Wedded Perfection: Two Centuries of Wedding Gowns (Part I)

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Opening in just a few short weeks (on October 9) The Cincinnati Art Museum will present an exhibition of sixty wedding gowns dating to the late 18th century up through the present day titled “Wedded Perfection: Two Centuries of Wedding Gowns.” This exhibition and the accompanying catalog were the brainchild of curator Cynthia Amnéus, professor Sara Long Butler and associate professor Katherine Jellison.

Image via Art Knowledge News

The exhibition will include wedding attire from the museums own internationally renowned permanent collection, along with loans from other museums, major and minor designers (including Zac Posen, Vera Wang, as well as artists and makers such as Susie MacMurray – pictured above). The exhibition will run through January 30, 2011 and the book will be available on October 16. I’m lucky to have my hands on a copy now, and have spent the last several weeks poring over the beautiful images and enlightening essays.

Wedded Perfection: Two Centuries of Wedding Gowns

Despite being very busy mounting the exhibit, Cynthia Amnéus, curator of fashion arts and textiles at the Cincinnati Art Museum managed to find time to answer a few questions related to the exhibit and her career in general. I’m pleased to be able to bring you this two-part interview with such an respected scholar and professional. Amnéus has taught at Xavier University and the University of Cincinnati and is the author of A Separate Sphere: Dressmakers in Cincinnati’s Golden Age, 1877-1922 (Costume Society of America Series), which won the 2004 Victorian Society of America Publication Award.

Interview with curator Cynthia Amnéus

Heather Vaughan (HV): When did you first begin work on the exhibit?

Cynthia Amnéus (CA): The exhibition was proposed in 2004, so 6 years. I was originally scheduled to open in January of 2009 but was moved around on our exhibition schedule a couple of times.

HV: Can you talk a little about the process of putting together such a major exhibition? What did your timeline look like, with regards to the planning, research, the catalog , and installation, etc.?

CA: Planning a major exhibition with a publication such as Wedded Perfection often has an extended trajectory especially in the fashion arts field. My first task is always to determine what pieces in the collection might fit into the show. I use our database but also manually look through the collection. In this case, I identified every piece of clothing that was associated with a wedding – wedding dresses, bridesmaids dresses, going away dresses, dresses worn to weddings, menswear, trousseau items, etc. I wanted to know what all my options were and was not sure at this very early stage exactly what direction the show would take. My aim at this point is to create a preliminary checklist. I also begin reading and research asap. Based on my research, the focus of the show becomes clearer (in this case, wedding dresses was such a broad subject and the exhibition could have gone in many different directions), I refine the checklist and then begin determining which pieces need conservation. For us, this means contracting an outside conservator as we do not have a textile conservator on staff.

United States, Wedding Dress, 1887 (detail) Gift of Mrs. Frances Lamson Eaton, Mr. and Mrs. Alfred W. Lamson, Mr. and Mrs. Benjamin Whitney Lamson, Jr., 1971.320, Cincinnati Art Museum.

Photography is major component that, particularly for fashion arts, requires a lot of time and must be planned well in advance. In a full day shoot, we can photograph about five gowns. This exhibiton has over 50 pieces. If we do a photo shoot every 8 weeks – which allows us time to mount the pieces – photography is easily stretched over a 2-3 year period. I also began looking for loans very early on. Finding a co-publisher also takes time and the manuscript is usually due to them at least a year out. Twelve to nine months before the show opens, design of the space begins – a collaborative process with the exhibition designer. Installation starts in just a few days and I am in the space everyday making sure every wall and platform is being painted the correct color, problem solving construction details, hoping everything that looked so good on paper works in real life, and making last minute changes or decisions. Next week the fun begins, bringing the mannequins to the space, placing them on the platforms, sliding the dresses on for the final time, working with the lighting designer, placing the labels.

HV: Were there any major hurdles to overcome (funding, donor issues, condition, etc)?

CA: Condition of historic garments is always an issue. Because we do not have a textile conservator on staff, we do a lot of restoration in-house, which we document and record in our database. This restoration and mounting is very time-intensive and must be coordinated with our photography schedule, so that is always a challenge.

Finding some of the loans was also a challenge, especially dealing with designers and simply tracking down the right person to talk to. It was also important to me that most of the more avant-garde pieces in the show not be runway pieces that had never been worn. I spent a lot of time on the web searching for wedding dresses and contacting individuals who might be persuaded to loan their gown to us. And if one loan fell through, I was back to square one for that type of dress that would have made a specific point in the exhibition.

George Henry Lee and Co. (active late 19th c.) Wedding Dress, 1882–83, Anonymous Gift, 1965.589, Cincinnati Museum of Art.

HV: Where did you go to research, what resources did you use?

CA: I always do as much research in primary sources as possible – Godey’s Lady’s Book, Harper’s Bazar, Vogue. Etiquette manuals from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were invaluable and historic newspaper databases were helpful. I also spent a lot of time researching in the first bridal magazine – So You’re Going to Be Married, later Bride’s Magazine, which was first published in 1934. The closest library that had these earliest issues was the New York Public Libray. I also read a lot of books about the history of marriage and some contemporary publications on marriage and the bridal industry. Some of the books I referenced included:

  • A History of the Wife, Marilyn Yalom;
  • The Wedding Complex, Elizabeth Freeman;
  • Here Comes the Bride, Jaclyn Geller;
  • White Weddings, Chrys Ingraham;
  • I Do but I Don’t, Kamy Wicoff;
  • Brides, Inc., Vicki Howard.

I also did genealogical research on each bride whose gown is in the show so this meant going to Ancestry.com, city directories, social registers, newspapers, and contacting family members or the brides themselves. I traveled to the Worcester Historical Society in Worcester Massachusetts to research one family in particular which is represented by two brides – grandmother and granddaugher, in the exhbition.

Stay tuned for the rest of the interview next Wednesday…

*United States, Wedding Dress: Bodice, Overskirt, Skirt, and Underskirt, 1869, Gift of Milton and Kathryn Graff, 2001.105a-d, Cincinnati Art Museum.

(Unless otherwise noted, all images come directly from the exhibition catalog, Wedded Perfection: Two Centuries of Wedding Gowns)

3 Comments »

  1. Worn Through » Wedded Perfection: Two Centuries of Wedding Gowns (Part II) said,

    October 6th, 2010 at 5:01 am

    [...] Last week I began the first of a two-part interview with curator Cynthia Amnéus of The Cincinnati Art Museum, who is now putting the final touches on the new exhibition opening in just three days (on October 9) “Wedded Perfection: Two Centuries of Wedding Gowns.” The exhibition will present sixty wedding gowns dating to the late 18th century up through the present day. [...]

  2. Erica said,

    November 14th, 2010 at 8:56 pm

    Thank you so much for posting this! The gowns are just beautiful!

  3. The “Wedded Perfection” Tour | bridepower.com blog said,

    June 21st, 2011 at 2:36 pm

    [...] dresses and other accessories that were in vogue during various times. The show also spawned a publication of the same name, which was published in November [...]

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