Wedding Bells

Here Comes the Bride…In Flaming Red: Two Centuries of Colorful Wedding Dresses

Unconventional brides often choose not to wear white as a rebellion against tradition. But news flash: colorful wedding gowns have been around for centuries. A new exhibit looks at the trend.

Zandarin and Allen/REX USA

In 2005, Dita von Teese wore a loud purple, Vivienne Westwood Birds of Paradise gown at her wedding to Marilyn Manson. While it seemed appropriate for the affair—it looked like something Marie Antoinette on acid would wear, after all—it turns out it wasn’t the first time color had been boldly used for a wedding gown.

According to a new exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, color has long been a part of the wedding dress scene. For “Wedding Dresses 1775 - 2014,” Edwina Ehrman, the curator of textiles and fashion at the V&A, set out to show that white has not always been the color of choice (which makes my mum very fashion forward; she got married in a red dress, fur coat, and black knee-high boots in the 1970s in London).

“I wanted to explore the white wedding dress and show how it went into color,” Ehrman says. “When you come to the exhibition it is not just white wedding dresses, because between the years we are discovering women have worn colorful dresses. In the 18th century, white was an elitist color, for example. But it was difficult to keep clean and many women married in darker colored dresses.”

The Von Teese dress is one of 80 pieces on display in the fashion gallery, where two floors of beautiful and unusual wedding gowns are shown in bright glass cases under a vast domed roof with dreamy music playing in the background.

The exhibition reflects the multicultural identity of London, including delicate bright saris from India and a blue brocade design worn by a couple from Ghana, a casual cotton dress with a bust-hugging torso and flowing, floor-length skirt for the bride, and a loose-fitting cotton suit for the groom.

This outfit is among the most simple. But perhaps the most ostentatious piece in color is a wedding dress by Christian Lacroix, which closed one of his bridal shows in the 1990s. At that time, the wedding business accounted for about 40 percent of the designer’s business. The floor-length black gown is decorated in lavish gold costume jewelry around the neckline and features flowered beaded embroidery around the hemline and upon the arms. The design looks like something from a Spanish royal wedding or even a funeral in a play by Lorca.

Positioned next to this is a design that is much more subdued. It is a gray, almost grunge-like wedding dress by the designer Gareth Pugh, which he made for his friend Katie Shillingford. The creation has a feathery train and a ragged flow of ruffled panels, which create the body of the dress and extend to the floor.

In the same cabinet is a dream-like dress created by Galliano for the pop star Gwen Stefani, embellished with a layered silk skirt and a soft pink train complete with a feminine veil.

Another bold piece of color is a simple red dress made of silk gauze worn by one Monica Maurice for her wedding to Arthur Jackson.

“In the 20th century, white is the consistent color, but women in the 1920s, for example, used gold and silver lame and metallic laces. Color was popular in the 1950s. And we have a red dress worn by an electrical engineer in 1938. Red was her favorite color,” Ehrman says.

Quite extraordinary is the rich cream Flower Bomb dress designed by Ian Stuart, who trained with Britain’s Bellville Sassoon. The house was known for its wedding pieces. The design features a lavish ruffled skirt, adorned in earthen-looking floral creations, that turns into a white train with leaves caught between the layers, as if they had become trapped in the material while the bride walked through the church yard.

Then there is a wedding dress by the British designer Norman Hartnell for Margaret Whigham, later the Duchess of Argyll, for her wedding in 1933 to Charles Sweeny. The train is lavish in a rich cream color and measures 11.8 feet. It looks a bit like a beautiful tablecloth, laid out on the floor for a fairytale picnic.

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Some of the quirkiest accessories, meanwhile, include a hat that resembles the roofs in Sri Lanka, which was worn by Selina Blow following her wedding ceremony. The round, gold creation peaks in a roof-like spike above her forehead.

The artist Lillian Delevoryas, who is known for her work with appliqué created for the likes of David Bowie, made a jacket featuring a man and a woman saying their vows for her wedding to Robin Amis in 1972. It looks as if it has been made from a Medieval tapestry, the colors rich and worn-looking.

Meanwhile, Keira Knightley was not the first to recycle her dress.

“It is important to remember that in the 18th and 19th century, wedding dresses were not just worn for a day,” Ehrman says. “The idea of a dress for a day would have been alien to them. They were aware of the value of the money and the cost of clothing.”

Most of the exhibition is sourced from the museum’s archive. And it begins in 1775 for a reason.

“I wanted to tell the story of the wedding dress through objects, and there are relatively few wedding garments which survive before the end of the 18th century. So, it would be difficult to have a clear story line before then which is important for exhibitions,” Ehrman explains.

While Kate Middleton’s dress is not on show in the exhibit (but don’t worry, Kate Moss’s is), there is a silk coat designed by Anna Valentine and worn by the Duchess of Cornwall after her marriage to the Prince of Wales. The presentation is complete with videos of Royal wedding playing in the background.

Visitors would be forgiven for shedding a tear as the ceremony comes to a close. As Ehrman explains: “We have tried to make it as moving as possible and introduce the emotions of a wedding dress into the exhibition.”

Wedding Dresses 1775 - 2014 is on display at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London through March 15, 2015.