July 1, 2016

{A Dress Reimagined}

In celebrating the current Vanderbilt family wedding exhibition at the Legacy museum on Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina, I’ve written several articles about the treasures on display. One is the recreation of Cornelia Vanderbilt Cecil’s 1924 wedding gown and veiling by Cosprop Ltd. London (of Downton Abbey fame!)

Here’s another version of that fascinating story just published in the summer issue of Season magazine….and I’ve reprinted it here for you to enjoy. This one gives a bit of background about my former vintage bridal shop, its Downton Abbey connection, and my love of old lace. Would like to hear what you think!

A Dress Reimagined
by Cornelia Powell

Those of you who visited my former bridal art-to-wear shop in Atlanta in the 1980s and ‘90s would remember the lovely one-of-a-kind dresses made from vintage laces. The shop’s designers used found pieces of original materials: beadwork, laces, embroidery and remnants from beautiful old gowns that often became the starting point for a new dress, adding richness and gravitas that only “something old” could do. (“Elegant recycling” is how one of my designers described the process.) 

Downton Abbey’s designers relied on similar techniques for many of their costumes including 1920s-era wedding dresses for the Crawley sisters. (Something you already knew if you’ve attended one of my costume talks!) Designer Caroline McCall combined vintage lace panels with new silks to make the column-shaped bridal dress for Mary’s first wedding; then an antique hand-beaded satin train she’d found became the design inspiration for Edith’s dress for her “almost wedding” in season three. In the show’s romantic finale, designer Anna Robbins used a collage of vintage Brussels laces to create Edith’s “happy ending” bridal gown.

What if the lost wedding dress of a famous heiress needed such superb designer attention? Cornelia Vanderbilt married on her family’s grand Biltmore estate in 1924, but years later her satin wedding pumps—aged to a creamy patina and still trimmed with sprigs of fabric orange blossoms—were all that remained of her costume. So, with an exhibition in mind, Biltmore commissioned legendary costumier John Bright at Cosprop, Ltd. London—of Downton Abbey fame—to recreate Cornelia’s lace and silk wedding ensemble.

Once Leslie Klingner, Curator of Interpretation, and her team at Biltmore gathered archival photographs and newspaper clippings with descriptions of Cornelia’s dress (details of her wedding had filled society columns worldwide), the transatlantic “reimagining” project was on! After a year of planning, conference calls, lace and fabric samples going back and forth between London and Asheville, NC—plus seven weeks of cutting and sewing by a team of five—Cornelia’s dress and veil were, indeed, beautifully reimagined.

Cornelia Vanderbilt Cecil’s original gown was the stylish “tabard” fashion of the 1920s: a lace tunic over a silk slipper-satin, long-sleeve sheath (a design that influenced the gown for Downton’s Lady Mary.) From the photographs, the lace of Cornelia’s gown, with its distinctive floral pattern, appears to be an exquisite Duchesse; but fine lace yardage from that era is rare, so Cosprop cleverly repurposed an antique lace shawl and, although the pattern varied from the original, the proportions were perfect! Cosprop also recreated Cornelia’s lace headpiece and voluminous veiling—which had included her maternal grandmother’s rose point heirloom veil—by appliquéing hand-cut vintage lace motifs onto yards and yards of custom-dyed tulle.

Cornelia’s recreated wedding ensemble is now on display at Biltmore’s Legacy Museum. To me it’s a lovely reminder how, in the hands of inspired designers, bits of vintage laces and trims can be “reimagined” to enchant us still. ~

[Top and bottom three images courtesy of The Biltmore Company]

June 14, 2016

{Reimagining A Legend}

Cornelia Vanderbilt at home, Biltmore House. April 1924
 [Courtesy of The Biltmore Company] 
Enjoy my article “Reimagining A Legend” published in the Huffington Post! It shares a bit of background how Cosprop Ltd. London recreated Biltmore heiress Cornelia Vanderbilt’s circa 1924 wedding ensemble. (Now on display with other family wedding treasures at Legacy museum on the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, NC.)

May 10, 2016

{A Mother's Rite-of-Passage}

Dear Bride-to-Be:
In my 30 or so years working with brides and their families while planning a wedding, I have been around many mother-daughter relationships. And if I was ever asked for a bit of coaching by the bride, I may have said something like: “Remember, your wedding is also a rite-of-passage—a time of deep personal change—for your mother as well as for you.” And if the mother asked for a bit of advice, perhaps I’d say: “Remember, your daughter is a grown-up now; it’s time to listen and be a friend.”

I write a lot about this relationship, dedicating a chapter to mothers and daughters in my book The End of the Fairy-Tale Bride, even quoting designers Vera Wang and the late Oscar de la Renta—who both dressed thousands of brides. This from Oscar: “The wedding is almost as important to the mother as it is to the bride.” And from Vera:

The most challenging relationship is often that of mother and daughter. A wedding can unleash torrents of emotion, and a bride must balance her own needs for control with her mother’s sense of involvement.

The theme running through this “mothers and daughters” chapter, however, is ‘being grateful’...opening with the Jean Baptiste Massieu quote: “Gratitude is the memory of the heart.”  So no matter how fraught with tension a situation or relationship becomes, take a deep breath, listen for that “still, small voice of gratitude” and open your heart.

Love. Listen. Let go.
….with love from Cornelia 

ps: Read more about mothers and daughters and gratitude with your own copy of The End of the Fairy-Tale Bride {Volume One} For Better or Worse, How Princess Diana Rescued the Great White Wedding.

[Photo courtesy of BHLN]

April 16, 2016

{A Veil of Distinction}

Dear Bride-to-Be: 
I thought youd enjoy my article, “A Veil of Distinction,” just published in the spring issue of Season Magazine. Click here to read it online...and Ive reprinted it below as well.

A Veil of Distinction
Wedding veils hold an especially distinctive yet intimate place in a family’s collective memory. Even more than the wedding gown, the family bridal veil has, historically, been the treasure most often passed down and shared with daughters and granddaughters, nieces and cousins.

That was the case with a certain heirloom veil with a most captivating provenance. First worn by Margaret Merritt as an Edwardian bride when she married James Thomas Lee of New York City in 1903, her cathedral-length, rose point lace veil was also worn by her daughters Marion Lee Ryan, Janet Lee Bouvier and Winifred Lee D’Olier. But this veil developed a particular mystique when her granddaughter Jacqueline Bouvier wore it, along with Margaret’s delicate wreath of wax orange blossoms, for her marriage to Senator John F. Kennedy in 1953.

I became intrigued by this veil’s lineage when I learned it was to go on a first-ever display early this year as part of the wedding costume exhibitions on Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina. The veil’s connection with the Vanderbilt family is through Jackie Kennedy’s cousin, Mary Lee Ryan—“Mimi” wore it when she married George Vanderbilt’s grandson, William Amherst Cecil, in 1957.

Jackie’s only daughter Caroline Kennedy didn’t wear the Lee family veil, but both Mimi’s daughter and daughter-in-law wore it with their 1980’s Diana-era “princess gowns.” I find this is part of the beauty and pleasure of a bridal veil: as fashions change, it can be adapted to wear in various stylish ways; and even as women and their roles change, because of its strong feminine impulse, the bridal veil always carries a precious tradition.

Lace was immensely fashionable for Victorian and Edwardian ladies and, indeed, de rigueur for brides during these gilded decades. Following the creation of “rose point” lace in Brussels in the mid-19th century—a type of point de gaze needle lace so named because of its lyrical rose design, often with raised petals—this romantic pattern became a favorite of brides. Therefore when well-to-do American women made their grand transatlantic voyages to Europe on the most majestic luxury liner of the day (it was simply the thing to do!), high on their must-do list was to bring back a lace veil from Belgium—all with dreams of a wedding in mind. (Is that how the lovely rose point veil worn by the Lee family brides—and then the Cecils of North Carolina—began its notable pedigree?)

Later when lace was not as popular and travel to Europe was aboard airplanes instead of ships, bringing home a lace wedding veil stayed dear to the hearts of many American women. Perhaps there is one stored away in your family’s “treasure chest”? ~