Notes from Cincinnati Art Museum Chat

Notes from Cincinnati Art Museum Chat

I recently gave a talk at the Cincinnati Art Museum about the history of the bridal gown as a part of their "Wedded Perfection" exhibit up right now. Here are my notes… Keep in mind these aren’t edited, they are just notes to myself. But I thought they were still informative, so I thought I’d share!

I love this exhibit because it’s not your typical chronological display of wedding dresses. Sure, it features the Victorian hand-worked treasures crafted by seamstresses hundreds of years ago, up to gowns designed by today’s most in vogue fashion minds such as Vera Wang.

There’s so much unique history told about the wedding gown told in this exhibit. Vera Wang dress in this exhibit represents a personal struggle and the inspiration for a new professional venture. It was her struggle to find her perfect dress – she searched for an elegant and subdued dress to no avail – that instigated the start her own line of dresses. The Vera Wang brand has now expanded into a multi-million dollar enterprise… including a book, "Wang on Weddings," her signature fragrance, a bridesmaid dress collection, and a collection of china and stemware, as well as a collection of jewelry, eyewear, shoes, linens, and more.

Also, in what must have been an absolute coupe for the museum, they have on loan from Queen Elizabeth II herself, a miniature of Queen Victoria. It’s her white bridal gown that set the standard for wedding attire, a style trend that endures still today with present-day brides, like Prince William’s new fiance Kate Middleton.

And as a Cincinnati girl myself, I can appreciate that this display is also unique because it features dresses from local brides and families. I also enjoyed the photography of local brides, featuring the out-takes no one usually sees. I had to laugh at all the trials and tribulations us women still go through to get into our wedding dresses these days!

As the publisher of Cincy Chic, which is an online publication for women in Greater Cincinnati for those of you who don’t know, we talk about fashion and style often. And there’s no better expression of style and fashion throughout the years than a wedding dress. Each one is a capsule of national history and economic times as well as the person’s political clout and social status. The dress also speaks to the woman’s place in the world at the time.

I thought I’d offer some chronologic history to your experience in this exhibit, through research I did on wedding dress style trends. And because there’s a lot of misguided superstition surrounding weddings and dresses, I also included some fun facts from each era to set the record straight.

I started with the mideval times…
Style:
The first documented wedding gown was worn by Princess Philippa, daughter of Henry IV, at her marriage to Erik of Denmark in 1406. Gowns for royal marriages were of expensive velvet, damask silk, satin, fur, and fabrics woven with precious stones and gold and silver thread. The wealthiest brides could afford dresses in red, purple and even black, all the more beautiful with full and gathered skirts and floor-sweeping sleeves.

Fact:
Blue, not white, was the symbol of purity in the Middle Ages, expressed at wedding ceremonies by a band of blue ribbon worn by both bride and groom. It inspired the "something blue" rhyme that endures to this day.

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Renaissance
 Style:
What to wear on your big day? With wedding conventions yet to emerge, only the most beautiful dress you owned would do. The train made it’s first appearance sometime in the 1500s, remaining a regal feature to this day.

 Fact:
The cringe-inducing  tradition of garter plucking dates to the Renaissance, as guests would follow the happy couple  back to their room and grab it for good luck. Presenting a bride’s garter to your own true love was considered a sign of steadfast  faithfulness.

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Early 1800s
Style:
Turn-of-the-century brides dressed up their gowns with Greek key patterns on hems, sleeve bands and shawls. Following the Napoleonic wars, waistlines peaked directly under the breasts. In the 1820s, corsets were back as slim waists with wide skirts were the only look for brides. Queen Victoria launched an enduring bridal trend with the chaste white gown she wore in 1840.

 Fact:
Queen Victoria was the first bride to have bridesmaids carry her train. Thankfully for them, someone else carried her rose-adorned wedding cake, which measured 3 yards across and weighed more than 300 pounds.

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late 1800s
Style:
Early-Victorian dresses incorporated snug bodices, small waists and full skirts falling over hoops and petticoats. Weddings were achromatic affairs during the Civil War era, as even bridesmaids wore white. As hoop petticoats began to disappear, bustles took their place. Brides of the late-Victorian era chose from organdy, tulle, lace, silk, linen and even cashmere. Sleeves went from puffy to fitted, then to bell-shaped. As the late Victorians moved on, bustles were out and demi-trains were in.

 Fact:
Brides typically had their wedding dresses altered after their big day, with sleeves shortened and necklines dropped in the style of contemporary evening wear. Indeed, stepping out to an event in a remodeled wedding gown was considered a compliment to the hostess.

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1900-1910
 Style:
Paris dominates fashion during this era. Lighter dresses are the height of wedding-style, crafted in silk chiffon and lace. Embroidery and glittering jewels are also in high demand at this time.

 Fact:
Bye-bye, bustle: The style of the age called for day skirts to be flared smoothly over the hips from a hand-span waist and then widened gradually at the hemline.
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1910-1920
Style:
Victoria, meet Edward. As brides fell into the Edwardian age, extravagance was expressed with lace and taffeta. Then came WWI, and styles got more functional, with contorting lingerie eschewed for a noticeable female form. Ankles were even flashed for the first time, no doubt to the delight of grooms and the displeasure of mothers-in-law.

 Fact:
It was during this era that America’s first fashion show was organized by Edna Woodman Chase of Vogue, who secured the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in New York for the event.
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1920-1930
Style:
As the stock market soared, so, too, did hemlines – from shoe length to just above the knee. Dropped waists and shapeless bodice dresses also reached new popularity. Meanwhile, style-conscious brides grown weary of boyish “bobbed” haircuts began experimenting with styles to compliment their femininity. And so, the hair liberation movement was born.

 Fact:
Speaking of liberation, the 19th amendment was ratified in August 1920, granting newly wedded brides the same voting rights as their husbands. Captivating dinner conversations ensued.
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1930-1940
Style:
Hard times be damned – the ‘30s were about glamour, baby. And bridal wear was no exception. The feminine shape was front-and-center on the aisle, with dresses that hugged the body, hung to the floor and sported boat-shaped collars. Actually, they weren’t called dresses at all, but for the first time “bridal gowns” – a term denoting luxury even as the Depression gripped our country.

 Fact:
Freedom of movement finally made it to the bridal world, with the introduction of detachable trains. The otherwise glamorous extensions could be tossed aside after the ceremony, or even cut and dyed into evening wear.
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1940-1950
Style:
As the darkness of war gripped the globe, women headed for the workplace looking swell in pants, overalls and rolled-up sleeves. The wedding gown of the day drew inspiration from the military silhouettes, with broad shoulders, slim waists and luminous materials. Various frills were added, but the overall look was decidedly smart, with accents such as long and tapered sleeves.

 Fact:
With exploding demand for wedding gowns in post-war years, designers hustled to meet demand. One clever venture tapped the sizable surplus of cream-colored silk parachutes, offering home stitchers instructions on how to turn one into six garments, including a wedding dress.
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1950-1960
Style:
With WWII-era restrictions on fabric usage a thing of the past, brides went crazy for lace. Wedding dresses embraced modesty, with traditional sleeve lengths, sensible necklines, full skirts and few embellishments.
“Ultra-feminine,” one might say, right down to towering, slender heels.

 Fact:
Who knew what with the advent of television might bring? Baby boomers, who arrived right along with it, that’s who. As the suburbs spread, middle-class American culture and style could be viewed nightly, right in your living room. Three dresses from ABC’s "All My Children" which began broadcasting in the next decade (January 5, 1970 to be exact) are featured in this exhibit.
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1960-1970
Style:
The wedding gown of choice was a modified bubble sheath with banded waist, scooped neck and superb details – at least until the A-line graduated to ready-to-wear. Across the pond, wedding fashion took cues from the Mods, with British designers playing with gimmicky styles such as mini-skirts. By the late 60s, hemlines headed downward to “maxi” or at least ankle-length “midi” territory. Wedding gowns mixed Empire and Victorian era A-lines, with graceful bell sleeves and flower trims for good measure.

 Fact:
Statuesque gams aside, what really made the mini acceptable were pantyhose, which offered protection from the elements while eliminating glimpses of unsightly stocking tops.
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1970-1980
 Style:
Ah, romance – with a medieval twist. Wedding wear went from heavy gowns to softer, flowing materials like nylon and polyester, with empire-seamed bustlines and A-line skirts. Dust ruffles looked fetching paired with ruffled “bibs,” Mary Jane  shoes and hats out of Gone With the Wind. Then came disco, and suddenly structured, stretch polyester double-knit gowns were it.

 Fact:
And the bride wore…trousers? For the first time, pantsuits were acceptable for the walk down the aisle, with “hip-huggers” and “bell bottoms” considered quite fashion forward as bridal wear.
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1980-1990
Style:
The roaring 1980s ushered in a jumble of  styles, as brides moved on from the decade just past. Gone was the structural support of petticoats, replaced by skirts that fell freely around the feet. Then came detailed hand-stitching, puffy sleeves and shoulder pads playing off the big-haired girly glamour of the day. Shoulders eventually softened, and features such as keyhole backs closed with pearl strands and drop dangles added drama.

 Fact:
“Are those your shoulders in there, or did you just come from football practice?” The archetypical ‘80s wedding gown enhancements weren’t meant to give her a more masculine silhouette as part of the women’s movement – contrary to popular demand – but rather to round out and soften a bride’s shoulders.
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1990-2000
 Style:
Moving beyond the ornate ostentatiousness of the ‘80s, brides embraced the understated, less-is-more simplistic styles of Vera Wang. Rich brocade fabrics in intricate, scrolling patterns were popular through out the decade, especially for those getting hitched around the holidays.

 Fact:
With the birth of the World Wide Web, blushing brides could broadcast their nuptials around the globe. “Aww,” you could practically hear Web-surfers cooing as they viewed the proceedings on their PCs, “Doesn’t whoever that is look pretty!” Who knew those computers would turn into cash cows in the following decade with the online market value reaching $13 billion annually.
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2000-present
Style:
It’s all about YOU, as modern brides bid adieu to tradition and walk down the aisle in wedding gowns that reflect their own particular passion, vision and personality. Go black or gold, cocktail or sundress, traditional or even trouser suit if you dare. As long as you look beautiful and feel comfortable on your big day, it works.

 Fact:
With divorce rates climbing – 50% percent of first marriages, 67% of second and 74% of third marriages – it’s easy to forget that 7,000 couples marry each day in the United States. That’s 2,555,000 wedding dresses per year, and another 7,665,000 bridesmaid dresses on top of that. Speaking of bridesmaids, the bride isn’t the only one enjoying individualized treatment in this era. Retailers such as David’s bridal and J Crew offer various styles in the same fabrics and colors. So, each bridesmaid can select the style that flatters them, but the bridal party still looks uniform and color coordinated at the altar.
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Today, as weddings become a 100 billion dollar industry, which all about the bride, her special dress and her big day, it’s tough to imagine that just a short time ago it was an industry revived in WW2 by wedding professionals pleading to Washington diplomats to lift the ban on textiles so the ladies could look good for their men coming home from the war.

I know from personal experience just getting married two years ago, I related to the photos of brides and their friends helping her hop into her dress, and I imagined the brides in the corseted dresses from 1800s doing the same. Some things haven’t changed.

But much about the wedding dress has changed. Most importantly, the woman has found her individuality… and with the wedding industry as expansive as it is today, she’ll find the perfect dress – and plan the perfect day – to express it. And that’s something all women, past present and future, can be proud of.