Wedding Dresses at V & A 1775 – 2014 – Here Come the Brides

Sewing a wedding dress...Charles Baugniet (1814-1886) Bequeathed by Rev. Chauncey Hare Townshend, courtesy V & A Museum, London

Marriage… is an honourable estate… instituted and ordained for the mutual society, help, and comfort, that the one ought to have of the other, both in prosperity and adversity… lawfully joining two people together.

Like all the rituals and traditions established in western society during the past two thousand years and more, marriage is integral to the evolution of our society. As such it has been subjected, especially during the past one hundred years, to fashionable concerns.

The Victoria & Albert Museum at London will, from the 3 May 2014 – 15 March 2015, showcase marriage through their stunning exhibition Wedding Dresses 1775 – 2014. A painting, now in the V & A reveals the seamstress, caught by London based artist Charles Baugniet (1814-1886) working on a wedding dress c1858.

The show will be overlapping with one of their most glamorous fashion exhibitions the V & A have yet offered The Glamour of Italian Fashion 1945 – 2014, which is still running Until 27 July 2014. It’s a case of fashion under the spotlight.

The gowns on display are all design and style statements, allowing the museum to offer an impressive panoramic display of wedding garb for over two centuries for prospective brides to be inspired by. The show should also spark ongoing debate in society over the state of marriage in modern society and perhaps help to define it for the future.

Wedding dress by Victor Edelstein, veil by Frederick Fox 1987, courtesy V & A Museum, London

The curators of the exhibition wanted to highlight exceptional craftsmanship and give viewers a privileged glimpse inside some of the most celebrated weddings and to that end many famous people including the Duchess of Cornwell have lent their wedding garments for the show.

The idea is to reveal fascinating and personal details about the lives of the wearers, giving an intimate insight into their occupations, circumstances and fashion choices.

The Wedding Dresses show will particularly focus on the development of the fashionable white wedding dress and its treatment by key fashion designers.

They will include legendary fashion designers such as Charles Frederick Worth (1825-1895), an English fashion designer whose works were produced in Paris and all the rage in the latter years of the nineteenth century.

Norman Hartnell (1901-1979) held a Royal Warrant as Dressmaker to the Queen and his gowns are all legendary, as are those of America’s first couturier Charles James (1906-1978) who is currently the subject of a splendid show of his fashionable gowns now on at The Metropolitan Museum of Art at New York.

Then there is Victor Edelstein, renowned for making grand statements in lace, celebrated for his elaborate couture wedding dresses finished off with a veil by master milliner Frederick Fox.

Figured silk satin dress with net and lace trimming c1841, courtesy V & A London

Glamour gowns by Gibraltar born John Galliano (1960-) head designer for French fashion companies Givenchy and Christian Dior (1996-2011) as well as his own company will be feature along with designs by England’s icon of modern punk and new wave fashion Vivienne Westwood (1949-).

America’s former figure skater Vera Wang (1949-), who is renowned for bridal haute couture will contribute, as will one of the ‘white knights’ of fashion, the French designer of beauty, colour and joy Christian Lacroix (1951-).

Colour is especially significant in that brides of high social standing remained far more practically minded than many would expect.

The fashion for the white wedding dress really started in earnest during the mid-eighteenth century, although most people were still married in coloured gowns for more than century after that.

White implied purity, cleanliness and social refinement and was especially relevant to those being married in church with its ideas of purity, which passed from the church into secular society during pious periods in history.

From then on they did begin wearing ivory or cream and golden shades far more than ever before. Although many still chose pale blue, dove grey or fawn, all colours they could wear for special occasions long after the event.

This lovely rich creamy golden dress in the V & A collection is made of silk satin and has elbow flounces over net and lace elbow puff and tight forearm sleeve. It’s trimmed with decorative silk buttons and puffs of net. The bodice is lined with grey silk, while the skirt is lined with grey cotton.

For the wealthy it was acceptable and even desirable to customize their dresses so they could continue to wear them during the early days of married life. While it was about practicing economy, which is why many of them were so well off in the first place, there was another important reason.

It was not so much about the clothes but about the meaning attached to the ceremony and the happiness of the celebration, about being joined in matrimony to the person they loved most in the world forever and looking forward to their life together as husband and wife making a positive contribution to society.

Wedding dress, c1867 maker (unknown), silk satin, needle lace, cotton and whalebone strips, courtesy V & A London

By 1800 it had become usual for many brides however to wear white or cream.

There is evidence in dresses preserved that long net sleeves were once attached to short over sleeves and a chemisette would probably have covered the neck. This has been discovered in this white gown in the V & A show, which is of unknown origin. It was made in Massachusetts in the U.S.A of shimmering silk satin, delicate lace trimmings and pleated bertha (a collar-like trimming) giving the gown a sumptuous quality as would have befitted a more wealthy bride.

As weddings generally took place during the daytime it was considered unseemly to reveal a low décolletage or bare arms at that time. Net was ideal because it provided a modest covering without destroying the effect of the dress and could easily be removed to create a fashionable evening gown later.

Block printed cotton, part-lined with linen, hand sewn, courtesy V & A Museum, London

Those at the bottom of the social ladder in the nineteenth century, and during war time in the twentieth century, were generally married in their best set of day clothes, with perhaps the addition of a posy of flowers picked from a nearby field or gathered from a friend’s garden.

Detail of Sarah Wright's printed cotton dress

Sarah Maria Wright (1817 – 1908) wore this dress for her marriage to Daniel Neal (1816 – 1907) on 27 July 1841 at St. Nicholas’ Church in Skirbeck, Lincolnshire.

Daniel appears on the 1851 census of the district, where he was listed as working as an agricultural labourer in the production of woad, a herb used in dyeing.

A fashionable dress like this one would have cost a tidy sum for such a working class family and so it would have been worn for Sunday best for long after the event, and even handed down.

It was made of printed cotton which would have been cheaper than the silks and challis fabrics of costlier wedding dresses.

The print itself would have also been a copy of a more expensive design, which again adds interest as textiles such as this one have tended rarely to survive.

It was donated to the V & A, together with a spelling book that Sarah had inscribed with her name on February 15th, 1826.

It’s likely the print was produced in India, where the fashion for printing such textiles for the ‘home market’ in England was an important aspect of Victoria’s reign because she was also Empress of India.

The fine detail reveals a wonderful example of a garment lovingly crafted and sewn for Sarah’s special day. The white based fabric had an abstract design resembling ribbons and bubbles in cream, pink, blue and and purple ink.

For the V & A Dr. Philip Sykas dated the block-printed cotton to c. 1840. The ‘ribbon’ motifs may have been printed from an ombre (rainbowed) block, and could be an example of the use of the toby tub to print several colours at once, thus reducing the cost of the print.

It appears to be a middle-quality print, from the spring season, and no more than one year out of date as ombre styles were being revived around the start of the 1840s.

With full sleeves, low neckline, gathered shoulders and full skirt it certainly would have been able to be worn for the rest of the Victorian age (reign of Victoria 1837 – 1901).

Queen Victoria, in her wedding dress and veil from 1840, painted in 1847 as an anniversary gift for her husband, Prince Albert by Franz Xaver Winterhalter now in The Royal Collection

The Victorian era was a significant period of industrial, cultural, political, scientific, and military change within the United Kingdom, and was marked by a great expansion of the British Empire.

She became an important influence on her age,  helping to create and inspire the fashion for white when she got married in 1840 to her handsome Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg.

She set a royal precedent by choosing a simple ivory satin dress, very much in the taste of the fashions of her day and part of the English Church of England religious tradition she now was in charge of safeguarding.

While earlier royal brides had worn white, their dresses were often woven or heavily embroidered with gold or silver very different to Victoria’s.

It was made of heavy silk satin and embellished lavishly with Honiton lace, giving an important boost to the lace-making industry in Devon.

Queen Victoria described her choice of dress in her journal thus: “I wore a white satin dress, with a deep flounce of Honiton lace, an imitation of an old design. My jewels were my Turkish diamond necklace and earrings and dear Albert’s beautiful sapphire brooch.

Victoria’s was the first wedding of a reigning Queen in England since 1554.

Superb silk satin shoes lined with kidskin and cotton with satin ribbon trimming and 'Louis' heels c1887 courtesy V & A Museum London

On show with the dresses will be accessories. Shoes like these darling numbers with low and very ‘modest’ heels came into fashion at the end of the 1850’s after ladies wearing flat soled shoes for over half a century.

They echo the heels being worn at the court of Versailles in the eighteenth century, prior to the revolution.

Silk shoes went with silk dresses, and they could also be worn for best after the wedding.  Aristocratic brides often had their wedding dresses re-modelled to wear for their first presentation at Court as a married woman.

Other items on display will include jewellery, shoes, garters, veils, wreaths, hats and corsetry as well as fashion sketches and personal photographs.

During the nineteenth century manufacturers claimed numerous inventions, and both fashion and technological invention fashioned a new corset for women for the new age.

Corsets became longer to achieve the desired hourglass silhouette. They encased the abdomen and enveloped the hips, and the amount of whalebone also increased to give a smoother outline and help prevent wrinkling of the fabric.

This bride’s wedding corset from 1887  is composed of twelve separate shaped pieces and forty whalebone strips. The steam-moulding process developed by a man, Edwin Izod in 1868, was paramount for developing this torturous number.

The result was a beautifully formed corset, whereby ‘the fabric and bones are adapted with marvellous accuracy to every curve and undulation of the finest type of figure’  according to The Ladies’ Gazette of Fashion advertisement, London July 1879. The complex etiquette during the Victorian age was available freely in books and magazines.

The Bridesmaid, George Baxter print 1855, courtesy V & A London

Costume became an important aspect of discussion as the printing industry expanded rapidly. Garments worn by bridegrooms and attendants will also be on display as the show investigates their fascinating stories and histories as well.

It was traditional for bridesmaids to carry posies, with flowers matching the colours of the dress, and as in this image the cape as well.

The cape is considered to be a burnouse, a style of cashmere wrap that fastened at the neck and sometimes had a hood, or imitation hood, attached.

Here the hood is trimmed with passementerie tassels, which were a highly popular dress trimming in the mid 19th century.

Flowers held special meanings in the language of love for the Victorians. Hundreds of flowers and plants were given meanings that ranged from simple words like Fidelity (ivy) to phrases such as Your purity equals your loveliness (orange blossom) or, First emotions of love (purple lilac). Kate Greenaway published the Language of Flowers, a Handbook for Victorian lovers in 1884.

The Wedding Dresses show at the V & A will have a myriad array of events attached to it and they are even having a V & A Wedding Dresses shop where the stationery, the cakes and the flowers will all be addressed.

As well there is a selection of evening and day talks and lectures and a fine catalogue to collect.

The curators are going all out to ensure that the Wedding Dresses exhibition of 2014 will be an event to remember. Watch out, here come the brides!

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2014

Wedding Dresses 1775 – 2014

V & A Museum, London
3rd May, 2014 to 15th March, 2015

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