The V&A’s latest exhibition is a must-see for any lover of fashion history. Wedding Dresses: 1775 – 2014 charts the history of the white (and not so white) wedding – starting with a very wide court mantua, and I defy you not to sing ‘here comes the bride more than 40 inches wide’ to yourself when you see it. With 70 dresses on display there are more highlights than I can mention, but I’ll try.
If anything can challenge the view that once you’ve seen one white wedding dress then you’ve seen them all it’s this exhibition. There’s a huge variety on display depending on the bride’s personal style as well as her status before you even start to consider the zeitgeist. But that’s not to say there’s not a running theme when it comes to wedding dresses. Queen Victoria is often heralded as starting the trend for brides to wear white when she married Prince Albert in 1840, but royal brides often wore white trimmed in gold or silver and the first princess documented as wearing white on her wedding day was Philippa of England in 1406. There are examples of white wedding dresses dating as far back as 1775 in this exhibition, and it is quite remarkable that they have survived given that a wedding dress would have been worn countless times as Sunday best, altered to fit the ever- changing fashions, or else cut-up to be transformed into a christening gown. The idea that a wedding dress is to be worn one time only and then kept as a memento is a much more modern development.
Not every dress will have you swooning – be warned there are some shockers. The late 19th Century saw the medieval revival that has left us with the princess wedding dress – so it would appear that fairy tale meringues are not a product of the 1980s after all. No, the idea of looking to the past for wedding dress inspiration has been with us longer than that, but a futuristic vision can be as equally fraught with fashion faux pas. A space age silver-collared coat from the 60s now looks like an Austin Powers costume even though it must have been cutting-edge at the time. And then there’s an embroidered dress coat and pointed gold headdress that we are told were designed by friends of the bride – although, one has to wonder if they remained friends afterwards!
Upstairs it’s onto the age of the celebrity wedding dress, with gowns borrowed from the likes of Dita von Teese, Lisa Butcher, Gwen Stefani and the Duchess of Cornwall. The outfit worn on the historic occasion a royal mistress became a royal bride is one of the exhibition’s highlights. In the flesh Camilla’s Anna Valentine dress coat looked a darker shade and the gilded Philip Treacy headdress appeared smaller than I’d imagined, but no less impressive. However, for me the star attraction has to be Kate Moss’ Galliano gown. The detail is so intricate it took 710 hours to sew on the 120,000 sequins, and the effect is stunning.
Wedding Dresses: 1775 – 2014 runs at the V&A through until 15th March 2015, so if you get chance to go I’d definitely recommend it.