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Brides Revisited: An Exhibition of Wedding Gowns

Start Date 18 September 2010
End Date 27 August 2011
Venue Chertsey Museum
Location Surrey, UK

Brides Revisited

Eighteenth century wedding ensembleworn by Miss Jane Bailey on the day of her marriage to James Wickham, 1780


Surrounded by a whirlwind of anticipation, excitement and celebration, the bride has always taken centre stage on her wedding day.  Her clothing is an important focal point, and the wedding dress is a garment imbued with tradition, meaning and sentimentality.

The gowns in the Olive Matthews Collection, which is held at Chertsey Museum, date from the late eighteenth through to the early twenty first century. The brides who wore them came from comparatively wealthy backgrounds, and the dresses exhibit great richness in terms of sumptuous fabrics, intricate hand-worked details and key fashion features. The colours range from the fresh floral brocade of the earliest piece to the palest pink, ivory and pure white. However, though white and silver were established as the colours worn for royal weddings from the early eighteenth century, it was not until the nineteenth century that the wearing of white became associated more generally with bridal wear.

The eighteenth century wedding ensemble shown was worn by a bride from a wealthy landowning family. It is indeed made from a predominantly pale cream silk, but the colour and delicate pattern of flowers was part of mainstream fashion, and was not confined to bridal clothes. Change came during the nineteenth century, and was a result of increasing prosperity and the growth of the middle classes who were keen to reflect status through their dress and behaviour. The ultimate role models of the day were the royal family, and the traditions followed during the marriages of Queen Victoria and her children became hugely influential. They were imitated to whatever degree was affordable by those who had money to spare, and the wearing of a white wedding dress, made specially for the occasion and not intended to be worn in the same form again, was central to proceedings. Nevertheless, even the well-off had wedding gowns modified for use as evening dresses or court presentation gowns, and it was perfectly acceptable for less wealthy brides to acquire a new dress of a fashionable colour which would then be worn for best after the wedding. Many coloured nineteenth century dresses which survive in museum collections may have started life as wedding gowns. Even as modified or more everyday garments they would have been kept for sentimental reasons and passed down through families; the original use sometimes forgotten over time.

During the early 1900s the Edwardians continued to follow Victorian wedding traditions, but with a more relaxed approach. Lighter fabrics were used and a softer silhouette emerged, both for wedding dresses and female fashion in general. Initially the advent of the First World War made little difference to fashion, but as the country was plunged deeper into conflict there was an inevitable effect on women’s clothing. For a time during 1915 and 1916 a bride was more likely to wear a travelling suit than a wedding dress, and by 1916 shorter hemlines, seen in mainstream fashion since 1915, were also being adopted for bridal gowns. During the 1920s wedding dresses continued this trend and tended to feature shorter skirts in line with general fashion. Decorative details such as bead embroidery and handkerchief skirts were also seen, and veils were worn low over the forehead.

The 1930s saw wedding dresses resemble evening wear, with floor length gowns made of soft luxurious fabrics, often along historical themes. However, the Second World War and the advent of rationing meant that compromises were inevitably made. As prosperity grew during the 1950s weddings became more lavish once more, though in line with the conservative values of the time wedding gowns tended to be rather demure. The 1960s was perhaps the last period where mainstream fashion directly influenced wedding attire, and the decade saw a number of brides in mini dresses. Since that time wedding gowns have tended to take a different path into a fantasy world of their own; following separate trends and drifting further and further away from the mundane reality of everyday clothing. The beautiful gowns in the collection chart the progression of over 200 years of wedding fashions, but perhaps more importantly they allow us to assess the unique tastes and preferences of the individual brides concerned.

Marriage à la Mode

The Eighteenth century wedding ensemble displayed was worn by Miss Jane Bailey on the day of her marriage to James Wickham Esquire. They were married on the 9th November 1780 at the church of Holy Trinity, Wonston, near Winchester, Hampshire.

Jane’s outfit was fashionable without being cutting edge, as might be expected for a bride who hailed from the provincial English gentry. The skirt could be ruched up with plaited loops into the ‘Polonaise’ style – a youthful fashion which had been popular since the second half of the 1770s but was soon to fall out of favour. The tight pleating of the skirt to the bodice and the sharp point at the small of the back remained in fashion until the mid 1780s. The hat and shoes were also of the latest mode. However, the sprigged silk brocade of the dress resembles silk patterns of around 1777 and was not in line with the latest striped styles. Fashions spread relatively slowly at this time, and it was normal for more rural or remote areas to lag behind style centres such as Paris and London. Of course the personal preferences of the bride and her family may also have come into the choice of fabric.

Though probably made specially for the marriage, the outfit would have been worn again, both on the Sunday after the wedding when the bride made her ‘appearance’ at church as a married woman, and when she made visits around the locality. The ensemble was handed down by Jane to her granddaughter, Arethusa, via whose descendents this unique group finally made its way into the Olive Matthews Collection at Chertsey Museum.

Something Old, Something New…

Many of what we now assume to be ancient traditions associated with marriage were established during the nineteenth century, including the rhyme partly quoted above. The adoption of white as the colour most commonly associated with bridal wear hails from this period, as does the wearing of veils and the carrying of flowers. These practices all had their origins in royal weddings, and in a society becoming rapidly obsessed with the cult of celebrity, the actions of the royal family were enthusiastically documented and emulated as never before. Reinforcing these traditions and helping to disseminate them through society were the popular women’s magazines of the day, which frequently featured articles listing exactly what was expected of the bride, her family and guests.

In line with the Victorian ideals of womanhood, the white of the wedding dress represented the purity and virginity of the bride. For this reason white was strictly confined to first marriages. Demure respectability and an awareness of the seriousness of the step to be taken were strong influences on bridal dress which, by the late nineteenth century, was always in keeping with respectable day wear styles. The Ladies’ Home Journal of November 1890 sums up the prevailing attitude: “It should always be remembered that no matter how beautiful the neck and arms of a bride are, she is sinning against good form who does not have a high neck and long-sleeved bodice, for it must be remembered that she is not going to a dance or a reception, but to a religious ceremony that means the joy or misery of her future life”.

1942 satin wedding dress with a ‘Medici’ style collar

Wartime Weddings

The preoccupations of war and the associated rationing of clothing, food and many other commodities, meant that Second World War weddings were very different from the lavish nuptials of the previous two decades. Nevertheless, couples continued to marry, and families went to great lengths to ensure that the occasion was celebrated in a memorable and respectable way.

Bridal wear was still central to the day, and families and friends saved up clothing coupons so that a suitable dress might be purchased. Alternatively fabric might be bought to make a dress at home – a way of making the coupons go further. The ‘Make Do and Mend’ ethos so prevalent during the war years extended to wedding dresses, and second hand materials or old family gowns were frequently put to use. If an older sister had married in the 1930s, a younger sister might borrow the dress. In terms of fashion this was still perfectly acceptable, especially if the dress dated from late in the decade, since these styles prevailed in more exaggerated form throughout much of the 1940s. Many brides took the economical choice to marry in a smart suit and hat which could be worn after the wedding. Service personnel, both male and female, tended to wear their uniforms, and patriotic newsreels and posters enthusiastically reported on such marriages. Clothes rationing continued until 1949 and the Utility Scheme, which limited the use of fabric and trimmings in clothing, was extended until 1952. Post war brides were therefore also affected by the privations of wartime austerity.

Fashion and Fantasy

The modern bride is arguably more celebrated than at any other period in history. Increasingly lavish and expensive weddings have become the norm, and a huge and lucrative industry surrounds the day.

Since the 1970s bridal wear has moved more than ever in the direction of fantasy wear. Virtually every form of historical dress has been plundered and employed in the creation of wedding dresses, though authenticity is not the aim. Instead, designers strive to create gowns that are imagined composites of a myriad of romantic styles; attempting to achieve the goal of being both sexually alluring and traditional in equal measure. However, regardless of how ‘timeless’ a bride feels her dress to be, clear trends in bridal wear can be identified in recent years, just as they can in earlier gowns. Influences from mainstream fashion, which wearers may have been unconscious of at the time, inevitably find their way into bridal dress. Likewise independent trends such as a mode for high waistlines, or hooped petticoats, can also be observed.

In the words of one commentator, the modern wedding dress is

“the last refuge of extravagant romanticism. It incorporates the sense of drama and fantasy possible only on this occasion. The floating, full-skirted, trained, fairy-tale costume is the embodiment of a dream, realised by the white clad bride as she glides down the aisle to the strains of Mendelssohn on this most auspicious of days, the radiant cynosure of all eyes…a momentary heroine”.

(Joanne Olian, Wedding Fashions 1862 – 1912, New York,1994)