Wedding Dress exhibition at the Victoria & Albert museum

posted in: History of fashion | 7

I went to see this exhibition alone. I really took my time to study the exhibits, to savour them and read all the information supplied. Photographs and even sketching are banned.

Most fashion exhibitions show garments designed for the generic woman.Very few of the dresses here were bought ready-made from shops. Most wedding dresses, until very recently, were made for the bride. In this exhibition we mainly experience designers working directly with the customer – to please her and make her look her best – as well as showcasing their skills. Because wedding dress design is a symbiotic and highly individualised process I wanted to see the dresses on the women, on their happy day. Some (before clothes were disposable) were worn frequently afterwards, until wedding wear became divorced  from everyday wear,  from around 1950 onwards.  You really had to have an image of the woman in the dress to appreciate it properly and fortunately some of the exhibits included photographs or film images.

As I wandered around, looking at a mannequins in long white dress after long white dress,  I began to feel a little strange. It was nothing like dropping into the Manchester branch of Pronuptia to have a gawp at the frocks, but the whole point of a wedding is that there is only one bride. Even with the designer fashion shows there is normally one, stunning wedding dress, which comes on at the end. Seeing so many was dazzling, but not in an entirely good way.

It was a relief to see Indian, Chinese and Nigerian wedding outfits worn at British weddings, and a kilt.

The high point of this exhibition was probably  the Gwen Stefani wedding dress by John Galliano for Dior. It has an amazing, complex construction with the pink colour applied by spray paint. It is edgy and makes a post modern point about virginal white dresses, being both already “ripped” open at the back while slipping off the shoulder at the front. Is the colour seeping out of the woman or rising up her body from the earth? It is not pretty pink, like the roses.

Gwen Stefani gets married
Gwen Stepfani in John Gallinano

Katie Shillingford’s dress by Gareth Pugh was there too. This dress is very long and slim, like Katie herself. It is intricately made and the loops start to unravel as they go down the dress. On its owner you can see that it looks a bit like it is just falling away at the hem and train, almost forming a puddle of slashed chiffon piling up on the grey pavement. So another take on tradition with a twist, literally.  I like the modesty of this dress – a high neck and long sleeves – personally I am tired of strapless gowns and too much flesh. And I like the colour and interesting head wear she wore (basically a full face gauze scarf), although I feel she would have looked more beautiful with her natural dark brown hair. Getting the accessories right can be one of the most difficult things about the wedding outfit. I was pleased to see shoes, head-dresses, artificial flowers, hats etc on show in the exhibition.

Katie Shillingford in Gareth Pugh wedding dress
Katie Shillingford in Gareth Pugh (2011)

The Pugh dress was widely admired on the fashion blogs, which is not surprising as it was unique and really flattered its wearer. Kate Moss, one of our British super models, was seen in the same year to disappoint with her choice. It is a pretty dress close up and is completely encrusted with gold paillette beads and embroidery of peacock feathers. It is lined with a very short pixie hem dress and its transparent overdress which flows around Kate’s slim, straight frame. The workmanship had the wow factor but this finish is not as rare as it once was, as a result of beading being done in China or India. In fact dresses similar to this one were available in Kate’s collection at Topshop for around £150. I was disappointed too, to some extent, although I loved the sweetness of the flower girls and bridesmaids who can be seen behind. Overall the look is unmistakably Kate – it is true to who she is, and is a style she would wear everyday. But I am not sure that John Galliano was on top form with this dress.

Kate Moss Jamie Hince wedding
Kate Moss in John Galliano (2011)

It was nice to see Camilla’s Anna Valentine coat up close. Next to the two Kate’s above, it does look relatively large, but she is probably only a UK size 14. Like Kate Moss she wore a look that she is already completely comfortable with for an evening at the opera – a full length dress and tailored coat. I thought it was very successful. The sharp, square shoulders give structure to her figure and a crisp outline. The Phillip Treacey hat is amazing and works especially well, giving height, softness and drama to the look. It is not too matchy-matchy. The gold feathers are reflected in the fabric of the coat – a light turquoise with gold thread. On top of the fabric gold paint has been carefully applied to create additional richness and depth in the front to give a little emphasis to the midriff area. The coat is a redingote – it fastens with clips on the centre front, giving a very clean line, but allowing the dress to show through. Again the bouquet was well-chosen. It doesn’t “match” exactly with its yellow, blue and green flowers, but it gives freshness and delicacy to the outfit. Prince Charles wears traditional wedding wear, but the shade of the waistcoat, shirt, tie and handkerchief are perfectly chosen without being an obvious match. Really a great look.

Camilla in wedding outfit
Prince of Wales and Duchess of Cornwall

One of the nicest outfits in the exhibition was the dress and jacket chosen by Marit Allen in 1966, designed for her by John Bates. I like how the during the 1960s the rules were broken so comprehensively although this dress and coat remain completely appropriate for a church wedding. The coat is made of cotton gaberdine and trimmed with silver. I didn’t see the dress but it could be entirely silver with its standing collar and short length.

gaberdine mini dress and coat by John Bates
John Bates for Marit Allen (1966) Photo:V&A

This is a great exhibition which took five years to put together. It includes many of the antecedents of today’s wedding attire from the 18th and 19th century. But for me the 20th century dresses are the point of the exhibition. It is fascinating to see the connection of wedding wear to contemporary fashion. I remember as a small child looking a pictures of my mother’s wedding, and her mother’s, and feeling that they looked very peculiar. It was a shock to encounter the changes in fashion, and I could not appreciate the beauty of them. Now, of course, I tend to appraise the clothes and fashions other periods with more interest and understanding.

If you are getting married here are a few personal thoughts

  • be yourself
  • avoid cliches
  • wear a style and shape that suits your body type
  • don’t show too much flesh
  • you don’t have to wear a long white dress
  • follow general fashion trends but avoid wedding dress trends
  • wear the right white to enhance your colouring
  • coloured wedding dresses can make an interesting and exciting change but again choose a colour that looks great on you
  • vintage dresses can be lovely but will probably need altering unless you are undernourished
  • alternatively use a vintage pattern – you can get a unique look and a great fit
  • dual heritage couples and individuals could create a fusion look
  • weddings are about love, sentiment and tradition – include family heirlooms (something borrowed)
  • what you wear with the dress can make all the difference eg multi coloured flowers with a white dress, or white flowers with a red dress
  • white shoes are normally a bit ikky
  • please don’t dress the men up in gold waistcoats, or pink bowties/cravats to match your outfit. It is demeaning
  • don’t spend too much on your wedding – there are more important things in life!

7 Responses

  1. Stephanie

    This is very far out of my range of knowledge, but I enjoyed this piece immensely. My inclination has always been towards many of the points that you mention and I, too, find the strapless/fleshy trend in wedding wear to have had its day. I always thought that if I were to get married I would wear a suit and most likely not something white, or perhaps an interesting day dress in a pretty colour. I asked Gianni recently what he thought the perfect wedding outfit is and he replied that his favourite is the pale blue suit his mother wore to marry in the late 40s or early 50s!

  2. Maria Crowe

    Really enjoyed reading this Kate. Must agree with you Camilla rocked it on her wedding day. Great tips too for a bride to be.

  3. Joyce

    Excellent as always. Great food for thought. I too am tired of the strapless, and fear that in some photographs it will look like the bride is wearing nothing at all! Thanks for sharing your visit and all the information and those photos too.
    (wise words to watch your pocket book………. any wedding can be beautiful on any budget, if your personality shines through and in your heart, you want your guests to have a good time, and your guests want to share in your joy) “Feel the Love”

    • fabrickated

      Yes – the naked wife! I have seen those pictures that focus on the happy couple and it looks like she hasn’t put her dress on yet! I wish I had included one now! Love it.

  4. maryfunt

    Thanks for the review of the exhibit. Too bad no photos allowed but your descriptions made up for it. Great advice on weddings also.

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