Sunday 15 March 2015


As the V&A's spectacular Wedding Dresses 1775-2014 exhibition comes to a close, the curator Edwina Ehrman discusses some of the highlights of the show and reveals what she wore to her own wedding.

Please describe your wedding dress - did you wear a white dress?
I did - I got married in 1976 and, in the end, I wore a Liberty's wedding dress. It was a classic mid -'70's design – so, a high neck, a pin-tuck front, big balloon transparent sleeves and quite a full skirt, plus a train. The bit that made me really feel like a bride was the train. It changed me completely - it was quite transforming.I had a headdress and a veil and I hated the headdress. It was very much the era of the headdress and looking back, it was absolutely vile. Weddings now are very different, because the bride usually has complete control and often the groom, too, due to the financial aspect. A wedding is something that the bride and groom will plan together now. I was completely reliant on my parents to fund the wedding.

1970's Style: Chiffon velvet and machine-made lace 'Faye Dunaway' dress by Thea Porter.
Designed for Susanne Trill when she married James Elliot in Lincoln on 21st March 1970

Wool dress with Celtic scrollwork designed by Jean Muir for Pamela Colin's
marriage to Lord Harlech in 1969

There are several showstoppers in the exhibition -  Ian Stuart's wedding dress, for example, looks amazing.
Yes, it does look amazing. We wanted a big dress and he just seemed the obvious choice. His colours are very subtle and it’s a kind of Flower Bomb on steroids. It's a very large version of his Flower Bomb design and it does make an impact. I love the huge picture hat, it works so well.

'Flower Bomb' wedding dress and hat designed by Ian Stuart. Silk Dupion, silk taffeta, tulle, organza and metallic lace. From the Ian Stuart Revolution Rocks 2011 collection

The 'Flower Bomb' wedding dress by Ian Stuart, 2011, features an opulent train and incorporates
the designer's signature play with volume and hints of colour. Stuart trained with
the London couture house Bellville Sassoon

Margaret, Duchess of Argyll’s dress is also totally beautiful.
Yes, I think craftsmanship is very key to this exhibition and it’s very key to the V&A’s archives. What we are looking for are designers who are creative and innovative and really at the cutting edge of design, but I think doing a wedding dress exhibition enables you to introduce dresses that you wouldn’t normally see in a V&A exhibition, such as the working class dresses downstairs. They are the type of thing we would normally have for research purposes and not for display. So there is the lovely cotton printed dress worn by the Lincolnshire farmer’s wife, which is very interesting because the print is extremely up to date for 1841, whereas the actual style of the dress is very outmoded. The bride continue to wear it probably when she was pregnant, as she took out the back by four inches, which is a lot. She lived 20 miles from the nearest market town, so I’d imagine she bought the fabric from a travelling salesman, who we know carried the latest fabrics, and then probably made it herself, or had it made by a local dressmaker. And then we have the purple lady's maid’s outfit from 1899, that she made for her own wedding. We also have the purple lady's maid's cape coat, that enabled me to show a very upmarket department store copy of a Paris model. So we have a home-made outfit and a very nice middle class outfit from a dressmaker in Upper Norwood. And I think that gives you a good spectrum of what styles where available to people in that particular decade.

Cotton-print wedding dress, 1841 (with later alterations), worn by Sarah Wright to her marriage to
Daniel Neal, a farm labourer from Lincolnshire. Block-printed cotton, lined with linen

Corded silk and machine-made lace wedding dress, 1899 (with later alterations), made by the bride, Harriet Joyce, who worked as a lady's maid before marrying Percy Sams on 8th June 1899.
She chose to wear purple, as at 35 she considered herself too old to wear white

Silk satin and tulle with glass beading wedding dress designed by Norman Hartnell for society beauty Margaret Whigham's (Margaret, Duchess of Argyll) marriage to Charles Sweeny in 1933. 
The gown is an early example of a wedding dress made for a single occasion,
rather than being altered at a later date for repeated use

Norman Hartnell's magnificent wedding dress for Margaret Whigham
(Margaret, Duchess of Argyll), marriage in 1933, features a 3.6 meter train

It's a nice touch that you've added photographs of the brides wearing their wedding dresses in the exhibition.
Every bride is special in her own way and that’s what we wanted to convey by including a snapshot of each outfit. We added high quality photographs of the brides and their dresses to the exhibition video. If we just had a snapshot, we took great care to put it by each bride’s dress. 

A photograph of actress April Olrich at her wedding in 1963 wearing a Jacques Heim full length wedding dress and headdress in Shantung silk. The design was called 'Colombe', the French for dove,
and the image accompanies the dress on display in the exhibition

Were there any special touches for luck, such as a drop of the seamstresses blood inside the dress, that you came across when you curated the exhibition?
Yes, in Dita Von Tees dress. She has one red- one blue bow inside the bodice of her Vivienne Westwood Couture dress. It came from her agent in LA and we inspected it there before adding it to the exhibition.

Violet shot taffeta Vivienne Westwood Couture wedding dress designed by Westwood for the
burlesque artist Dita Von Teese's marriage to rock musician Marilyn Manson in 2005.
Milliner Stephen Jones created the velvet hat with mink pompoms

Dita Von Teese's Christian Louboutin shoes created for her marriage to Marilyn Manson
in 2005. Silk, plastic, diamante and suede

How long did the exhibition take to curate?
It took about five years, but that’s because it went on tour first, which is unusual. So it took about 18 months to 2 years. I took the exhibition over from someone who left and it’s a very different animal to the exhibition originally conceived. You have to do what works for you. So I think it took me about 18 months to two years to get everything to book publication stage and then it went on tour for two years. It’s essentially a social history exhibition. I hope I have curated a successful blend of social history and design. That’s my aim. My background is as a social history curator, but what I’ve tried to do is combine design history and social history in a very low key way to provide a most informative experience. I want the exhibition to get people talking. I like exhibitions that do that

What’s your most controversial piece in the exhibition?
I think the most controversial piece, at the time, was Lisa Butcher’s wedding dress. It’s a  sad story and it wasn’t a great choice for her marriage to celebrity chef Marco Pierre White in 1992.  His face in the wedding photograph afterwards says it all – he looks absolutely desperate and he genuinely looks upset and furious. So that was a great shame.

Back view of the Moss crepe wedding dress, with opulent beading detail, designed by Bruce Oldfield
for model Lisa Butcher's wedding to celebrity chef Marco Pierre White in 1992

Yes, it's interesting how a dress can have that power.
Well, people often ask me what should you think about when you plan your wedding dress. I do think you should think about the older generation, to a certain extent, and your own family traditions and sensibilities and you have to think about the groom. If your groom is expecting to see you come down the aisle in a white wedding dress and he’s actually told you he can’t wait to see you in a white wedding dress, I think you really do have to think about at least trying on a white bridal gown.

Do you think it's important that the wedding photographs are timeless?
When I was doing research, I looked back at Nova magazine, which I loved as a teenager. It seemed like another world when I was growing up where I did. There was loads of very cynical stuff about marriage in Nova, but not much about weddings. But there was a key article about weddings that said if you are going to do it, do it properly in a traditional fashion - look feminine, look romantic, because this is the way that people are going to remember you for years to come. And that's very true.  You don’t want a wedding photograph that you’ll feel embarrassed about. And when I look at my wedding photos I think, 'Oh, my God, what a bog standard, typical dress, I wore.' But, on the other hand I look happy, I look like a bride and it was of the time.  It was a fantastic wedding, great fun, very memorable and enjoyable.

How do you feel when you walk around the exhibition?
Very proud, actually. I think the dresses look lovely and I really enjoy the visual challenge of getting an exhibition together. It gives me great pleasure and I’m sure I annoyed people by saying, ‘no, no, another inch!’ There is that window dressing element.  We’ve got some wonderful vistas down cases and between mannequins, because I tend to keep on walking round. The design is wonderful. The in-house design team has been absolutely great and I think we’ve worked together very well as a team, so they were very nice. I came up with things they also didn’t like and they came up with things I didn’t like, so I think we’ve managed some very successfully compromises.

What was the last exhibition you curated at the V&A?
I haven’t been at the V&A very long. This is my seventh year and my big project that runs alongside this is The Clothworkers’ Centre, which is our new fashion and textiles archiving study centre - for the Study and Conservation of Textiles and Fashion at Blythe House in West Kensington. It is a massive project and I was the lead for that and we moved 104,000 items of textiles and fashion. We have fabulous new stores and a wonderful seminar- and study rooms for teaching and I’m immensely proud of that. Because although this is great, and I love doing exhibitions, it’s always the icing on the cake, that was my infrastructure. I’ve been working in museums for 25 years (previously at The Museum of London) and I know how important infrastructure is. We have such a wonderful and important collection at the V&A and it deserves the best storage we could possibly have. And my job is to present this exhibition now and I hope that in 20 to 25 years from now another curator will do something on his or her own vision of wedding dresses at the V&A, and I hope that the materials will be there in the archives.

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