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Trains and tiaras

Trains and tiaras

Wedding season is upon us, and the Victoria and Albert museum has decided to celebrate in style.  Or rather, celebrate the style, since its new exhibition takes in bridal fashion from 1775 to the modern day, showcasing the beautiful, bizarre and brilliant outfits worn by women on their wedding day.

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Heavy corded silk wedding dress with paste and pearl embroidery designed by Paquin Lalanne et Cie and made by Stern Brothers (1890). Given by Major and Mrs Broughton. Courtesy of V&A

Displayed chronologically, we go from Georgian-era white muslin straight out of Pride and Prejudice to the full skirts and fuss of the Victorian times.  We see the influence of the opening of the couture houses and, as the war approaches, look at how brides managed austerity by fashioning dresses out of parachutes or lace curtains.  And then it’s to the 1960s and on, when hemlines rose and patterns and shapes became ever more boundary-pushing, before a final stop exploring the dresses of recent decades, including bridal fashions as seen on famous names and examples of the gowns worn by brides of other cultures, such as an exquisite Indian outfit.

As a social history, it’s fascinating.  The dresses, of course, are stunning to behold – not least the star piece, Norman Hartnell’s gown for Margaret Whigham, the Duchess of Argyll, complete with a 3.6 metre train and compiled from dreamy stretches of silk, satin, tulle and glass beading – but there’s more to pique your interest than that.

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For starters, the exhibition conveys that the concept of a celebrity wedding is no modern phenomenon, revealing the breathless excitement in the media when a famous name such as Whigham tied the knot.  And for all that it is claimed that 21st century weddings require unnecessary frippery – all those themed accessories and such – there is plenty of that on display here, including a fascinating souvenir napkin from 1927, which was apparently given to well-wishers.  Nor have dresses skyrocketed in price; one explanation says that dresses were expected to cost three quarters of your ladies maid’s annual income.

But other things have changed; in the Georgian era, weddings tended to be held between 8am and midday, a schedule that would not allow for the hair and makeup routine that precedes most modern weddings.  And while 21st century brides would be unlikely to wear their gowns for a second time – and certainly not for any commonplace event – in the 18th century, we learn, women of less means wore colourful dresses for the simple fact that they were more practical, and thus could be worn again.

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Tiara by Philip Treacy (2008) worn by Nina Farnell-Watson for her wedding to Edward Tryon. Courtesy of V&A Museum

Inevitably, you are treated to clips of the most recent royal weddings; Diana, almost engulfed by her Elizabeth Emanuel dress, and the Duchess of Cambridge glowing in lace.  Choice of dress for royalty was no less of a consideration two centuries ago; Queen Victoria apparently chose English lace for her big day in order to promote British manufacturers.

The upper floor, which focuses on fashions from the 1960s onwards, is perhaps less intriguing, although there’s good fun to be had as you contemplate why on earth any bride would have chosen the more outré designs of the 1970s and 1980s.

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It comes as no surprise to learn that bridal fashions have always been influenced by wider trends – hence a 1960s wedding dress with a short jaunty skirt – and you can’t help but be struck by the glamour of Kate Moss’ John Galliano wedding dress (or amused by the fact that her husband, Jamie Hince, wore a tie embellished with a hand painted pin-up picture of Kate).  Still, by the end, with Jenny Packham’s and Alice Temperley’s designs on show, it feels a little like a bridal magazine brought to life.

That said, the tour from 1775 to the second world war is captivating, not least the dresses with waists so tiny you marvel at how the wearers did anything but faint, and most of the outfits are utterly exquisite.  Given that many brides only wear their dresses once, there’s something rather wonderful about the V&A giving them a second outing.  One to avoid after a break-up, perhaps, but other than that one of the most entertaining exhibitions you’ll see this spring.

Wedding Dresses 1775-2014, at the V&A to 15th March 2015.

Tickets: £12 (concessions available)