Anne here, blogging about a fabulous exhibition I recently attended: The White Wedding Dress. The exhibition was in Bendigo, a regional city about two hours drive from Melbourne, my home city, but the main part of the exhibit had come from the world renowned Victoria & Albert Museum in London, (also known as the V&A.)
But first, a little about the city of Bendigo, because it was, in fact, a very appropriate setting for this wonderful exhibition. Bendigo is a city built on gold. In 1851 gold was discovered there and the gold rush was on. At first it was a city of tents, but as alluvial gold gave way to commercial gold mining on a huge scale, the cily boomed and today its prosperous Victorian era roots are still very much in evidence in the many solid 19th century buildings and statues that remain. This statue of Queen Victoria stands in the heart of the city. But more of her later…
And now back to the exhibition. Most of the wedding dresses were on loan from the V&A museum in London, and ranged from the late 18th century up to the present day, but there was also a local Australian display.
It's a commonly held notion that the white wedding dress is a relatively modern convention, introduced by Queen Victoria in 1840 when she married Prince Albert. She certainly made it very fashionable but she was by no means the first. In 1559, even though white was considered the color of mourning for French Queens, Mary, Queen of Scots, wore a white wedding gown when she married the Dauphin of France because, she said, it was her favorite color. (I'm not convinced there wasn't a political statement there, but we won't go into that.)
Throughout history, brides have dressed for their wedding in the best dress they can afford. Today, most brides expect to wear their wedding dress only once — it's a sign of how much wealthier most people are today.
In the past, girls of wealthy families could choose whatever fabric and style they wanted, but the majority of women needed to be practical, and most expected to wear their wedding dress at many other occasion after their wedding. (Left: Jan van Eyck, “The Marriage of Giovanni Arnolfini and Giovanna Cenami,” 1434. Note this bride in green is not pregnant — the design of the dress is to emphasize her fertility. )
Thus an elaborate white wedding dress would be a quite impractical choice. Most fabrics were not easily laundered in those days — not the way we wash clothes today. Dyes would run and fabrics would shrink and stains were not easily removed. Some fabrics would be entirely ruined if washed, and white or light colors would need to be washed more than others, as the hems would drag along the ground.
Nevertheless some who liked white and could afford it, chose white wedding dresses. For some it was a status symbol, and even before Queen Victoria's wedding, fashion magazines were featuring bridal fashions in white. The one above on the right is from 1813.
Up until Queen Victoria's time, most English Royal Brides wore silver. Princess Charlotte, the daughter of the Prince Regent, wore silver net and lace over white silk. But compare the actual dress on the left with the official drawing pictured below. Quite different looking, aren't they?
Victoria chose a white gown because she had some beautiful lace she wanted to wear and it didn't display to advantage with silver, so she decided on a white dress. Victoria was a hugely popular young queen — after a series of unsatisfactory and unpopular monarchs, here was this young queen, mistress of an ever-expanding colonial and empire, in love with her Prince, and poised on the brink of an exciting new, modern technolofical age. Naturally people wanted to identify with her and emulate her.
But it wasn't royal fashion-setting alone that brought the white wedding dress into general prominence, it was technology — two areas in particular. The first was the new art of photography — photographs of the royal wedding portrait were widely published in newspapers and magazines, and more people saw them than had seen any previous royal wedding portraits.
The second area was the increased availability of affordable fabric because of the industrial revolution. By far the largest cost of clothing was the cost of the fabric. Labor to sew the garments was very cheap by comparison — seamstresses worked long hours under difficult conditions for very little pay.
For one fashionable wedding in 1812, the bride paid £735 for "a robe of real Brussels point lace" worked in a simple sprig pattern and worn over a white satin underdress. To compare, in 1811 The Duke of Devonshire paid his butler £80 per year and a junior housemaid was paid up to £16.
The exhibition didn't stop in the 19th century. It moved on through the decades right up to today. I loved looking at the changes in fashion. I think the Edwardian period is a very romantic period for fashion.
You can see more photos of some of the wonderful dresses on exhibit here, and some excellent close-ups.
There was a wonderful spirit at the art gallery. It's been a hugely popular exhibition and people have travelled from all over Australian to visit it — Bendigo is the only place in the country where it's being shown. There were a few men with their wives, but mostly the audience was women — friends, grandmothers, mothers, daughters, sisters, bridesmaids — all talking weddings and wedding dresses, reminiscing, laughing, exclaiming over the exhibits, examining the fine workmanship and the ostentatious displays of some, and exchanging stories.
There were also some fabulous photos and movie footage that captures some moments in time so brilliantly. One of my favorites was a photo from 1940 of an English bride leaving her bombed-out home.
There was living history being talked all around us. Little girls stood and heard stories of their mothers', aunts' and grandmas' weddings. Some of the wartime stories were particularly poignant.
One girl was absolutely horrified when she heard of a WW2 bride who'd made her dress out of curtains, because she didn't have enough rationing coupons to buy dress material. She couldn't understand that everything was rationed.
Another woman told a WW2 story of how her grandma used all her mother's coupons to purchase underwear for her older sister, because her naughty sister had been doing without underwear, spending all her coupons on outer wear! Grandma wasn't going to let her go to her wedding with no underwear, even if it did mean that little sister missed out on new clothes. Marvelous stories — I could have happily sat and listened all day.
So, let's talk. If you're married, tell us about your wedding & your dress. Or any special wedding story. Who's your favorite famous bride? And what historical era is your favorite for fashion?