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The bride didn't always wear white

by STUART EMMRICH New York Times News Service on June 30, 2014 11:00 AM

LONDON — Queen Victoria wasn’t much of what you would call a fashion plate, especially in her later years. As a widow, she would rarely venture out into public, and when she did, she would be swathed in funereal black, perpetually in mourning for her husband.

But Victoria’s decision to wear white when she married Prince Albert in 1840 set in motion a fashion revolution, quickly making that color the dominant choice among blushing brides. Before that, gowns in bright colors or decorated with flowers — dresses that were meant to be worn again as party frocks well after the wedding ceremony had passed — were the prevailing trend.

That nugget of fashion history (but, alas, not the dress itself, which is part of the royal collection at Kensington Palace) is one of the surprising revelations in a new exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum, titled, simply “Wedding Dresses: 1775-2014.”

The show, which runs until March 15, 2015, traces the evolution of the classic wedding gown from its days as a simple day dress to when it became an elaborate showstopper and a huge moneymaker for designers such as Charles Frederick Worth and Vera Wang.

Among the highlights of the show is an exhibit devoted to the 1933 wedding between “society beauty Margaret Whigham” (later known as Margaret, the Duchess of Argyll) and Charles Sweeney, with the bride wearing a Norman Hartnell-designed silk satin gown with a lavishly embroidered 18-foot train. The wedding attracted nearly 2,000 onlookers outside Brompton Oratory, and its coverage dominated the front page of the next day’s Daily Mirror.

As the exhibit shows, weddings were a big business in Britain starting in about the 1920s for both the popular press, which routinely covered major weddings on its front pages and devoted columns upon columns to the designs of the gowns worn, and the fashion industry itself, which soon began staging fashion shows devoted exclusively to wedding dresses.

And, of course, nothing garnered more coverage than a royal wedding. On a recent morning, a crowd of museumgoers gathered in a corner of the exhibit space and watched a series of newsreel clips devoted to royal weddings in the past century: Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon to the man who would eventually become King George VI; Princess Elizabeth (later Elizabeth II) to Prince Philip; Princess Margaret to Antony Armstrong-Jones; Prince Charles to Diana Spencer (that prompted some sad shakes of the head by two older women in the crowd); and, most recently, Prince William to Kate Middleton.

The last wedding clip, which shows Kate being helped out of the car by her sister, Pippa Middleton (Kate in a flowing gown designed by Sarah Burton of Alexander McQueen, Pippa in a form-fitting dress by the same designer), is a quick reminder that the bridesmaid came close to upstaging the bride on that day.

Although none of the actual gowns worn at those royal weddings are on display at the V&A, the gold embroidered, dove-gray damask silk coat by the designer Anna Valentine worn by Camilla Parker-Bowles after the blessing of her marriage to Prince Charles — along with a Philip Treacy-designed hat that looks like a sheaf of wheat — is part of the exhibit.

There are also dresses that demonstrate how designers began to see weddings as a way to make a fashion statement, as when the influential British designer Jean Muir designed the wedding dress for a Vogue editor in the 1960s, an off-white, worsted floor-length dress with a high collar, puffed sleeves and an empire waist. Christian Lacroix, Gareth Pugh, Jenny Packham and John Galliano made their own contributions in later years, Galliano doing so in 2002 with a dramatic multishaded gown for Gwen Stefani when she married another musician, Gavin Rossdale (wearing a suit designed by Hedi Slimane for Dior).

On the exhibition’s second level, devoted to contemporary designers, there are wedding minidresses and even one pantsuit, reflecting the advent of more casual fashions — along with two wedding dresses “inspired” by the looks of Faye Dunaway and Bridget Bardot but not actually worn by either of the two actresses.

Among the more eye-popping gowns on display is the dramatic deep-purple gown designed by Vivienne Westwood for the 2005 wedding of the burlesque artist Dita Von Teese and the rock star Marilyn Manson, its voluminous train sweeping out across the display case. In an accompanying photo, Von Teese is shown laughing merrily as she danced with the shoe designer Christian Louboutin.

Von Teese and Manson divorced one year later.

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