This summer, the V&A will be overcome with wedding fever with an exhibition that celebrates the history of bridal attire, we speak to curator Edwina Ehrman ahead of the opening
What can visitors expect from Wedding Dresses?
Wedding Dresses 1775-2014 presents a selection of the most beautiful, romantic and dramatic bridal gowns from the V&A’s superb collection alongside some significant and equally stunning loans from leading designers and private individuals. It also focuses on the brides and their stories. The emotion of the wedding day will be presented through film and photographs, keepsakes and memorabilia and the words of brides and their families.
What’s the most valuable piece 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. also created.
What surprised you most when researching the exhibition?
I was surprised to find how commercialised weddings already were by the mid-19th century. Newspapers are full of advertisements for tradesmen selling wedding-related products, from clothing (for brides and grooms) and confectionary to photographs and flowers. In 1881 there was a bridal fair in London where London fashion houses exhibited the latest bridal fashions on dress stands, and billiard tables and bicycles were among the recommended wedding presents.
What was the most difficult acquisition?
A very beautiful pale gold silk chiffon velvet wedding dress and train purchased from the London department store Debenham & Freebody and worn at a wedding in 1926. Its appeal to me lay in the delicate fabrics from which it is made and its very fashionable train which incorporates a silver metal lace panel.
Were there any dresses you really wanted but were unable secure?
I would have loved to be able to display Queen Victoria’s wedding dress but sadly its fragile condition and great importance mean that it is rarely exhibited. Queen Victoria was not the first woman to wear a white wedding dress but she certainly popularised white, making it the colour that young women marrying for the first time aspired to wear.
What was the most unusual trend you came across?
There was a brief trend for ‘trashing’ the wedding dress – a good photo opportunity but bad for the budget!
What was a common style in the earliest dresses, from the 1700s?
Until the early 20th century most brides-to-be chose a fashionable day dress which they could wear again after their wedding on formal occasions or alter to make it suitable for evening wear. White was a popular bridal colour for young women but only the well-to-do could afford the luxury of a white dress in their wardrobes. Other women went for colours that suited them and would be useful. In the first half of the 20th century bridal wear was more influenced by evening fashions and although white remained a consistent choice many women wore pastel and metallic colours.
Where does the preference for white dresses come from?
White is a symbol of purity but in the past it was also a prestigious colour implying a degree of wealth and privilege. Its use, in age when all washing had to be done by hand and dry cleaning had not been invented, implied servants and a wardrobe large enough to accommodate a garment that could only be worn infrequently. It was also a colour that never went out fashion – making it very wedding- appropriate.
What has the exhibition revealed to you about the modern-day approach to weddings?
Bridegrooms are far more involved in planning weddings today than they were in the past, with the bride’s mother often taking a step back. Longer engagements also seem to be becoming increasingly common as planning the perfect ceremony and celebration become ever more complex and ambitious. On the other hand there seems to be the beginning of a backlash with simpler, smaller ceremonies, more modest present lists and a dress intended to be worn again.
What are your top three favourite designs in the exhibition?
This is always a difficult question but I love: The back view of the 1902 dress chosen by Edith Hope Murray which is appliquéd with lace roses; the elegant but sensual simplicity of the wedding gown and veil created by Ian and Marcel in 1989 and the drama and colour of Gwen Stefani’s John Galliano for Dior dress made in 2002.
Wedding Dresses 1775-2014 will run at the V&A from 3 May 2014 to 15 March 2015 vam.ac.uk