Here Comes the Bride
If finding the perfect wedding dress for the big day is stressful, try selecting seventy. This was the task of London’s V&A museum when selecting pieces for their exhibition “The Wedding Dresses: 1775-2014”. After travelling over 46,425 miles from a tour of four different international venues, 34 of the V&A’s wedding garments, dating from as far back as the late 17th century, joined 36 contemporary yet iconic gowns on loan from designers and celebrities, from Dita Von Teese’s purple Vivienne Westwood gown to Kate Moss’s ethereal John Galliano dress.
The display of ‘The Wedding Dresses, 1775-2014’ is organised on two floors, with historical pieces from the permanent collection on the first floor, and celebrity gowns on the mezzanine above. Stunning examples from the V&A’s own collection include garments from designers Charles Frederick Worth, Norman Hartnell, and Christian Lacroix. These pieces recall the ephemeral history of wedding attire and offer us a beautiful glimpse into their lives, as well.
Kiera Miller, Costume Mounting Specialist in the Textile Conservation Department of the Victoria and Albert Museum, spent a good part of 2009 preparing for the Wedding dress tour which included everything from garment restoration, to construction of specially-made crates that could carry the voluminous yet delicate dresses. The result of Miller’s work is a thing to behold.
With each wedding dress specially made or tailored to the original wearer’s exact form, Miller was required to reshape and pad countless mannequins in order to display each garment, as it would have been originally worn. This sort of form and material manipulation breathes life into the display, offering viewers visual access to garments normally shrouded in privacy.
The dresses are restaged with accuracy in historical order, chronicling the evolution of wedding garb. Excerpts of private letters to the newly wed from family members and well-wishers illustrates the history of matrimonial ties from the 18th-19th centuries.
In her book, “The Wedding Dress: 300 Years of Bridal Fashions” Edwina Ehrman explains how the rules of social decorum influenced the outcome of weddings during the eighteenth century.
Newlyweds would sign marriage contracts, with both the bride and groom’s families present, and a wedding ceremony would follow soon thereafter. The wedding itself was only allowed to take place within a church between the hours of eight am and noon, and brides were only deemed ‘appropriate’ to wed if their hair and arms were covered during the ceremony.
On the other hand, aristocrats and people of wealth could apply for marriage licensees that permitted them to wed wherever they pleased. Their brides wore gowns of sliver and white as a symbol of status.
Women’s gowns were fashioned from yards of fabric and then painstakingly sewn and embellished. These dresses were worn for a number of occasions and would be re sewn and altered over the years. Wedding dresses were considered with the same sort of practicality as most women created their wedding dresses in such a way that allowed them to be worn continuously.
In the exhibition, Charles Frederick Worth’s embroidered silk dress from 1880 deserves closer scrutiny. With cascading layers of pearl fringe, the piece is an excellent example of intricate pearl beadwork that was in fashion during the Victorian Era.
One of the exhibition’s most prized wedding dresses is that of socialite Margaret Whigham for her marriage to Charles Sweeny in 1933. The gown was designed by Norman Hartnell, who was then beginning to make a name for himself as the dressmaker of choice amongst London’s youthful society debutantes. It is made from ivory satin and appliquéd with orange blossoms and features a long train edged in tulle. Outlined with faux pearls and bugle beads, the dress is as rooted in tradition as it is in modernity, with the shape of the form cut close to the body, a style indicative of the thirties.
In a letter to her aunt on September 1779, wedding guest Martha Le Mesurier recounts, “Mary from top to toe was immaculate in white and looked better than ever I had seen her. But I think in general all brides do-it does not, I believe, proceed from their being more than ordinary beautiful, but they are more than ordinary interesting. The eternal union of two hearts very strangely engages our own, and makes us strongly picture the future or remember the past.” The same could be said of wedding dresses.
“Wedding Dresses: 1775-2014”
The Victoria & Albert Museum
3 May 2014 – 15 March 2015
Travel Partner Kuoni, supported by Waterford Crystal, supported by Monson Bridal www.vam.ac.uk