Wedding Dresses 1775-2014, V&A

Celebrity creations and vintage gowns delight in an exhibition that marries social history and fashion, says Shahidha Bari

May 8, 2014

Wedding Dresses 1775-2014
Victoria and Albert Museum
3 May 2014 - 15 March 2015

In The Unabridged Devil’s Dictionary, American satirist Ambrose Bierce drily offers the following definition: “Bride, n. – A woman with a fine prospect of happiness behind her”. If dresses could speak, the spectacularly up-lit and glass-cased gowns that fill the Victoria and Albert Museum’s exhibition Wedding Dresses 1775-2014 would dismiss such drollery with a haughty reply and an imperious toss of a taffeta ruffle.

And in some ways, this is an exhibition in which the dresses are expected to speak not just of their beauty and often exquisite artistry, but of the histories of the women who wore them and the social contexts in which they were made. This is a predictably gorgeous show, a collection of heart-stoppingly lovely gowns, some quirky and curious, others subtle and simple, setting up the museum for another standing-room-only summer. But the question of how to square the commercial appeal of such an exhibition with the social history that underpins it remains a thorn in its bouquet.

Curated by Edwina Ehrman, a specialist in 19th-century textiles and fashion, Wedding Dresses ransacks the V&A’s vast collection, digging out and brushing down more than 80 gowns from across a span of 300 hundred years. But it also includes newer acquisitions and loans, including Kate Moss’ liberally sequinned couture confection by John Galliano from 2011 and the Duchess of Cornwall’s elaborately embroidered silk coat by Anna Valentine in 2005.

The Duchess of Argyll wore a glorious Norman Hartnell creation that literally stopped Knightsbridge traffic during her high society wedding in 1933

The dresses gleam quietly in a spacious and dimly lit room, arranged with so few accompanying notes that visitors are inclined to float, undisturbed, from gown to gown in a romantic haze. Overhead, reels of Royal weddings flicker, projections of grainy British Pathé footage, image after image of high society belles exiting church doors or waving at crowded masses gathered for a glimpse of impossible glamour. The word “glamour”, derived from old Scots and meaning “to enchant”, is apt here in so far as this is an exhibition that documents the ways in which we are bewitched by the idea of the bridal, but viewing it also entails a kind of seduction in itself. Despite its range, it cannot help but showcase the allure of the ultimate orthodoxy: the white wedding, pretty, perfect and infinitely desirable. Weddings can be fantastical affairs, but here, if some gowns delight in their own spectacle, the detail of others alludes to the real worlds into which these wives went.

There is a decent distance maintained between the pale-hued and carefully preserved historical collection downstairs and the glittery modern “celebrity” dresses that sparkle on the mezzanine floor above. At the entrance, Jane Bailey’s 1780 bridal ensemble from her marriage to James Wickham at Holy Trinity Church in Wonston, Hampshire – a creamy silk brocade gown, sweetheart-necked but demure, dotted with carefully embroidered floral sprays, exhibited alongside its accompanying petticoat, ribboned straw hat and slender satin shoes – suggests country weddings and the homely rural farm life stretching ahead of her.

Directly above blares a billowing purple taffeta gown from the 2005 wedding of American burlesque performer Dita Von Teese – a playful tricorne offsetting a dangerously low-cut bodice, designed by Vivienne Westwood.

Statement pieces like these are loud, but not enough to drown out the subtler narrative the collection patiently seeks to trace, from the simplicity of 18th-century country weddings where dresses were not occasional but designed for reuse, to trends in the intricate silver wire work that adorned the dresses of early 19th-century aristocrats.

The custom of white bridal wear, beginning with Queen Victoria, filtered through the widely circulated images of society brides, kick-starting commercial bridal industries and mass production ready-to-wear gowns. In the 20th century, austere wartime brides inventively made do and mended new materials, while hems rose with the euphoric exuberance of the 1960s.

This narrative is general, of course, but the gowns speak of women distinct, different, determined. The pearlescent sheen of Barbara Beaton’s body-skimming satin sheath makes for an ultra-stylish between-the-wars bride, confident of her smooth and narrow silhouette, finished nonchalantly with an orange blossom choker and coquettish wimple.

Only a handful of years later, in 1938, Monica Maurice’s ruby silk gauze tea dress provides a dramatic contrast, and intimates a different kind of confidence – she worked as an electrical engineer and loved racing cars and flying. Even in its pristine glass case, the dress articulates strength as well as femininity, a determined idiosyncrasy as well as romance.

If the angelic dresses steal the show, the devil is in the detail – the various bonnets, corsets and veils, even in the minutely embroidered silk satin of an 1828 garter painstakingly decorated with the motifs of its matching dress. Where the dresses remain largely pristine, the shoes are often faintly stained, scuffed or discoloured by the single special use to which they were so briefly put. The exhibition’s few gloves similarly carry more closely that trace of wear and reveal small but pleasing particularities: the 18th-century bridal ceremony would have entailed the peeling off of a glove for the placement of a ring.

The suggestion of wear and tear brings many of these bridal ensembles to life, even the smallest items: a silver square purse, capable of containing little more than a lipstick, carried by Carol Mitzani at her Dollis Hill synagogue wedding in 1956, intimates expense and attention to detail, speaking volumes more than it can hold. Equally, Edwin Izod’s steam-moulded corset suggests the precise proportions of the bride it encased in 1887.

These gowns recount the particular ways the women who wore them sought to present themselves on the day they wed. They cannot, of course, tell of the life that followed. Margaret Whigham, the Duchess of Argyll, wore a glorious Norman Hartnell creation that literally stopped Knightsbridge traffic during her high society wedding at the Brompton Oratory in 1933. Behind the bias-cut silk satin sheath studded with pearl stars and its 18-foot satin appliquéd train are the high-profile accusations of infidelity, incriminating images, drug abuse and divorce that followed afterwards.

The stories the exhibition does hint at are often complex and far-reaching: Sarah Boddicot’s marriage to her second cousin Samuel Tyssen at St John’s Church in Hackney in 1775 united their families both in blood and trade, the wedding funded by the families’ West Indian sugar plantations. The simple dress carries the history of empire in its seams.

Apart from a charmingly coordinated Ghanaian bride and groom outfit, and contributions from brides of Chinese and South Asian ancestry, the exhibition limits its attention to British white weddings. The brides largely elbow out the grooms too. A private loan from fashion historian Christopher Breward and his partner (lounge suits by different designers) only briefly acknowledges same-sex civil partnerships. But the tracking of customs and traditions through the most dramatic moments of their transformation into the future is perhaps the challenge of this exhibition.

The V&A uniquely preserves through its textile collections pathways into a lived history that is being formed in the present before our very eyes. In her artfully slashed and greying silk chiffon gown, pink-haired and face swathed in a tulle veil, Katie Shillingford in Gareth Pugh’s 2011 futurist-gothic dress makes for an ultra-contemporary alien bride, both like and unlike those before her, exquisitely beautiful and utterly otherworldly.

In this exhibition, the V&A revels in romance, but it also makes for a wide-eyed witness, capturing how dress is transfigured as the idea of marriage itself continues to amend and alter.

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