Some weekends ago, I attended an exhibit of 19th century wedding gowns, feeling like an invitee to these departed ladies’ proudest day. It was a small gallery, in a room filled with sepia and satin, rich with the promise and limitations of a woman’s future. She had grown from a child to a teenager, from a teenager to a debutante, from a debutante to a bride delicately leaning on her groom’s arm. And after marriage she grew no more.
There were slightly more than a dozen mannequins – manicured and white; their faces blank like a perpetual lowering of eyes and silence of thoughts. Wrists were arched at painful angles, fingers curved but empty: waiting for a bouquet, a scrap of lace, a pair of gloves that fit like a second skin – a closeness which rendered them unsuitable to be worn a second time.
The exhibit was without color, save for the splash of a bouquet or the tip of a velvet shoe twinkling from beneath a hem. But the impression was unforgettable – the imprint of expensive fabric, rows of glass beads that rippled like rivers in the sun, voluminous skirts and sleeves, corsets and petticoats that carved the bride into a woman’s shape.
The gowns spanned the entire century. The earliest was from 1802: a simple column of linen finely embroidered with a trellis of flowers. Its rich simplicity was a throwback to Marie Antoinette and her milkmaid reveries at the Hameau de la Reine.
In 30 years the wedding gown had become a flurry of satin and bows – figured jacquard and lace, tiers of ruffles and ribbons on the sleeves and an ornamented bodice fitted at the waist which was newly ‘found’ and beginning its descent to its natural place.
Mid-century and the gowns featured deep, scooped 17th century necklines – the lines that swooned with sentimentality at the vision of a lady’s pure and pale shoulders. Skirts were bell-shaped and layered with decoration – buoyed with petticoats, they bobbed gently as she walked, shocking onlookers with glimpses of pretty ankles and pumps with curved embroidered heels.
Towards the end of the century complex bustles were introduced, taped and sewn into a maze of folds and pleats. This labyrinth pulled the fabric of the skirt towards the back until the front was smooth and fitted. So to preserve the diminutive waist, femininity’s silent cry for attention, tight-lacing entered a particularly brutal phase. Stiff and doll-like, the bride would walk to meet her groom, already imprisoned – a penitentiary that was edged with lace, embroidered with colored silk, wreathed with tiny bows and that cut into her skin like a thousand exquisite thorns.
The room shone with the subtle warmth of thick satins, flaxen lace, pearls and glass beads. Light honored the fabric with a heightening of textures, with radiant molecules that descended on patterns like sequins. This was a history of the fashion of the wedding: where there was much change; and the history of the bride: where there was very little. The exhibit was called ‘Bliss’ – and for that one blissful moment when she entered the church all eyes would be on her. And they would follow her like flowers billowing towards the sun. On that most singular, proudest, day she would be their brightest star.