Wedding Dresses 1775-2014 at the V&A

Many girls my age, in their early twenties, were quite dubious when I told them about the Wedding Dresses exhibition at the V&A. Cautious about how interesting it might be at the most, it certainly did not provoke a burst of excitement and enthusiasm about fashion centred around holy matrimony. This can be explained for various reason. The first is the reason why, when I arrived at the circular exhibition space layered onto two floors like a wedding cake, I found a mainly feminine audience but more specifically one filled with women in their thirties or beyond. Marriage is simply not something most students or graduates can really relate to anymore, too busy building their careers, social life…or simply enjoying a fresher take on relations and life with a significant someone…without eternal vows! The second reason is a valid point raised when a discussion arises on the evolution of the wedding dress: “it’s always going to be the traditional white dress…wouldn’t it all end up looking the same anyway?”

Honiton lace wedding veil (detail), British, c.1850 c.1850 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Arguably, this would be the main shortcoming of any exhibition that based around the wedding dress, especially since this exhibition ranges from 1775 onwards, at the very moment when white or pastel tones start coming into fashion and disregard the brighter, bolder colours of old. Symbolic “purity” mingled with an iconic aesthetic appeal that has stuck with us ever since. Yet within this exhibition, this homogeneity also creates a single point of reference for a multiplicity of viewpoints, influences and changes.

The bottom half of the exhibition, ranging from the end of the 18th century to the 1960s, showcases the very beginning of this tradition cemented by Queen Victoria’s decision to wear all white at her wedding, her dress trimmed with British lace to support her country’s industry and thus launching the mainstream bridal fashion ever since (The last exhibition I reviewed, Making Colour, shows Queen Victoria fashionably sporting purple dresses with her family and influencing her subjects to do the same, leading me to believe that Queen Victoria was, unexpectedly, a great trendsetter). Such small details, revolving around economical and social change, focusing on a greater picture as well as an emotional and aesthetic understanding of the wedding ceremony, allowed the exhibition to take a step further than expected.

© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

This first half, with its muted lighting and powder blue and pink displays interspersed with quotes about nervous brides and excited grooms, is involved with the establishment of a recognisable tradition with its lace, wreaths and light tones, but also debunks quite a large amount of myths. For me, the greatest surprise was the relative sense of sobriety and economy based around the early wedding dresses: most of them were made to be worn again, sometimes involving simpler fabric that could be re-washed easily, as well as detachable sleeves so as to create a more fashionable and less modest outfit once the ceremony was over! The fact that church weddings were considered a lower-class option, since most upper-class members of society could choose – and pay – to wed wherever they wanted, was unknown to me. In a sense, the exhibition busies itself with easing the rigour of tradition while reinforcing it at the same time: I would have preferred to see less dresses from the 19th century but more early examples of wedding dresses before the tyranny of white set in.

Silk brocade gown and petticoat, silk covered straw hat and silk satin shoes, 1780 Worn by Jane Bailey for her marriage to James Wickham 1780. Image reproduced by kind permission of the Olive Matthews Collection, Chertsey Museum. Photograph by John Chase.

Nevertheless, the transition into the 20th century gives a fascinating insight into the way in which weddings’ nature changes, adapting to the glitter of high society, allowing for extravagant dresses and their trains, made for the first time for a special, unique occaision. The glittery socialites of the 20s and early 30s could also celebrate in white now! Any sense of practicality rapidly flew out of the window for those brides whose wedding was broadcast on television for the record of the dress with the longest train: this was the case for the the bride Margaret Whigham, in her wedding regalia designed by Norman Hartnell.

Embroidered silk satin wedding dress designed by Norman Hartnell, 1933 Worn by Margaret Whigham for her marriage to Charles Sweeny, 1933. Given and worn by Margaret, Duchess of Argyll © Illustrated London News Ltd/Mary Evans
© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The marketing of bridal dresses increases just as several brides and their seamstresses start experimenting with more daring, individual ways of expressing themselves, giving a stellar, socialite feel to the wedding ceremony. The way in which the wedding dress and its ceremony enmeshes itself with the political and social climate of its time culminates into an elegant and sober dress from WWII made of parachute fabric, below, in red. Both modest and modern, brave in its bold colour and cut perhaps due more to shortage of textile than anything else, it struck out to me as far more interesting than the traditional gauzy whiteness surrounding it. There again, possessing more information on the bride and the way in which the dress was made created a subtle but essential bond between the former bride, the dress and the viewer.

© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

As I climb the stairs, the top half opens up the space and dims the lighting for a spectacular panoramic view of modern and contemporary dresswear. Here, the visitor winds through the space in a less chronological way, with a broader overview of micro-influences and changes from one decade to the next. It feels as though a fashion magazine column on the top ten most glamorous celebrity wedding has come to life…which can have its shortcomings as well. In terms of presentation and amount of stunning dresses, many of them presented outside the usual glass cases, like a mock fashion runway, twisting and turning throughout the 60s till today.

© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

This is the rise of the fashion designer, where the name and brand start to supersede a more homogeneous sense of fashion to be adapted to everyday life by anonymous seamstresses. If anything the wedding dress has been more spectacular than ever before: as we tend to marry later in life and therefore possess a lot more means to fund a spectacular ceremony, the wedding gowns follow suit. White still dominates the scene…except for a few exceptions, such as Dita von Teese’s glamorous punk-rock purple  dress. 

© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The dresses are beautifully presented and we are given a immensely complex insight into the way in which they have been tailored, as well as the various textures and experiments that have been undertaken. From a fashion historical point of view, and from the point of view of design, form meets content flawlessly as each decade’s state of mind is explored. From a social point of view…less so. No more parachute wedding dresses here. Yet without rising to that extreme, the sense of diversity is slightly lost. In a sense seeing all these high-fashion dresses creates a sense of greater distanciation than the relation felt with the dresses downstairs and their stories attached to anonymous lives. The interest is diverted from the dress and its design to the person wearing it. I want to focus on the way in which the dress is made and how it makes a tradition evolve, not a case of “which celebrity is wearing which designer” (guesses are open below*) Is this also something that is going to remain relevant to mainstream wedding tradition? Most of these celebrities can afford to step out of the norm but this is exactly like assessing 19th century fashion based solely on what the upper class would wear.

© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Another slight disappointment: the last part was quite heteronormative. Recent laws in numerous countries allowing same-gender marriage for gay, lesbian and bisexual people have created a revolution in the way in which many people can express their love and lifelong commitment. Showing how this has influenced the wedding dress or costume, even while mainly focusing on lesbian and bisexual women and their womenswear, would have been a welcome eye-opener and an interesting way of seeing the way in which tradition is tailored to social change. Would their dresses match? Would one bride still want to wear a tux to twist tradition around or consider this as weirdly heteronormative in its own right? It would also have created a very interesting contrast with a few of the LGBTQA issues explored in their current exhibition, Disobedient Objects.

This exhibition’s journey through time gave me an informative and touchingly intimate take on the way the traditional marriage was born and how it evolved in relation to our political and social attitudes, making it far less superficial and purely religious than it first seemed. Yet this realization and complexity makes it even more obvious when it does cut short of something more in-depth. It sometimes devolved from an emotional and intimate journey into a visual overload that lost its clear message, especially when it brought royalty and celebrities into the picture. I don’t need an exhibition to coo over how pretty *Kate Moss’ dress is, however true that fact may be: I need to know how it fits into a larger picture regarding marriage today and how we feel about it.

Claire Mead

W edding Dress, 1775-2014 at the V&A, until the 15th of March 2015.


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