|Entrance to museum, Lowell.|
|Worn by Mollie Canfield, 1886, and by her great-great niece Shirley Parish, 1969.|
The highlight of each dress display is the accompanying narrative, the history of the dress, often paired with a photo of the bride wearing the dress on her special day. These narratives remind us that important lifecycle events, such as weddings, provoke many responses, some traditional, some innovative.
In the 19th century, women were generally married in their "Sunday best" and did not purchase a special garment in which to be married. So, wedding dresses were not white, an impractical color, and, moreover, women wished to show off material which utilized luxurious dyestuffs. However, according to curator Herbaugh, when Queen Victoria married Prince Albert in 1840 her white gown established the "white dress" tradition. The wedding was re-enacted in 1854, with Victoria again donning the dress, to be recorded for posterity by the then-new medium of photography.
|Wedding ensembles and their narratives.|
Many of the dresses were silk, or of a synthetic material, such as acetate, which aspires to impart the luster and sheen of silk. One of my favorites, however, is the cotton dress in the collage below, worn by Mary Bodecker, a June bride in 1952. The sheer cotton has a delicate floral pattern overprinted in white ink, and a touchable sample of the fabric provides a tactile thrill.
|Bodecker dress, narrative, fabric sample.|
|Vaillancourt gown, 1959.|
One important characteristic of the modern bridal uniform, if I may call the wedding dress a sort of uniform, is that during the all-important exchange of vows - the climax of the performance that is the wedding - the garment is viewed from the back. Many of the dresses had lovely details on the back, such as the oversize bow on the dress of Nyola Vaillancourt, worn in 1959, above. Mrs. Vaillancourt liked her dress so much, she later had a doll dressed in a replica.
|Judith Clarke's tiers of cotton dress, 1958.|
|Frances Chiungos dress, from Filene's Bridal Salon, 1945.|
|Curator Herbaugh recounts the tale of the train.|
One perk of a curator-led tour is that one learns more about the process of designing an exhibit and the challenges involved. As the silhouettes of wedding dresses changed over the years, these artifacts have more variation in size than do many other groups of garments. The dresses from the 1920's and the 1960's tended to have a smaller footprint than the voluminous gowns of the 1950's, for example. To plan the exhibit Ms. Herbaugh "rehearsed" the layout of mannequins and gowns using full-scale kraft paper cut-outs.
My one minor quibble with the show is that, since the silhouettes of the dresses - bustles, tiers, oversize sleeves - are often their salient features, I think the outfits would have shown better against a contrasting background, rather than the off-white of the gallery walls. The peachy-pink of the pedestals worked well to highlight the trains and hemlines, but the white or off-white dresses in particular fade into the walls a bit. Overall, however, this is an important and rewarding show, not the least because it records and celebrates an important day in the lives of everyday women, making the stories more real than any "reality show."
|Susan Pendleton dress, 1894, with "leg-of-mutton" sleeves.|