“The sun rose clear and beautiful from the hills that surrounded Biltmore; All the world seemed happy on that day,” began “The First Bride of Biltmore,” a poem dedicated to the heiress Cornelia Vanderbilt on her wedding day.
It’s only fitting that a recreation of Cornelia’s gown is among the forty-plus wedding costumes on display at “Fashionable Romance: Wedding Gowns in Film,” a new exhibition at the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina, which just opened. The exhibit includes outfits worn by Emma Thompson, Hugh Grant, Kate Winslet, and Alan Rickman in Sense and Sensibility, costumes from Pride and Prejudice and Emma, and countless heirlooms from the Vanderbilt family weddings themselves.
Vanderbilt’s April 29, 1924 wedding was a defining event in the 1920s South. The groom was the Honorable John F. A. Cecil, a British diplomat, and the bride was the heir of the Biltmore Estate’s sprawling mansion and grounds. In the weeks leading up to Cornelia’s nuptials, guests and bridal party members stayed in the nearly 180,000-square-foot mansion. Staff members ordered new mattresses, washed and ironed dozens of sheets, and even freshened rooms with new wallpaper and paint. Guests rode horses and walked through the gardens. Other visitors, led by Cornelia herself, ventured into Asheville for the grand opening of McCormick Field, home of the Skylanders baseball team (now the Asheville Tourists).
During planning, Cornelia wanted as much Southern influence as possible. Even though stationers from around the country wrote to offer their services, Cornelia selected Adolph & Dungan engravers of Louisville to design the wedding invitations, and Inland Press of Asheville to print them. The couple invited five hundred people to the ceremony at All Souls Church at high noon, among them a number of foreign and national dignitaries, such as the former Ambassador to France, the Spanish Ambassador, and the former director of the Mint.
All Souls Church was decorated with flowers from the estate. Palms and branches of dogwood and azalea set the scene for the bride’s entrance.
“The bride was lovely in a gown of white satin, very straight, with long sleeves,” described the Asheville Citizen. “Her bridal veil of tulle and lace, which she wore over her face when entering the church, was four yards long. It was caught with orange blossoms from Florida … Her bridal bouquet was of orchids and lilies of the valley, made in Asheville by the Middlemount Gardens. Each of her satin slippers was ornamented with a single orange blossom.”
Guests gifted the new couple jewelry, fishing gear, a shotgun, and an English setter pup, and then saw them to their car, which was “decorated with streamers and other signs of the newlyweds,” the Citizen described, “including a pair of white slippers, with the heels heavily smeared with tar, emblematic of Mrs. Cecil, who was ‘nicknamed’ at her birth: Tarheel Nell.”