I’ve lost count of the number of wedding dress exhibitions that have come and gone since I entered the world of dress history. This is perhaps because, as one of humanity’s oldest and most universal ceremonies, there is so much to explore and learn. There is also the simple fact that most wedding attire is the height of beauty and craftsmanship in clothing and textile arts.
The I Did! Wedding Finery Past: The Affirmations of Past Generations at the Lacis Museum of Lace and Textiles in Berkeley (previously spotlighted in Domestic Affairs here) is only the second wedding-themed exhibition I have attended — the first being Bliss, at FIDM in Los Angeles. I strongly suspect that this will not be the last such exhibition and I can safely say that for me, at least, Lacis has set the standard for wedding exhibitions remarkably high. Many of the exhibitions I have heard about focus, understandably, on the craftsmanship and beauty of the gowns. This is not to say that the exhibition at Lacis does not do that, but that I Did! does so much more.
Displayed in the smaller of Lacis’s two display spaces (the smocking exhibition I previously reviewed was in their larger space), I Did! features wedding attire for both men and women from about the 1850s through the 1930s. It also has a huge number of material culture items — wedding certificates, prayer books, calling cards, etc. — that deepen the show’s exploration of wedding history. The garments are displayed in chronological order, but museum curator, Erin Algeo, also created a number of tableaus showing the journey from engagement through ceremony, through wedding breakfast, through the wedding night (featuring the delicate details and beauty found in traditional trousseaus).
These tableaus were a remarkably clever and creative way to not only engage the visitor, but also to ensure that the visitor is not overwhelmed by the sheer number of objects on display. It also allowed Erin to feature garments that she was not entirely comfortable calling “wedding gowns,” such as the beautiful 1850s (circa) gown above which features green trim on the bodice. In her research, Erin discovered that not only was green considered bad luck for a bride, but by the 1850s a bias against brides wearing color existed (my Edwardian-born, old fashioned, maternal grandmother declaring to my mother in the early 1970s that “brides do not wear color!” when my mum wanted to add a green sash to her wedding dress came immediately to mind). This made her reluctant to call this exquisite gown a wedding dress, since she did not have any provenance for when the green trim was added. So in order to still include it, and to tell the story of weddings, she created the “proposal scene” you see above, dressing the mannequin as though at a ball.
Next to this engagement scene was a proper wedding gown from about the 1860s, which was a beautiful example of the period and of the excellent workmanship of the period. As weddings were required under British law (and continued via tradition in the United States) to take place in the morning, this was a wonderful contrast in fashions and proprieties of daytime and evening attire for the mid-nineteenth-century. It was this very tradition/law created the next tableau: a wedding breakfast. The wedding breakfast was of particular interest to Erin, she even went as far back as pre-Reformation England in her research to try and discover the origins of the law, and it is also a wonderful exploration of a tradition that has not survived intact but is instead the origin of the modern day reception. The tableau also allowed for the display of the gowns from 1870s through the 1910s, going around the table in chronological order from left to right, as well as allowing for the inclusion of flower girls, and menswear.
The contrast in gowns was fascinating. Starting with the lacework of the 1870s, through to the leg-o’-mutton sleeves of the 1890s gown, right up to the pre-World War I example. Having written about wedding gowns from the perspective of fashion trends and etiquette, I’ve spent a lot of time looking at fashion plates for brides from about 1890 to 1935. I was greatly impressed by Erin’s styling of the different mannequins. She captured the spirit of the trends of the various decades perfectly with her use of veils and strings of fake flowers.
This idea of fashion trends in wedding attire is also to be found in I Did!. In the display of 1920s garments, three gowns show both the early 1920s when the waist had yet to give way to the boxy silhouette of the mid-1920s, and that expected 1920s silhouette itself. The difference in the two more expected gowns also showed the range of styles and preferences available to brides. The lone gentleman in the back also showed the shift in menswear from the cravat to the bow tie and the transition from the 19th-century ideas of formal masculine dress into what is, essentially, the expected attire of grooms today. But the display does not stop there, as you can see. While most (lay) people expect the boxy, “flapper” silhouette seen on those two gowns, Lacis also has two gowns that feature the eighteenth-century revival trend of pannier that could be found not only in women’s evening gowns, but seen in the Ascot photos of the era. It was clearly found in wedding gowns as well. These two pieces feature delicate details you had to be there to appreciate (I tried desperately to capture them with my camera and failed). The gown on the left has hand-made ribbon roses, and the one on right has a peak-a-boo panel underneath the lace of the front featuring a silver bow. I’m trying to imagine it as the bride walked up the aisle, just a glint of silver every few steps. The two pieces are, however, too delicate and far gone to have been placed on a mannequin and this is probably, Erin tells me, their last public showing. A pity, because they are wonderful examples of this 1920s style often ignored by popular media.
The 1930s display was remarkably personal for me. That maternal grandmother with strict ideas about what could and could not be worn? She married in the 1930s and I have grown up looking at the picture below of her in the bias-cut, satin wedding dress (with matching satin pumps that cannot be seen), and hearing the story of how she worked all summer to afford the gown and trousseau. Lost in the 80-plus years since the wedding, I think the two gowns on display at Lacis are the closest I will ever get to seeing my grandmother’s gown and admiring the work that must have gone into it.
The display also has a couple of stories of its own. The veil displayed with the silk velvet gown on the left above belonged to a woman Erin was able to interview several years ago when she was 100 years old. Erin had long been curious about the marselled waves of 1920s hairstyles and asked about them, low and behold, the woman had been a hair dresser. Erin interviewed her about hairstyles and many other things, and when she passed away three years later what her family could find of her wedding trousseau (unfortunately the gown hasn’t been found) was given to the Lacis Museum. The expansive veil, and her shoes (later in this post), as well as a beautiful (and quite sexy) nightgown were included in this exhibition. Even the gown on the right, in the bias cut satin, with its original veil came with the provenance of a remarkably similar wedding portrait to my own grandparents’, and emphasizing that absolutely gorgeous train.
The final tableau in the exhibition was the exploration of “the bride at night,” and a wonderful way to explore the now lost tradition and craftsmanship of the trousseau. I have mentioned before that I love delicate details and embroidery, so needless to say this was possibly my favorite display because there was plenty of both. My two favorite pieces were definitely the above-mentioned negligée, and the pink, embroidered camisole and knickers set with net-lace trim you can also see on the close up of the bed below.
A very comprehensive exhibition, but there is yet more! Gowns and suits are not the only aspects of weddings, which is perhaps why I was so deeply impressed by I Did!. In the display case in the center of the room, arranged in such a way as to properly feature each item but also create a feeling as though you had just uncovered these heirlooms in situ in an attic, was a vast array of wedding ephemera: A wedding certificate from Covina in 1891 (I didn’t even know the city was that old!), prayer books, the sorts of fashion sheets a young woman might have used in the 1890s through 1920s to plan or choose her wedding gown, headpieces from hats to tiaras, and shoes (including those belonging to the centenarian Erin interviewed). My personal favorite were the calling cards, since I have a private obsession with etiquette history.
I describe myself as a material culturist as well as dress historian because while I love fabric beyond reason, it is these simple, exquisite, mundane items that I most adore because they so represent and give us insights into the everyday lives of people. They tell their stories and demonstrate that the more we change (or our technology changes) the more we stay the same: we still fall in love and marry, we still celebrate weddings, we all save the things that are important to us.
It is this last detail that is what I really took home from I Did!. There are two sets of items that really showcase the fact that these are truly universal experiences — something that can often be lost in material culture studies as usually it is only the remarkable or the objects owned by the wealthy that survive. Lacis’s I Did! features items that belonged to the average person as well.
The first set of objects is a group of three wedding certificates from the late eighteenth through the very early nineteenth centuries. From a German immigrant community in Pennsylvania, they are small, but have been beautifully embellished either by the couples themselves or someone close to them. Who decorated them is lost to history. In contrast with the official certificate from Covina, these are a touching example of the small ways in which “the average person” without extensive means might preserve and celebrate a momentous occasion. I even made a note for myself to research the tradition at some point, and the motifs connections to traditional Germanic embroidery.
The best display emphasizing the “universal” aspect of wedding attire is found in the first tableau, which features the engagement. There are two men’s waistcoats hung in the background. Both are from about the 1850s, both are handmade with exquisite detail. The first, seen below, has provenance of having been worn in a wedding, and is the typical sort of item that is saved: wedding attire of a man who was in comfortable enough circumstances to afford special clothing for his wedding. It is made of ivory moiré silk, and while handmade was definitely made professionally, as can be seen in the tininess and uniformity of the stitches.
This waistcoat is contrasted with another made of cotton — a good cotton, but still cotton — and featuring buttons on the inside where a warmer lining or padding could be attached in winter. It is also handmade, but its details are no less intriguing or excellent for being homemade rather than professionally done. While it does not have documented provenance as the ivory moiré waistcoat does, it was clearly someone’s “best” waistcoat and very likely worn in a wedding and other special occasions. It may not be the height of fashion, but it was important enough for a family to save it in practically pristine condition and deserves to be in this exhibition as much as anything else in it — which is why Erin featured it and spent so much time showing me its details.
Small, but truly wonderful, I am very glad I chose I Did! as my pre-semester museum visit.
I Did! Wedding Finery Past is on display at the Lacis Museum of Lace and Textiles until April 2, 2016.
Have you been to I Did!? What did you think? What are your favorite wedding attire exhibitions? Or are there any collections of shows that you feel did an equally excellent job of telling stories like this one? Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below! As always, if you have any announcements or events, please let readers know in the comments or email me with the details to include in a future column.