Published on May 15, 2014 | by Kate Lismore

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Frock of ages: the wedding gown in history

From a religious ceremony joining two individuals together forever, to a billion pound industry that has spawned weddings of all shapes and sizes, the V&A’s new exhibition looks at 300 years of the wedding dress and how it’s style and role in our culture has changed over the years.

Wedding Dress

V&A’s new exhibition looks at 300 years of the wedding dress and the role it has had in our culture [John Chase]

Featuring over 80 stunning, romantic and avant-garde dresses the exhibition ‘traces the development of the fashionable white wedding dress.’ Wedding ‘fashion’ as such originated as something that only the upper-class indulged in, while everyday people would take a much more practical approach to the ‘big day’. Nowadays, however, even we ‘normal people’ are more likely and willing to take up a new credit just to be able to afford the ‘dream dress’, which could cost anywhere between £1000 or $8.5 million if you want to buy designer Yumi Katsura’s white gold gown…

The two-tiered exhibition breaks down the dresses chronologically, looking at brides from around the world from a multitude of faiths. The trend of the white wedding gown actually originated in the 19th Century when white muslin was a popular choice among brides. As it allowed them to re-wear the dress again as a formal outfit, while still symbolising the purity of the bride-to-be as part of the religious ceremony.

Adding accessories

Innovative design improvements, such as the introduction of artificial pearls in the 1870’s meant that wedding dresses were able to look more opulent without costing as much. Prominent bridal designer of the time, Charles Fredrick Worth, created a beautiful gown for American socialite Clara Matthews (daughter of sewing machine pioneer Issac Merritt Singer) for her wedding to Col. Hugh Stafford in 1880.

Personally, I was a little gutted that the exhibition didn’t include Kate Middleton’s beautiful Sarah Burton gown, or Princess Diana’s iconic dress. However, this had more to do with them currently being on display in other exhibitions such as ‘Fashion Rules’ at Kensington Palace.

Society to court

Further along in the exhibition we see a change from ‘society’ or ‘court’ weddings, to the rise of the celebrity wedding and the emergence of the bridal industry as a massive economic force.

Weddings have become front-page news and while the wedding ceremony has become a more secularized, and a Western-centric celebration, the sombre more spiritual element of the celebration could arguably get lost in all the glitz and glamour.

Celebrity weddings

It’s not just royal weddings that the media is obsessed with, clips of which were projected onto blank walls of the exhibition, media coverage of celebrity unions get just as much media attention. Accordingly the US Vogue issue from this April, which showed Kim Kardashian and Kanye West in full wedding get-up on the front cover, was their highest ever selling issue in the magazine’s history.

Even non-celebrity weddings get a moment in the spotlight. Whole television shows have been created around the premise that today’s women are stark-raving mad ‘bridezillas’ who are likely to tear someone’s extensions out if they don’t get exactly the right kind of tulle in their bridal train…

The exhibition appeals to all- combining fashion, design history and of course some big celebrity designer names like Kate Moss’ stunning John Galliano ‘pheonix’ wedding dress. Alongside husband Jamie Hince’s Yves Saint Laurent suit. Other celebrity gowns included the bold purple Vivienne Westwood worn by Dita Von Teese at her 2005 wedding to Marylin Manson, and Gwen Stefani’s dip-dye Galliano gown from 2002.

If I could’ve slipped one dress out of the exhibition without anyone noticing it definitely would’ve been Kate Moss’ gown…but I don’t have my own pair of Manolos so I left it safely in it’s display case.

Charting the history of the white dress also meant the exhibition looks to the future of weddings. There were suits worn by couples from civil partnership ceremonies. What with same-sex couples finally being given their right to marry this year this means that the wedding industry is likely to continue adapting to the fashions and cultures that become more mainstream in our 21st Century society.

Wedding Dresses 1715-2014 is at the V&A until 15 March 2015. Tickets are available but entry to the rest of the museum is free.

 

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