The wedding dress is often heralded as being the most important dress that a woman will wear in her lifetime. The dress had humble beginnings yet has turned into an increasingly prosperous industry. The V&A’s latest exhibition charts the development and evolution of the white wedding dress. The dresses are displayed in chronological order over two floors, with the ground floor featuring dresses from 1775 to 1957 and the mezzanine featuring garments from 1962 to present day.

The exhibition starts by focusing on the notion of the white wedding dress and the issues of traditionalism and the globalisation of fashion that surround it. In the 18th century, white wasn’t the prevalent choice of colour for the wedding dress. The aristocracy wore attire made from silver and gold thread. In the 19th century, white was featured more prominently in high society weddings. I appreciated the reference to Queen Victoria’s wedding dress in 1840 and the quelling of a common misconception: the exhibition acknowledged that whilst the dress played a significant role in popularising the white wedding dress, she was by no means the first bride to do so. One of the first garments was a court dress with side hoops from 1775-80 and highlighted the dress worn when the bride was presented at court after her marriage. There was also a print by William Hogarth depicting the marriage of Stephen Beckingham and Mary Cox – a nice touch.

Creating Tradition 1800-1840, charted the differences in attire between brides who were married at church and those who married at home. Church weddings required the bride to have her head and arms covered, which obviously had an impact on the construction of her outfit. A muslin dress was displayed here to exemplify the popularity of white muslin in formal dress at that time. The Victorian Wedding 1840 -1900, highlighted the growing importance of wedding attire and the etiquette books and magazines that offered advice. The industry became more commercialised at this point and businesses began to advertise in newspapers. Waistcoats for the groom were displayed as well as a cotton printed dress from 1841 to show that less wealthy women didn’t wear white as it was impractical. The highlight of this section was a compilation of marketing images and film clips that were projected on the wall. The film showed the methods used to show potential clients images of the new styles. A dress by Charles Frederick Worth, trimmed with artificial beads, for American socialite Clara Matthews was another standout piece. Artistic Styles 1900 -1930, showed the influence of historical costume on bridalwear and the ‘picturesque’ style. A stunning dress by Norman Hartnell that featured a 3.6m train was the main attraction. In the background was a news reel showing the wedding and a line drawing of the architecture of the church. These details were a great way to introduce movement and a sense of place within the exhibition.

There was a display of wedding shoes next to a beautiful wall of photos. The wall consisted of a variety of wedding ephemera from announcements to design sketches by Victor Steibel. A compilation of clips from the key royal weddings spanning from 1923-2011 was shown here too. The Society Wedding 1930-40 featured a Charles James dress worn by Baba Beaton (Cecil Beaton’s sister). As the ground floor displays came to an end, From Austerity to New Look 1940-60 showed the ways that war brides adjusted to rationing and fabric shortages. A dress made by a florist from upholstery fabric was a great way to show this. The final dress to be displayed on this floor was a ballerina length dress from 1957 that introduced the more youthful styles to come.

Upstairs, Innovation and Individuality 1960-1970 featured garments that included a Thea Porter dress and a Jean Muir dress worn by US Vogue’s former London editor, Pamela Colin. There was definitely a sense of individuality and personal style in these pieces. The Celebrity Wedding 1990-2014, featured pieces that garnered media interest and showed the influence of celebrity on the wedding industry. Kate Moss’ dress designed by John Galliano in 2011 was displayed and the museum label stated that it took 701 hours to embroider and 270,000 sequins were used. It proved that garments like this can’t really be appreciated by only seeing them in the pages of weekly glossies. Another Galliano was shown with Gwen Stefani’s unconventional pink dress from 2002. New Century 2000-2014 focused on the effect of the secularisation of western society, second marriages, civil partnerships and same sex couples. This was my favourite display as it showed the redefinition of wedding attire and new ways of interpreting tradition. The Duchess of Cornwall’s coat and dress were displayed, as was an African brocade ensemble in colors that have a cultural significance in the Ghanaian wedding ceremony.

Wedding Dresses 1775-2014 is an exhibition that is rooted in research and historical significance. Not every garment is a showstopper, which I appreciated as it also represented the brides who weren’t necessarily in a high social class. The celebrity and contemporary dresses highlighted the levels of expertise and craftsmanship that go into creating a wedding dress. The curator Edwina Ehrman and her team have skilfully put together an informative exhibition that focused as much on the story behind the garments as on the garments themselves.

Opens 3 May 2014–15 March 2014.

Written by Giselle La Pompe-Moore. Images as per caption.