In a recent interview, I was asked to select the ‘must see’ piece of the exhibition. Part of the beauty of wedding dresses is that every individual has a different idea of what the dream – or ‘must see’ – item will be. This idea offers me something of a scapegoat for my difficulty in choosing – by ‘must see’, would the reader like to know my personal favourite? Maybe the most famous? Or perhaps, given the subject, the ‘must see’ is the dress with the most flounce and frills?
While I am yet to pinpoint one in particular, I am enjoying the fact that the exhibition has enough highlights to offer that I can, cheekily, change my answer every time I am asked. However, there are two dresses to which I repeatedly return, and, since both seem to have a continual little crowd of their own in the exhibition space, I am not alone in my high opinion of them.
The first of these dresses is the custom Norman Hartnell dress for the wedding of Margaret Whigham and Charles Sweeny in 1933 at the Brompton Oratory, London. The second is the gown John Galliano made for Kate Moss for her wedding to Jamie Hince in 2011 at St Peter’s Church, Southrop, which she has generously loaned for the exhibition. As well as their fair share of attention, these dresses, and the weddings they were worn at, deserve some comparison.
While 1000 guests had been invited to Margaret’s wedding, the day was gate crashed by 2000 more. A report in the Daily Mirror on 22 February 1933 described it as ‘hooliganism, probably unparalleled in any church’. Women stood on pews to gain a better view of the bride, and shamelessly snapped up some of the floral decorations to keep as souvenirs. Again, in the words of the Daily Mirror, these women then ‘pushed their way out triumphantly, clasping pink azaleas and tulips’.
This frenzy of interest was spurred on by near daily mentions of Margaret in the newspapers, which were then a booming industry, both before her first wedding and throughout her scandalous later life as the Duchess of Argyll. Margaret was accused of having a publicist at a time when such a role was rare, particularly in relation to an individual. These articles would scrapple over sightings of her, or snippets and rumours of designs for the big day. The fact that the couple’s exit from the Brompton Oratory was filmed by Pathé and shown as a newsreel entitled ‘Brilliant Society Wedding’(the footage of which is on show in the exhibition) demonstrates the level of interest the day was expected to garner. For such an event – and for such headlines – a spectacular dress was need, and Hartnell did not disappoint.
Designed specifically for making an entrance, the dress has an 18 foot train framed in ruched silk tulle. It took 30 seamstresses six weeks to make the dress, and, costing £52, Margaret considered it exceedingly expensive. The dress is scattered in pearl-embroidered stars, some of which are transparent, placed both on the skirt and at reasonably risqué points on the dress’s bodice. Opulent and lavish, this dress, and the extreme public interest it inspired, secured its wearer’s position as a signifier of sumptuous sexuality and style.
Comparatively, as the muse to many and the arguable face of a fashion generation, while Kate Moss kept her wedding proceedings much more private, it was inevitable that interest in the day would be extremely high. To satiate this interest, as well as taking private photographs of the celebrations, Mario Testino also took official photographs to be published in US Vogue. These pictures promptly spread through every magazine, tabloid, broadsheet and blog, and continue to be deified and dissected by fans and fashion commentators alike. The wedding also offered an opportunity for the bride to collaborate with her designer friends; the dress and veil are by John Galliano, the shoes by Manolo Blahnik.
Taking 1930s eveningwear as a design reference, unsurprisingly Kate’s dress drapes on the body in a similar manner to the Hartnell gown. Kate’s dress is also equally ornate. Inspired also by the glitz of The Great Gatsby, the dress and veil are decorated in 390,000 sequins and 2800 pearls. This decoration was achieved through 701 hours of hand embroidery on the dress, and 253 hours of work by hand on the veil. This was on top of the 300 hours of work which had gone into creating the dress and veil, built from gauzy gossamer-like silk chiffon and tulle. Couture craftsmanship, indeed.
A further similarity between the two weddings is that in both cases surrounding roads were closed – in the case of Margaret Whigham, the crowds were so large that the traffic in Knightsbridge stopped for three hours, for Kate Moss it was to ensure privacy. While we haven’t got quite such queues to their cases at the exhibition, tickets are selling quickly, so please book soon to catch a glimpse of whichever dress proves to be your own ‘must-see’.