London—When Kate Moss married Kills guitarist Jamie Hince in 2011, she wore a wedding dress designed by John Galliano, the couturier also famous for his loose remarks. It took 701 hours to complete the gown and 253 hours to complete the veil. On the gown were 270,000 sequins, 120,000 foal paillons and 2800 pearl beads.
I don’t know this because I read about it at the time, although I might have. It had to have gotten heavy coverage. I only have the facts because I noted them from one of the plaques stationed throughout the Wedding Dresses: 1775-2014 exhibition running only another couple of weeks at the Victoria and Albert Museum.
When I realized it was on, I figured I’d better see it. After all, it’s not that I spy wedding gowns on the street all the time. Most of us don’t—unless we’re at our own different-sex or, these days, same-sex wedding.
Occasionally, of course, we pass churches where a wedding is about to take place or has just finished and the bride is on the church, synagogue or mosque steps or climbing in or out of a limousine or carriage. Or we’re in a park and a wedding party has gathered for a photograph in a sylvan setting. Or we see celebrity weddings in photographs or news coverage.
Diana Spencer or Kate Middleton marries a royal, and the dress by, respectively, David and Elizabeth Emanuel or Sarah Burton at Alexander McQueen gets almost as much press as the happy couple. (Neither gown is on display here, other than in a projected newsreel compilation.)
Nonetheless, I do get a gander at wedding ensembles more often for two reasons: 1) I don’t live far from the Kleinfeld’s emporium, which has been in Manhattan for some time now, and I regularly pass the windows there for a glimpse of what simple or complicated in the way of wedding get-ups is going on; and 2) I’m on upper Madison Avenue frequently and can see what billowing number Vera Wang is plugging in her avenue-side window.
So I decided to hustle to the V&A, if only because June is coming up fast. There might be an impending June bride reading the column who’d like a late report. Yes, I realize that by March, many, if not most, June brides have already settled on what they’ll wear, but there may be the few who haven’t found the exactly right number and want to know, as a helpful hint, what Gwen Stefani had on when she exchanged vows with Gavin Rossdale.
Turns out that Stefani also wore Galliano. It was the traditional white, all right—Queen Victoria put the stamp of approval on white wedding gowns when she married Albert in 1840—but it wasn’t white top to toe. Not too far from the bottom of the flowing skirt the white turns a lighter shade of pink that gradually intensifies into a bold red.
The wedding-gown exhibition is on two levels, and the gowns of the 20th- and 21st century are on the upper level, where pride of place at the top of the staircase is given to Dita Von Teese, who went to Vivienne Westwood for the deep purple gown of who-knows-how-many-meters of deep purple material she wore when she tied the knot with Marilyn Manson. It may have been shocking at the ceremony, but it had to look great on the dance floor afterward.
Although the written material throughout the exhibition leans toward pinpointing trends from decade to decade—e.g. the swing between the mini and maxi looks of the 1960s—there is enough variety to suggest that, really, anything goes. And though the great British designer Jean Muir created one with a twisted braid on the bodice that looked like something produced in an abbey, the point is made about modern weddings that increasingly immodest designs are accepted in church. Geoffrey Beene, one of the few Americans included (Wang and naturalized émigré Charles James are others), ran up for a former model of his what could pass as a shirt dress.
The one that stopped me in my tracks was the one that Anna Lin (Lin Xioajing) created for herself. Surrounding the hem are depictions of phoenix feathers, which for her are symbols of goodness and benevolence. Since it took six months to do the intricate work, it’s obviously too late for any eager bride to have an exact knock-off made.
It may be, though, that the bride thinking out of the Ian Stuart “flower bomb” box (and it would have to be a box as big as a steamer box) might like adapting some of the previous centuries’ notions—dresses from the time when muslin and cotton were the going fabrics rather than silk, satin, chiffon and tulle.
There’s a simple item from a 1780 country wedding that Jane Austin might have attended. It was worn by Jane Bailey when she married James Wickham. (Remember that in Pride and Prejudice Elizabeth Bennet’s sister Lydia eloped with a Wickham but clearly not this one.) It’s unlikely, by the way, that any woman would want to affect the wide hoops for a subsequent gown going to a court presentation after the ceremony.
Note that short sleeves were perfectly presentable for a wedding at home, but long sleeves were required at court. Dresses with short sleeves that would be going to court needed attachments. Also keep in mind about earlier wedding attire that it often was not designed for one-time wear.
In other, more recent times, one-time wear was also not strictly the thing. During World War II, women married in uniforms. After the war when rationing in England continued until 1949 and clothing coupons were limited, women turned to furniture upholstery and parachute silk for handy, low-budget material, which goes to prove that where there’s a will to wed, there’s also a creative way.
Incidentally, as a visitor proceeds through the exhibition, many wedding tips are posted along with the other information. My favorite is the warning Elizabeth Kennedy wrote her daughter on prospective grooms: “Do not marry a young man. You do not know how he will turn out.”