The bridal gown is one of the most symbolic objects in the contemporary wedding ceremony. The bride conveys multiple messages with choice of color, style and accessories. Color and style of the gown can depend on religion and culture, as well as fashion trends. Christianity’s association of white with purity and innocence – including other rites of passage such as baptism – have created an assumption of white or cream as the traditional preferred choice for brides in the West. However, for most of history, Western brides did not choose white.
What we now consider the traditional white wedding gown arose as the accepted color in the 19th century. Many women married in white or cream when pale, light muslin dresses were popular in the early part of that century. However, when Queen Victoria married her cousin Prince Albert in 1840, she wore a pale champagne-colored dress decorated with orange flower blossoms. Designed in the style of the period, it had a tight bodice and a full skirt supported by crinolines. The romanticized wedding of the Queen, along with the rise of photography, contributed to the popularity of white for wedding dresses, as a white dress stood out better in photographs. However, white was also difficult to keep clean, and thus a color more often chosen by the wealthy, while other women opted for a best dress or made or had a dress made that could be worn again.
Royal weddings have continued to influence wedding dress styles. Grace Kelly’s full-skirted gown with lace-covered bodice from 1956 inspired the gown of Katherine, Duchess of Cambridge, for her marriage to Prince William in 2011. Lady Diana Spencer’s silk taffeta gown sparked copycats around the world during her nuptials to Prince Charles in 1981. Hand-embroidered with 10,000 pearls, the gown’s voluminous sleeves, ruffles and 25’ train helped bring back the popularity of full skirted styles. And in the most recent royal wedding of American Meghan Markle to Prince Harry on May 19th, the dress was modern and in many ways timeless in its clean lines. Symbolism came in the form of the embroidery on the veil representing flora of the Commonwealth countries.
The dresses displayed in this exhibit represent a range of colors and styles over one hundred and fifty years, from the 1842 silk plaid dress, in the style of Queen Victoria’s, to an early 20th-century gown repurposed in the 1990s. While there are various colors, including black, the most dominant color in the collection after white is blue, from light sky blue to deep navy. This may also have origins in religion as the Christian Madonna is historically depicted in artwork as wearing blue garments symbolizing her purity, virginity and royal status. In the end, whatever the choice of color or style, the wedding ensemble represents a rite of passage as well as the individuality of the bride. It is often cherished, saved and passed down within families, or in the case of these dresses, donated to a fashion collection to be preserved for posterity.
Click images to learn more. Historical and donor information will appear.