The history of wedding dress is one steeped in symbolism. An act of tradition or of superstition, the decoration of garments worn by both brides and grooms often communicate customary hopes for their future life. Now that launch week is upon us, it seemed a good moment to explore these traditions with some examples in our collection – and, in doing so, to hopefully bring our brides some good luck.
While the origins of the rhyme ‘Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue’ are uncertain, references to it are frequent from the late Victorian period onwards. As well as offering the opportunity for loved ones to contribute to the occasion, each item also serves to bless the bride in a different manner. Multiple examples of these traditions - the old, the new, the borrowed and the blue – feature in the exhibition, which demonstrate the rhyme’s enduring importance.
By including an old, probably inherited or cherished item in the wedding outfit, the bride symbolically maintains a connection with her past as she enters married life. Generally, the selected ‘something old’ holds a link to the bride’s family, in particular her maternal figures. April Olrich, one of our brides on the mezzanine, serves as a perfect example of this.
When April married in 1963, instead of holding a bouquet she chose to carry a small silver prayer book. The book had belonged to her great grandmother, and is dated 1905.
On the front page, the names of her great grandmother, grandmother and mother, followed by her own, are written, in touchingly similar handwriting to the original inscription. By holding the prayer book on this important occasion, April incorporated her female forbearers into her big day.
As it was common for brides to rewear and alter their wedding dresses at a later date in the 18th and 19th centuries, the concept of ‘a dress for a day’ did not come into being until the early 20th century. Whether the dress was designed to be reworn or not, a wedding dress was still usually worn for the first time on the big day itself. As a result, the lucky token of ‘something new’ dictated by the rhyme has tended to be a bride’s dress – a garment designed and selected with the support of her family, which marks the start of her new union and life.
Traditionally, the borrowed item in a bride’s outfit is loaned from a happily married female relative. This was done in the hope that the bride might also borrow some of that marital happiness into the bargain.
When Queen Victoria’s beloved daughter Princess Beatrice married Prince Henry of Battenberg in 1885, she initially disapproved of the match, wishing instead that her daughter would remain at home. It is, therefore, all the more touching that in the end the Queen leant her daughter ‘my own dear wedding lace’ to wear at her wedding - lending with it, presumably, her love and support.
The colour blue has long been associated with loyalty and faithfulness. Tucked inside the hem of the dress worn by Pamela Talmey, a former Vogue editor, when she married William David Ormsby-Gore, 5th Baron Harlech, in 1969, a little blue bow and a horse shoe are hidden. The dress is by Jean Muir, a designer who was known for her attention to detail. Her inclusion of these charms, discreetly stitched out of sight but serving as a joke or a comfort for the bride, is a credit to this reputation.
While the codes at work behind these examples were easy to determine, other details will remain a mystery. For instance, while we were conserving and mounting Dita Von Teese’s amazing Vivienne Westwood gown for her wedding to Marilyn Manson in 2005, we came across two little bows, one blue, one red, hidden behind the bust. So, Dita, if for some reason you’re reading this, mind giving us a clue?
In the meantime, wish us luck, and do please come see the exhibition, which opens this Saturday.