Pop the Question

Furniture, Textiles and Fashion
June 27, 2014


Thank you all so much for taking part in the Q&A this week – you came up with some really interesting and satisfyingly tricky questions. For now, I have posted your answers as replies in the comment section below. If the website is not behaving itself, they may not appear in the right order, but I have started each one with your name in order for you to hunt the right one out.

Next week I will compile all the answers as separate or combined blog posts, in order to include images and to perhaps go into a little more detail.


Katie Shillingford's veil designed by Stephen Jones
Katie Shillingford’s veil designed by Stephen Jones
About the author

Furniture, Textiles and Fashion
June 27, 2014

I specialised in Fashion History on my Masters Degree and am fascinated by all things sartorial and the stories these pieces can tell. Before working on 'Undressed: A Brief History...

More from Susanna Cordner
22 comments so far, view or add yours


Have recently been researching for a local history project in north-east Scotland, where a description of mid to late 19th century country weddings says that brides usually wore black, silk if they could afford it, because the dress became their (practical) Sunday best for years to come. I know – or think I know! – that white wedding dresses are comparatively recent but wondered if you had any comments on brides wearing black.

Hey, I’m really looking forward to the Q&A. I’d like to hear about the relationships between the exhibition’s wedding dresses and gender, particularly the origins and history of the use of white material.

What item were you most upset to have to turn away from inclusion in the exhibition?

Over your time getting to know the ins and outs if the exhibition, what have been the most enlightening facts you’ve learnt about the history of wedding fashion, and how do you feel it relates directly to the matrimonial process?

Have any of the stories you’ve discovered during your experience with the exhibition influenced how you’d like your ‘perfect day’ to pan out, and if not, then what have you learnt about what is expected from the woman in the 21st century?

Can you give us a greater insight into how the man’s role in the wedding has evolved? They tend to be overshadowed somewhat! Does it speak volumes that the woman so often comes to the forefront?

How do you feel the truly avant guard dress designs effect the homogenised view of what the wedding dress should be, and where do you think the future of the wedding dress will lead us?

I went to the exhibition the other week and loved it – congratulations to all involved. I look forward to seeing the next exhbition you organise at the V&A. I was left with one question though:

As an 67 year old woman with three marriages under my belt (don’t get me started), I’d really like to know what your views on the feminist-based marriages that are becoming obvious in modern times are? In short, do we see a trend away from the white and symbolisation of virginity and purity in brides? This is of particular interest considering the volume of marriages taking place – just look at me! If my third husband ever thought that I was pure, I’d section him.

In a world where so few brides do reach the alter as virgins, what place does the white dress truly have in today’s society? Surely, a scarlet letter would be more appropriate.

Are there any dresses in the collection from other cultural/religious groups? + Do you see any influences of other cultural/religious styles in any of the dresses on show?

E. Robinson – Thank you very much, I am glad that you enjoyed the exhibition.
As is the case with a lot of our cultural coding, it was only in the Victorian era that the associations of purity were firmly attached to white bridal wear. While Queen Victoria was not the first bride to wear white, she was the first royal bride to do so. At her wedding to Prince Albert in 1840, she set in stone this ideal of the blushing bride wearing a white dress and a veil. So, while white has always had associations with virginity and purity, the application of this symbolism to wedding dresses is actually relatively recent – although none the less embedded.
However, I think that modern brides are in a position to make their own decisions – either to reject wearing white, for the connotations it has held, or to wear it all the same, for the romantic ideal it represents. Equally, in the instance that you mention – of people remarrying, perhaps, as in your case, multiple times – there is room for reinvention. We have several examples of second marriages included in the exhibition. For instance, Sara Donaldson-Hudson’s mother did not want her to wear white to her registry-office wedding to Nicholas Haydon, who was divorced, in 1971. Instead, the bride wore the bright and bold Rajputana coat by Richard Cawley for Bellville Sassoon.

Jean Montpellier – The white wedding dress only truly gained its associations with purity in the Victorian period. Before that, and particularly in the late 18th century, white was selected for bridal wear as a symbol of status and wealth. At a time when garments had to be hand washed by servants, wearing white implied that both your wealth and wardrobe were extensive. Equally, these dresses were often decorated with silver thread, which was the most expensive. I would say that the symbolism of the white wedding dress has now, for contemporary brides, changed again. While brides in every other pre 20th century period would rewear their wedding dress, now bridal designs reflect the fact that this is a piece that will only be worn once. As a result, the designs have become more fantastical and further removed from everyday fashion. Arguably, while the eighteenth to nineteenth century bride chose white to show her social status, and then the mid nineteenth century bride chose it as a symbol of her purity, when a modern bride wears white she is aspiring to a romantic ideal and a resonating cultural image.

I have two questions! For the first, I’ve been doing a lot of research lately on early 19th century women’s dress, and it’s struck me that for the most part during the 1800s and 1810s, the dress itself is so much less important to being fashionable than the accessories, and a white dress was frequently chosen for everyday and relatively formal wear as a backdrop for colorful spencers and ribbons. I’ve also seen quite a few fairly plain white cotton gowns with wedding provenances. Do you think that white gowns might have been chosen not just to show off status, but also to be readily integrated into the wardrobe afterward?

For the second, I was wondering how you can tell that attitudes regarding the meaning of white changed with Victoria’s wedding. That sort of thing is so interesting to me!

Maggie Craig – What a great question! I am afraid I had to do a bit of research to come up with an answer. It does seem that, though the idea of brides wearing black is not very well documented, it has been associated with Scotland. This is perhaps in part because Jean Armour wore a black silk dress to marry Robert Burns in 1788.
Some sources implied that this colour choice resulted from Armour having already given birth to twins by Burns two years before they married. However, Naomi Tarrant, a leading costume and textiles historian in Scotland, believes this analysis might simply be the result of Victorian sentimentality. As you guessed, wedding dresses generally became a bride’s best dress – in fact, up until the 20th century no bride, regardless of her wealth, would expect to wear her wedding dress only once. Therefore, it is likely that if a bride wore a black dress, it was either an old dress re-dyed or chosen in that colour to withstand future wear as her ‘best dress’.
You are right that white wedding dresses becoming the dominant choice is relatively recent. While examples, chosen as demonstrations of wealth and connection to the court, exist in the eighteenth century, it is in the mid to late nineteenth century that they begin to take precedence and be expected of all brides, not just those that were best off.

Richard Scott – I don’t think that there were any pieces we wanted but had to turn away when curating the exhibition, but there are additions which I have gone on to wish we could have made if we’d had the time and space! For instance, we have several brides represented within the exhibition who, for personal, cultural or religious reasons, wore several outfits through the festivities and ceremonies of their wedding. One of our beautiful brides, Shabana Jiwaji, showed us photographs of the three different outfits she wore to the Nikah and Majilis-e-milad ceremonies and wedding reception for her marriage to Mohamed Jiwaji. As well as being stunning, in bright reds, blues and gold, these pieces were all both provided by members of her family or the family of the groom, and had connotations in relation to the ceremony.
I think it would have been really interesting to have had some of these outfits displayed alongside one another, both to compare them and to explore their different significances. However, this would be another exhibition just in itself in terms of topic and space. Also, we feel very lucky that these brides have trusted us and loaned us their wedding outfits in the first place – so it is better not to push our luck by asking for more!

J Newsom – I think what I’ve been most interested to learn are the practical inclusions and innovations in bridal design. As well as being beautiful, these dresses are built to suit the traditions, activities and even venues of a wedding day. In particular, the dresses seem often to have been designed with making a grand entrance in mind.
For instance, Margaret Whigham’s Norman Hartnell dress for her 1933 wedding to Charles Sweeney, the 18 foot train of the dress was designed specifically for the long and wide aisle of Brompton Oratory (T.836-1974).
Sarah Boddicott, a rich merchant’s daughter, married her second cousin Samuel Tyssen at St John’s Church in Hackney on 28 September 1779. Her dress, made of a silk woven in Spitalfields, was trimmed in silver fringe and sequins, which would have glittered as she moved (T.80-1948).
Comparatively, Katie Shillingford’s veil by Stephen Jones for her wedding in 2011 had a detachable section at the front. Charmingly, this meant that she could lift it away and reveal her lips when the time came for ‘you may now kiss the bride’.
I have also loved discovering the secret lucky tokens so many of the brides have included in the designs of or sewn into their dresses. I’ve explored these in a previous blog post, so I won’t go into much detail, but there is something very evocative about lifting a hem and finding a horse shoe hidden there.

Claudia Santile – Honestly, I’ve never been one to picture a wedding day or even to prioritise getting married. However, it has been a real privilege to have the chance to study the history of these customs and to talk to so many people about the sartorial and personal choices they made. Throughout history, but particularly in the cases of the modern brides we have worked with who have a lot more social freedom, I think the most successful wedding days – and dresses to match – seem to be based on a couple simply doing it their way, and only playing to an audience if they want to. I am going to cheat slightly and quote my lovely boss Edwina Ehrman, from an interview she gave on Women’s Hour recently: ‘I would say that today we are very lucky. In western society it is entirely up to us whether we choose to marry or not. And if you choose to marry, do what you want to do. If you want to go down the traditional line and marry in a white dress and a veil, enjoy it. If you want to wear a red dress – fine. A trouser suit – lovely! Just be happy, relaxed and enjoy your wedding day’.

Samuel Bernard – Through history, and so throughout our exhibition, examples exist of women wearing what are now seen as dresses which go against the, as you say, homogenised view of wedding dresses. Rather than women always wearing a wide skirted white dress with a veil, our displays showed how much styles changed, and how individualised styles often were. For instance, we have a purple wedding dress from 1899 (T.309-1982), a block printed patterned dress from 1841 (T.27-2006) and a red wedding dress from 1938 (T.716:1-3-1995). As fashions changed very slowly in the eighteenth century, a woman might express herself with an old style in a new colour, fabric or print much more easily than creating an entirely ‘avant garde’ look.
I think we are now seeing a return to that variety and individualistic approach. In terms of modern examples, I think that rather than appearing their richest or purest as the cultural coding of wedding dresses used to imply, contemporary brides aspire to be the best version of themselves. So, in some cases that might be a fairy tale vision, or it might be an ethereal, other worldly invention – or it might even just be a dress you already have that you know you feel fantastic in (…if you’re Keira Knightley). I think that Lady Oxmantown and Katie Shillingford both stand out as examples of brides in our exhibition who created dresses idiosyncratically suited to their own style and personalities.

Thanks Edwin, glad you’ve been looking forward to it.
I think that an exhibition of this subject can’t help but cover gender issues. I would say there is something of a feminist lilt to the exhibition. You don’t get a much clearer social story than, in 240 years, seeing women move from essentially social property to, in our culture and time, individuals who enter equally into these partnerships, and who choose a dress they can dance until dawn in to wear while doing so.
Our exhibition is about wedding dress and the wedding day, not the marriages which follow, but I think the change in the implied gender relations of the day must correlate to a change in the relationships which they mark.
While the exhibition does hold examples of wedding menswear, we have consciously focused on wedding dresses, and so the stories of women. However, the origins of wearing white as a symbol of purity, long before these connotations were applied to wedding dresses, were not gender specific. Christianity associates white with purity, and babies have been baptized in white robes since the eighteenth century. Equally, until the early twentieth century, if a child or young unmarried man or woman died, either they would be dressed or wrapped in white to be buried, or their family at the funeral would wear white.

Cat Baker – The majority of the garments in the exhibition were worn in Britain or Ireland, with a few exceptions from America, if the style was similar or a good example of the style trajectory going on in Britain at the same time. When our curator Edwina looked for outfits to represent faiths other than the principle branches of Christianity and Judaism, she looked for brides and grooms who had either married or had a blessing in Britain or Ireland.
On the mezzanine display, we have four such brides.
Anjali Bulley, who is a Hindu, married in Alperton.
Shabana and Mohammed Jiwaji, who are Bohra Muslims, married in Northolt.
Joanna Hanna-Grindal and her husband Nana married in the Guards Chapel but also had a Ghanian ceremony in London.
Anna Lin and Patrick Parsons married in Beijing in a traditional Chinese ceremony but had a blessing in Ireland where they live.
Your second question about seeing an influence of other cultures and religions on the pieces on show is very interesting. The golden Philip Treacy headdress worn by Selina Blow for her wedding in 1998 is supposed to recall the silhouette of roofs in Sri Lanka, and is extremely beautiful.

Hi Cassidy,
Glad to hear you find it so interesting as obviously we do too!
I think that you’re right. In the late eighteenth century certainly descriptions of what an aristocratic wife wore for her wedding spend as much time describing her jewellery as her dress, so they were vying for importance. White gowns certainly leant themselves easily to a future position in a wife’s wardrobe, as they could be dyed a more practical colour or, as you have suggested, kept in their original colour and accessorised. Equally, muslin and white fabric were hugely fashionable in the period you mention, and so their wear was not exclusive to wedding dresses. As any bride of that period, regardless of her wealth, should and would rewear her wedding dress, a smart one would have it made in a grand but adaptable style, in order for it to have stylish longevity beyond the big day.
With regards to your second question – The modest bride in her white wedding dress features regularly in the literature – for instance, the work of Charles Dickens – and art of the Victorian period. Equally, at this point, print media and newspapers really begin to take off, and descriptions of Society weddings, and the appropriateness of either the match or the clothing, would often make their way onto such pages. With print media also came commercialisation, and fashion plates and adverts sold the public the image of the white dress, lace veil and orange blossom sprig ideal that still lingers today. In particular, the image of Queen Victoria as an adoring and innocent bride – she stated that on her wedding day she made her vows as Albert’s future wife, not as the monarch – really captured the public’s imagination, and cemented the connotations for good.

Hi – with greatest respect, I have a small point to make: Queen Victoria was not the first royal bride to wear white – that title probably belongs to Philippa of England who is documented as wearing white satin to be married in October 1406. (do see various sources such as Bonoure and Buxum: A Study of Wives in Late Medieval English Literature by Sue Niebrzydowski; she references W. P. Baildon’s 1915-16 essay on Philippa’s trousseau which quotes contemporary sources (in Latin).)

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