Thursday, 5 June 2014

Wedding Dresses at the V&A

The Victoria and Albert Museum in South Kensington is one of my favourite London haunts. And this year, the museum has outdone itself with a range of fantastic fashion and culture based exhibitions. 

Last week I went to see Wedding Dresses: 1775-2014, a vast exhibition with tracks the developments in bridal fashion and wedding culture since 1775 and the treatment of the white wedding dress by designers including Charles Frederick Worth, Norman Hartnell, John Galliano and Vera Wang. I could have spent hours in there and in fact I had to drag myself out after 3, simply because of an impending appointment at the UAE embassy. If it wasn't for that I would have stayed all afternoon. 


The exhibition is crammed with historical developments, information, multi media displays and of course, a great range of wedding dresses depicting the fashion trends in bridal wear, the influences of culture and royalty and celebrity wedding gowns. 

Today, brides of many faiths and nationalities wear white to celebrate their marriages, even in countries where it is not traditional to do so. The globalisation of fashion and the strength of the wedding industry have contributed to this phenomenon. The white wedding dress has become a universal symbol of the bride.

The exhibitions starts by noting the traditions of bridal wear in the 1800's when white was just one of the colours worn by brides. The everyday bride often opted for a coloured or patterned fabric which meant the dress could be worn again. I found that point quite interesting when you compare it today's brides; many of us place a huge importance on our dresses, which are more often than not, pushed to the back of the wardrobe once the wedding is over. This could indicate society's changing perceptions of consumption which are now more focused on the disposable. 

Brides had to cover their arms for a church wedding which is why dresses are seen with sleeves

Norman Hartnell, 1933
In the 1800's artificial pearls came into fashion and were added to the trimming of wedding dresses

White was fashionable in formalwear for women and this begun to cross over into bridal wear, with women's magazines of the time regularly publishing fashion plates showing white wedding dress and lace veils. These fashion plates, which later gave way to engravings and photographs was symbolic of the change in the way wedding fashion was being marketed between 1813 and 1925. Today weddings have become an industry in their own right and marketing has had to adapt to changes in technology and the way we consume to ensure brands get enough of the limelight. 


Charles James 1934 - plain silk satin dress with split train
Debenham & Freebody 1926
From the 1960s a wave of young British designers established in London. Rapid social change in the 1960s in Britain did not seem to impact wedding outfits which retained a degree of formality despite women's increasing economic political and sexual freedom.

The 1970's brought with them a new approach and many designers were taking their cue from the vogue for romantic dresses inspired by every era from the Victorian period to the 1940s. The trend escalated and by the 1980s designs were becoming more about fantasy than fashion, with Lady Diana's wedding dress from 1981, designed by David and Elizabeth Emmanuel, being a perfect example of that. Women with more avante grade tastes were commissioning dresses from younger experimental designers who merged innovation and tradition without sacrificing romance.

dress coat and veil with rubber rose embroidery 1989

Between 1990 and 2000, designers like Vera Wang and Catherine Rayner translated tradition, capturing the glamour of a white wedding dress in a more contemporary style. Wedding dresses were becoming more body conscious at this time too, with strapless styles and bodices featuring heavily. 

Jasper Conran 1994


Catherine Rayner 1996
Wedding dresses today are influenced by so many factors; fashion, culture, beliefs, traditions and celebrity all play a part in the modern day wedding dress. Many designers know that despite volatile fashion markets, bridal fashion offers a sense of stability which is why many have branched out into this area. Dresses combine a mix of styles from the previous periods whether that be the patterns and colours like the early brides, simplicity of post war styling, fantasy, nostalgia and romance. 

Ian Stuart "Flower Bomb" dress 2011


John Galliano for Dior - Gwen Stefani's wedding dress 2002
Qui a le droit wedding dress, Christian Lacroix, 1993
 
Jenny Packham Rapunzel dress 2014

The exhibition runs until the 15th March 2015 and is a must see if you're in London. 

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