As wedding season is in full swing and excitingly we have a wedding in the office/ family in only 8 weeks time, we thought what better way to celebrate than visiting the glorious Wedding Dresses Exhibition held at the V&A . The exhibition traces the development of the fashionable white wedding dress and its treatment by key fashion designers including works by couture icon and a favourite here at Gently Worn, Charles Frederick Worth. The exhibition offers a panorama of fashion over the last two centuries giving the viewer an insight into how fashions are shaped and influenced by royalty, public figures and celebrities.
The first and oldest dress on display shows us a 1775-1780 wedding gown with a deep open chest in gold which would have been worn by a bride with connection to royalty and aristocracy. These dresses were known as court dresses they typically had wide hoops at the hips and were usually gold or silver in colour. This dress shown, has a largely exaggerated hip and beautiful intricate embellished detail. The sheer meterage of material alone that would have gone into creating such a dress would have been vast and therefore this gown would have not graced the everyday bride. Women of the day who were not so fortunate would wear dresses of coloured or patterned fabrics, usually flowers, simply for the practical reason that the gown could be worn again.
Typically brides of the 19th century wore wedding dresses with long sleeves as most weddings took place at church, where it was required for brides to cover their arms and heads…enter the bonnet. The bonnet or cap was the original veil, its purpose was simply to cover the brides head, although some brides would decorate the bonnets with flowers to match the occasion. Veils became fashionable during the 1830s usually made from plain tulle, lace veils were exclusive to wealthier brides. A Women of high rank could purchase a licence to wed at home, this allowed the bride more freedom of dress and saw women adopting short sleeve options.
It was only in the Victorian era that the associations of purity were firmly attached to white bridal wear as previously we had largely seen brides in shades of gold and silver or coloured and printed fabrics. Although Queen Victoria was not the first bride to wear white on her wedding day (1840), she was the first royal bride to do so. This had a huge impact on the ideal of a blushing bride dressed all in white. Arguably Queen Victoria set the trend for the white bridal dress, that has stuck to this day.
Moving on to the 1880’s, and a dress by one of our favourite couturiers Charles Frederick Worth. This particular wedding gown was worn by Clara Mathews. She was the daughter of Isaac Merritt Singer, the sewing machine pioneer. The dress, made in Paris and worn in London consisted of a bodice and skirt of cream silk satin with a separate velvet train. The dress is embellished with flowers and leaves embroidered on net with pearls and satin stitch. Lace trims the high neck and centre front of the dress whilst pleated ruffles of lace add further interest to the hem. A truly beautiful couture gown in every aspect of the word and we wouldn’t expect anything less.
By 1901 fashions had taken inspiration from that of evening wear, the cut of the fabric and decor was now being applied to wedding dresses. A good example of this was a Charles James gown worn by Baba Beaton in 1934. The dress showcased a modern raised neck and an inspired divided train. The beauty of the design lies in it’s deceptive simplicity, it has been cleverly cut and every dart and seam has been carefully considered, shaping the smooth ivory satin. “James said, ‘all my seams have meaning – they emphasise something about the body’.”
While Victorian values have left white wedding dresses with associations of purity, A few dresses toward the later part of the exhibition stood out from the crowd. Being more recent they seemed to be somewhat rebelling against the trend. Our next dress is a stunning mix of traditional and modern. When Gwen Stefani married Gavin Rossdale on 14 September 2002, she wore a John Galliano couture dress made up of lengths of traditional white silk, but the lower section of the skirt and veil were dramatically spray painted with pink, creating the perfect fusion between the traditional white wedding dress associated with purity and a vibrant statement one would expect from a woman with such edgy style and persona.
This extravagant wedding gown designed by Vivienne Westwood was worn by burlesque sensation Dita Von Teese in 2005 showing us just how diverse a wedding dress can be and it leaves us thinking that bridal fashioned have done a full circle over the past 200 years. I think we are now seeing a return to that variety and individualistic approach.