocean liners like the Titanic, attended by retinues of servants. This was the sharply divided social structure portrayed so authentically in the movie Titanic, and the Biltmore serves as the perfect backdrop for an exhibit of the fabulous fashions in which the era's most privileged men and women paraded their wealth before the world.
Missing the Boat...
The Biltmore House has a very personal tie to the Titanic exhibit. George & Edith Vanderbilt and their young daughter Cornelia had tickets to sail on the doomed ship's maiden voyage from England to New York. In a fortuitous twist of fate, they changed plans at the last minute and came back to the US a week early, aboard the ocean liner Olympic.
Their near-miss with catastrophe made an impression on the family, who lost friends and peers when the world's "unsinkable ship" ran into an iceberg and sank to the bottom of the frigid North Atlantic on April 15, 1912. The Vanderbilts also lost one unfortunate personal servant, who stayed behind to escort the family's copious (and expensive) belongings back to America on the Titanic, per their original travel plans. He was one of the more than 1,500 souls who went down with the ship.
On to cheerier topics. As you might guess, the gowns of the movie's heroine Rose Bukater and her social peers in the Titanic exhibit are especially fabulous. Socialites of that era traveled with massive wardrobes, and changed outfits multiple times each day, per the strict etiquette surrounding meals and social activities.
Titanic won 11 Oscars, including one for Best Costume Design...so to see these dresses up close and personal is a genuine treat! The film's head costume designer, Deborah L. Scott, oversaw a staff of 45 seamstresses, fitters, embroiderers, beaders, tailors and dressers who created genuine period costumes for the movie's main characters - and 2,000 background cast members! Their authenticity is even more impressive when one considers that creating them required the skills of artisans, like glove and hat makers, whose specialized trades have all but disappeared over the century since the Titanic set sail.
The movie's costumers took the challenge to heart. In some cases, they hunted down vintage 1910's gowns, and, for those that were unsalvageable, painstakingly removed the original beading to sew onto faithful replicas. According to the exhibit, the movie's Head Beader considered this an honor, and felt that there was "a soul in every dress."
"Jewels flashed from the gowns of the women. And oh, the dear women how fondly they wore their latest Parisian gowns! It was a rare gathering of beautiful women and splendid men."
~ May Futrelle, 1st Class Passenger
From ballrooms to boudoirs, the exhibit is staged throughout the opulent rooms of the Biltmore House, so you can peek into a day in the life on a palatial estate (or luxury liner) of the era. This gives the exhibit a rich context that would be missing if the same items were displayed in the sterile surroundings of a traditional art gallery or museum.
Each mannequin in the exhibit sports a wig of watercolor paper, replicating the hairstyles of the movie. This detail, along with the gorgeous floral arrangements, lighting, and the costumes themselves, gives Glamour on Board an ethereal feel - a bit as if you're peering back through time at ghosts of a bygone era.
For the fashionista who appreciates great dress design - or the movie-goer who appreciates the TLC that goes into the making of a classic film - there are also lots of interesting factoids that make you stop and really appreciate that the team behind this movie worked incredibly hard for every one of those 11 Oscars. For example, Rose's iconic blue "flying" gown that she wore on the bow of the Titanic presented costumers with a unique challenge. It was to be constructed of velvet and satin, each of which absorbs dyes differently. It took the designers 2 weeks to settle on a suitable dye to deliver a shade of blue that would look great on film and represent a hue that might realistically have been worn by a young socialite of 1912.
If you love beautiful fashions, history and romance (what girl doesn't?) then the Glamour on Board exhibit is well worth the visit! It's a rare opportunity to travel back in time and visit a world of opulence and fashion artistry that, like the Titanic itself, are ghosts of a bygone era.
- You can reserve tickets to the exhibit online here
- They aren't cheap: adults are $50 per person, kids ages 10-16 are $25 each. But, admission includes a self-guided visit of the breathtaking Biltmore House & Gardens, Antler Hill Village (shops, restaurants), and a complimentary wine tasting at the Biltmore Winery.
- The exhibit is suitable for middle-grade school age kids through adults. You can take the self-guided tour at your own pace - there are explainer signs along the way, docents to answer questions, and the option to purchase a recorded tour on headset, if you wish.
- Asheville has lots of hotels and Air BnB's at a range of price points. The Biltmore estate itself has 2 hotels: the Village Hotel (geared toward families) and the Inn on Biltmore Estate - 4-Star property.
- If you go to Biltmore for the day, it's worth taking a break and enjoying a cup of afternoon tea in the main level dining room at the Inn at Biltmore Estate. You can take in beautiful mountain views through the floor-to-ceiling windows, and, after about 1:30 pm, enjoy live piano music that truly adds to the ambiance!
- The gift shop at the Biltmore House has some cool finds - including tasty fruit flavoring mixes bottled right on the estate, that can be added to vodka (or ice cream) for an authentic taste of the NC mountains.
- And, for my part...I couldn't resist a cute hat inspired by the 1920's 'cloche' style. It will look great with a structured coat... and remind me of a fun weekend with the fashionistas of a another time!