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Wedding Dresses 1775-2014 Exhibition at V&A

The first May bank holiday heralds the opening of a particularly special exhibition at the V&A museum about wedding dresses. Dating back over 250 years, Wedding Dresses 1775-2014 will feature over 80 of the most romantic, glamorous and extravagant wedding outfits from the V&A’s collection. It will include important new acquisitions as well as loans such as the embroidered silk coat design by Anna Valentine and worn by The Duchess of Cornwall for the blessing after her marriage to HRH The Prince of Wales (2005), the purple Vivienne Westwood dress chosen by Dita Von Teese (2005) and the Dior outfits worn by Gwen Stefani and Gavin Rossdale on their wedding day (2002).

We can’t wait to see gowns by Jenny Packham and Temperley Bridal sit alongside the likes of designs by Lacroix, Lanvin, Vera Wang, Jasper Conran, Bruce Oldfield, Osman and Hardy Amies. Being fans of the V&A, we were delighted when the curator of the exhibition, Edwina Ehrman, agreed to an exclusive interview for our blog, so please read on and enjoy!

Wedding Dresses 1775-2014 V&A Museum_0005Left: Silk satin wedding dress designed by Charles James, London, 1934 
Right: Exhibition curator Edwina Ehrman

How was the exhibition curated?

The exhibition is arranged chronologically. The displays trace the development of the fashionable white wedding dress and its interpretation by leading couturiers and designers, offering a panorama of bridal fashion over the last two centuries. It also explores the growth of the wedding industry and the effect of the increasing media focus on wedding fashions, particularly those worn by women in the public eye.

Why is white synonymous with wedding dresses?

White has been worn by brides since at least the 18th century but, for economic reasons, it was not the majority choice until the 20th century.  The colour was associated with purity but it was also a status symbol. At a time when all washing had to be done by hand and dry cleaning had not been invented, white garments were very difficult to keep clean. Only well-to-do women could afford a dress that could be worn only infrequently or quickly discarded.

What’s the most interesting wedding dress fact that you’ve discovered?

The idea of a dress for a day is a very modern concept. In the past, even wealthy women expected to wear their wedding dress again after their wedding. Many dresses were re-trimmed, altered to accommodate changes in fashion and the wearer’s figure and modified for evening wear.

What’s the difference between a ‘wedding dress’ designer and a ‘fashion’ designer?

Wedding dress designers create collections of bridal wear that include a range of dresses designed with specific types of brides in mind. If a fashion designer includes a wedding dress in a collection it is usually designed to create a stunning finale to the catwalk show.

Many designers use the wedding dress as an opportunity to make a comment about society or contemporary culture.  In the exhibition there is a stunning black and white wedding gown which was created by Christian Lacroix in 1992. Its name,  ‘Qui a le droit?’ (Who has the right?), questions whether it is appropriate for a contemporary bride to wear a dress associated with purity and chastity.

Wedding Dresses 1775-2014 V&A Museum_0003Embroidered corded silk wedding dress made after a Paquin, Lalanne et Cie Paris model by Stern Brothers, New York, 1890

Are there any stand out, little details on the dresses that make them really special? 

A few dresses in the exhibition have hidden symbols of good luck: a silver horseshoe, a blue bow, some artificial flowers. We’ll be showing one attached to the inside hem of a Hardy Amies couture bridal gown made in 1978.

Which is the most valuable dress in the exhibition?

Often the most valuable items in monetary terms aren’t the most rare or individual pieces.  A good example of this is a simply styled but colourful printed cotton dress worn by a future farmer’s wife who married in a remote rural locality in 1841. Wedding dresses from the nineteenth century worn by working class women are rare and important survivals. Another example is the first wedding dress ever made by John Galliano – in 1987. The dress, which demonstrates the designer’s innovative and experimental approach to cut and construction, will be shown alongside one of the bridesmaid’s outfits which he also created.

Which piece would you consider the most timeless design, and why?

I think the most timeless design in the exhibition is a beaded silk and lace dress worn in 1953 by Anne Molineux to marry Gordon Hodson. Its materials and cut are remarkably similar to Catherine Middleton’s 2011 wedding dress.

2013GP8829Left: Silk and lace wedding dress designed by Isobel, London, 1953
Right: Silk and rayon wedding dress, blouse, coat and bridesmaids dresses

Although Fetcham Park pre-dates the exhibition’s timeline, is there a dress  which represents what may have been worn in this era?

Although the 18th century dresses in the exhibition date to the end of the century we are including an image of a famous painting by William Hogarth which depicts a well-to-do couple marrying in a London church in 1729. The bride is wearing a formal white silk dress whose stomacher (a triangular piece of fabric which filled the gap between the two front parts of the bodice) is decorated with expensive gold metal lace, a lace cap and cuffs, and a string of pearls.

We understand that a version of this exhibition has travelled the world. Why do you think it’s so popular?

The exhibition was seen by almost a quarter of a million visitors in Australia, New Zealand and Singapore. I think wedding dresses appeal to people for sentimental reasons and because attending weddings, as a guest, relative or participant, is a common, shared experience.

To celebrate the opening of the exhibition, we would like to invite our readers to post images of their relatives wearing their wedding dresses with the hashtag #sheworewhite on Instagram & Twitter. The winner will be announced on Saturday 3rd May and will receive two tickets to the exhibition, courtesy of Fetcham Park.

Wedding Dresses 1775-2014, is at the V&A from 3 May 2014 – 15 March 2015, supported by partners Kuoni, Waterford Crystal and Monsoon Bridal