A Cohesive and Engaging Story Tracing the Evolution of the Western Wedding Dress
The history of the wedding dress, stretching back to the 18th century, is the topic of The Wedding Dress: 300 Years of Bridal Fashions, an exhibition catalogue written by Edwina Ehrman, curator of textiles and fashion at the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) in London, England. The accompanying exhibition, entitled Unveiled: 200 years of wedding glamour, was recently shown at the Western Australia Museum. While the exhibition covers only the past 200 years of bridal fashion, the coinciding exhibition catalogue explores a wider range of history, beginning in the 18th century.
The introduction to the catalogue begins by giving a brief but enchanting glimpse into the sartorial history of wedding dresses as well as garments worn by males during wedding ceremonies. Ehrman first introduces the reader to the extensive collection of bridal fashions found within the V&A, which acquired its first item of wedding dress in 1900, when the museum purchased a coat and breeches believed to be dated 1681. The suit was reportedly made for Sir Thomas Isham (1657-81) for his marriage in 1681. In 1902, the V&A acquired its first wedding dress, which belonged to Jean Smith who married on April 20, 1789.
Following the introduction to the V&A collections, a statement explains how the exhibition and its catalogue have been organized around the V&A collection of wedding garments. Ehrman explains: the catalogue “links wedding outfits in the Museum’s collection to contemporary accounts of weddings found in diaries, letters, memoirs and newspapers to create a chronological survey of the white wedding dress.” Throughout the course of the book, it is clear Ehrman has done extensive research into the history of wedding dresses and their connections to British history and culture. As a publication linked to the V&A, whose collections focus extensively on British history, the exhibition catalogue aims to explore the connection between British culture and wedding dresses.
Throughout the exhibition catalogue, the use of photographic evidence strongly supports Ehrman’s research. Particularly in the case of the early history of wedding attire, the use of contemporary paintings to depict fashionable styles for brides reinforces the text. As modern photography was not invented until the early 19th century, paintings depicting wedding ceremonies from the 18th century are of great importance. In the case of wealthy brides of the early 18th century, Ehrman states, “letters and diaries show that aristocratic and very wealthy brides often chose silver, white and silver, and white bridal clothes.” While Ehrman used primary sources, such as letters and diaries of the time, to discern this information, she also presents details of numerous paintings within the book, which collectively sustains Ehrman’s research.
Ultimately, without the inclusion of paintings and photographs in this catalogue, it would be extremely difficult to visualize bridal fashions of the 18th, 19th, and early 20th century. Obsession over bridal fashion and wedding ceremonies came to fruition in the late 20th century, as the general public began a steep incline towards fixation of celebrity weddings. Ehrman further discusses this fascination with celebrity weddings in the final chapter of the book, “Choosing White: 1990s to the present.”
The Wedding Dress: 300 Years of Bridal Fashion, is broken into six chapters, entitled: Silver and White, 1700-90; The White Wedding Dress, 1790-1840; Commercializing the White Wedding, 1840-1914; Towards the Modern, 1914-45; Ready-to-wear, 1945-90; Choosing White, 1990s to the present. Each chapter features colorful reproductions of primary sources, including paintings, satirical cartoons, images of bridal ensembles, and photographs. While I do not think the book can be considered a coffee table book because it features in-depth research concerning bridal fashion, it does feature nearly two hundred high quality images.
In The Wedding Dress: 300 Years of Bridal Fashions, Edwina Ehrman presents a cohesive and engaging story of how the western wedding dress has evolved. Each chapter offers the opportunity for the reader to delve into the consistently intertwined topics of fashion and cultural history. While the research presented catches the readers’ attention, the strength of the exhibition catalogue lies in the utilization and presentation of primary sources such as contemporaneous paintings, newspaper articles, photographs, inscriptions, as well as photographs of garments set to go on display in the exhibition.
I would recommend this exhibition catalogue for anyone with an interest in fashion history, including students, professors, historians and those passionate about bridal wear.
The Wedding Dress: 300 Years of Bridal Fashions
By Edwina Ehrman
Te Papa Press
Hardcover, 208 pages, 181 illustrations
0.8 x 10 x 12.2 inches
Published August 2011