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


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.

It will include a wide variety of wedding attire including couture, ready-to-wear, art-wear and even a few historically significant gowns (including two Monique Lhuillier gowns featured on All My Children as a part of the first lesbian wedding on daytime television). The exhibition will run through January 30, 2011 and Wedded Perfection: Two Centuries of Wedding Gowns will be available for purchase on October 16 (though pre-orders can be placed now). The publisher also has sample page-spreads available here. Now, I’m happy to be able to present part II of my interview with Cynthia Amnéus, curator of fashion arts and textiles at the Cincinnati Art Museum.

(Continued from here)

Heather Vaughan (HV): Did you learn anything particularly new or surprising?

Cynthia Amnéus (CA): I think going into this project I was well aware of the fact that many nineteenth century women wore colorful wedding gowns, but it was a surprise to me to realize that non-white wedding gowns were pretty prevalent in almost every era. Particularly surprising was finding suggestions and ads for pastel colored wedding gowns in the earliest issues of Bride’s Magazine. Starting in the late 1930s and going right into the 1950s, the magazine suggested ice blue, shell pink, and pale yellow as very fashionable wedding gowns right along with white gowns.

Mary Widmeyer Mattox, Wedding Dress, Belt, and Headpiece, 1935, Gift of the Mattox Family, 2006.105a–d, Cincinnati Museum of Art.

HV: What role did the (living) designers or design houses or donors play in determining the curatorial focus of the exhibition, in choosing the pieces to display (or how you displayed them)?

CA: I had very specific reasons for approaching a designer or design house for a loan, so they weren’t really determining my focus. Those who were willing to loan were generally very easy to work with.

HV: What sorts of issues came up over the display of the pieces, were there condition issues that were of concern?

CA: I think display in this case was challenging because I wanted some drama in the exhibiton. I wanted have the space to subtly suggest how and where we experience wedding gowns. We ended up with a set of steps at one point in the show on which a mannequin will be mounted and the train will flow down the steps. We have created platforms of different heights so some pieces will be quite low and others dramatically high. The pieces are also grouped thematically rather than chronologically so we had to make each of the thematic sections work in our space and the whole show flow.

Prob. France, Wedding Dress and Slip, 1921, Gift of Christine Tailer in memory of Winifred Tailer, 2005.643a,b, Cincinnati Museum of Art.

In general, the challenge with a fashion arts exhibition is making the pieces accessible visually but not able to be touched. Visitors always want to touch textiles but I don’t like putting these object behind glass or plexi-glass so it is a balance between platform height, depth and plenty of security guards. Visitors also always want to see every side of a garment so at one point in the exhbition we have actually cut little windows in some of the free standing walls so you can see some wonderful details that might not be visible otherwise.

HV: What is your favorite piece in the exhibit and why?

CA: That’s a tough question! There are a lot of great dresses in the show. One of my favorites is an 1892 example of aesthetic dress worn by a Chicago bride, Minnie Crosby Emery. I wasn’t able to find much out about her but she must have been quite a forward-thinking woman to wear aesthetic dress for her wedding. And then there is the amazing dress designed by Zac Posen for his sister Alexandra. It’s a strapless red dress with a stunning train that is covered in huge red poppies. It’s amazing!

Zac Posen (b. 1980), Wedding Dress: Dress and Train, 2004, On loan from Alexandra Posen, Cincinnati Museum of Art.

HV: I’d like to ask a little about your career history, and trajectory as Worn Through readers are often very interested in this. How did you get to where you are?

CA: My degrees are actually both in fine arts. My M.A. from Illinois State University is in textiles and fibers so my path is a little different from others.I really come to this more from a textiles background but became very interested in nineteenth century dress. I have done a lot of research on nineteenth and early twentieth century millinery and had my own business making reproductions for reenactors and museum exhibitions before I began at the Cincinnati Art Museum as the collection manager/technician, then curator beginning in 1996.

HV: What advice would you give to students interested in pursuing a career in this field, what schools, experience and internships would you recommend?

CA: There aren’t a lot of programs out there for students interested in this field and they are continuing to shrink. I think FIT has a great program. I would also highly recommend studying abroad if at all possible. I think getting as much hands on experience as possible is really important. Find an institution, whether that’s a museum or your local historical society who will take you on as an intern or volunteer and get some experience handling objects, understanding storage, collection management issues, find a topic that interests you and start reading and researching. I would also highly recommend getting involved in the Costume Society of America where you will meet professionals in the field who can help you get where you want to go.

Paco Rabanne, Wedding Dress, 1967–68, Museum Purchase: Lawrence Archer Wachs Fund, 2008.107, Cincinnati Art Museum.

HV: Is there anything else you’d like readers to know about the exhibit, the book or the research?

CA: This exhibition is not a typical wedding dress exhibtion. Wedding dress exhibitions are kind of a dreaded choice for most curators because they’ve been done so many times. I was determined that this show would be different and I really wanted to take a more scholarly approach to the subject – not just put the gowns up chronologically and repeat the same basic, often erroneous, history of the dress. I wanted to know how this dress evolved, where it came from, why it has such power over even the most modern women. My essay in the catalog traces attitudes towards women in society and within the institution of marriage through history and parallels that with the evolution and aesthetics of the wedding gown. Modern women continue to participate in this very ancient tradition of the wedding rite and, I think, are struggling with this ritual that has very deferential connotations. The asethetics of the wedding gown expresses this and is continuing to evolve and change.

I want to thank Amnéus for taking time out of her very busy schedule to participate in the interview, and also extend much appreciation to the publisher, D Giles Ltd, as well as the Cincinnati Museum of Art.

*Christian Dior, Wedding Ensemble: Dress, Crinoline and Headpiece, 1954, Gift of Countess de Rochambeau, 2008.49a-c, Cincinnati Museum of Art

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  • Jeanie October 08, 2010 11.05 pm

    I’m just a kid, basically, so this may not be saying much, but I’ve never seen a costume history exhibit arranged thematically instead of chronologically. So this sounds fascinating (for that reason amongst others). I’d love to be able to see it. I’m going to try but I doubt I’ll be able to make it to Cincinnati by January, alas. Maybe the book will have to suffice.

    I think wedding dresses are interesting pieces to look at in fashion history because historically most women had one at some point in their life, and it was always one of the most spectacular pieces of clothing they ever owned. So while most costume exhibits focus on things commissioned by the exceptionally wealthy, or later, made for couture shows, just because they tend to be so much more magnificent and interesting than the everyday clothes or even formalwear of the everyday person, an exhibit of wedding dresses could ostensibly be very interesting even if it only displayed the (sufficiently preserved) wedding dresses of those who weren’t born into families of tremendous wealth. I don’t know if this exhibit features any such pieces, but I just thought I’d throw that out there. Hope it makes sense, and again, keep in mind I might have no idea what I’m talking about since I’m still just an undergrad. :O

  • Jeanie October 08, 2010 11.10 pm

    Okay, I realized that it might help if I boiled down my last comment. Assumedly costume collection curators seek to create exhibits that are both informative to the visitor and visually appealing. My point is that, while the middle class westerner’s every day rags, regardless of era, might not be very interesting to see in multitudes on display, wedding dresses are usually so lovingly crafted or detailed that an exhibit could likely still be visually interesting even if it included none of the staple donations from aristocratic families. That’d be a cool historical lesson, and different from most costume exhibits I’ve seen.

  • amanda newman October 18, 2010 09.49 am

    the exhibit was great! It was a treat to see so many amazing dresses in one location. For me it was an honor to be in the room with my grandmothers dress ( Norma L. Gould – short gold lame dress). She was a fashion model in the 60’s and to have her dress on view so all can see her style and her dress to her second husband was incredible. She passed away in March of 2010, but she was their in spirit. Thank you for everything she would have love it and to be in the same room as Vera Wang’s dresses, Zac Posen and Bob Mackie… She loved the spotlight and it is great that she still has it!
    RIP Mimi, I love you


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