Tag Archives: wedding dress

Unveiled, Wedding Attire at the Charleston Museum

Wedding attire must be the theme of March, as I was able to attend another exhibition dedicated to weddings, this one at the Charleston Museum.  I’ll write more about the museum in another post, but for now I’ll just say that it functions mainly as a history museum for the South Carolina Lowcountry region.  They have a fantastic clothing collection, most of it coming from Charleston families.  In presenting special fashion exhibitions, they explore not just the clothing, but they have the advantage in many cases, of knowing who owned a garment.  Many of their garments are also documented in period photos.

Traditionally, the museum used some of the costume and textile collection as part of the larger displays that told the history of Charleston.  About twelve years ago they started having special clothing exhibitions, but the problem was that there was no space to adequately show clothes.  I remember looking at a 1920s Worth evening coat that was displayed in a flat case, in a light-filled atrium.  Not an ideal situation, in any sense of the word.

Today the situation is entirely different, as a gallery dedicated just to textiles was opened in 2010.  It’s a beautiful light-controlled space, with a variety of viewing areas, and with seating for those who need to sit and contemplate (or sketch).  The only thing I do not like about it is that all the display areas are behind glass, and that does hinder viewing somewhat, especially if there are interesting details on the back of a garment.

The photo above shows the introduction to the exhibition which consisted of three dresses from different eras.  On the left is a dress from 1927, worn by Mary Gaillard, in the middle is a 1892 dress worn by Ethel Sanford in 1892, and on the right is a 1925 dress worn by Emily Gladys Canaday.  The rest of the exhibition is arranged in chronological order.The oldest dresses were early 1800s Regency style, but my photo is so poor that it is pointless to post it here.

So I’ll take up the show in 1830, when the dress on the left was worn. The bride was Margaret Izard, and the groom was Nathaniel Russell Middleton.  The dress is hand embroidered throughout.  In the middle is the 1842 dress of Middleton’s second wife, Anna Elizabeth DeWolf.  On the wall is a portrait of the second Mrs. Middleton in her dress.  Look carefully to note that her waist was not as small as it first appears to be.

The dress on the right is also from 1842, and was worn by Elizabeth Mary Lesesne Blamyer.  And on the far right is a lovely selection of groom’s vests, all of which were made of silk and worn between 1848 and 1860.

The Charleston Museum is very lucky to have this set in their collection.  The dress was worn by Louisa Jane Dearing, and the vest was her groom’s, Henry Edmondston.  They were married in 1859.  According to the notes concerning the dress, “The bodice laces in the back with 28 pairs of tiny bound holes.” Unfortunately that feature was not visible to museum visitors.

Yes, I know this photo is really poor, but the story behind the dress is too good not to share.  The dress was worn by Louisa Rebecca McCord in June of 1865.  The American Civil War had just ended, and materials were scarce.  According to Louisa’s diary, the bride finally located ten yards of white organdy, the only white goods available in Columbia, SC.  The price was so high that the family sold their remaining carpet, some chairs, and butter and lard from their plantation in order to pay for the fabric.

These two dresses date from 1883 and 1884, and were creatively positioned in order to show the most prominent features of the dresses, their bustles.  These were in a corner with glass on two sides and so visitors could see the slim silhouette of the front and the fullness in back.

I probably need to pause here and talk about color.  The overwhelming number of dresses shown were white, or whitish.  I made the comment when writing about the bridal costumes at Biltmore that I found it interesting that all the dresses were white when the vogue of white wedding dresses did not come along until 1840.  Of course, white wedding dresses did exist before that date, and by the look of things in this exhibition, they were common.  An interesting comment was made by Jessamyn: :The main thing that changed in the 19th century was the idea that white was obligatory for a bride.”

Here’s another look at the 1892 dress of Ethel Sanford.  The museum also has a matching evening bodice.

At this point I need to stop and put in another plug for Dressed for the Photographer by Joan Severa.  Having just read that book helped me see the changes from dress to dress.

The silk dress on the left dates from 1906 and was worn by Sarah Francis.  The suit was worn by bride Alma Grace Van Keuren in 1910.  What is really interesting is that the suit has a department store label, Louis Cohen & Co, Charleston, S.C.  Ready-to-wear for women was still in the early years, and in 1910 most clothing for women was still being made by professional dressmakers or at home.

This dress was worn by Alice Prioleau Ravenel in 1914.  Note how the train curves around to the front where it is attached to the dress with a spray of artificial orange blossoms.

These three dresses are from the 1920s.  On the left, a velvet dress worn by Harriett C. Arthur in 1922.  The middle dress belonged to Annie Kangeter and dates to 1921.  The bride’s sister made the dress, which you can see on the bride in the photograph  on the wall.  The third dress was worn in 1924 by Septima Toomer Holmes.

You can see how styles were becoming less ornamented in the 1928 dress on the left.  It was worn by Cornelia Milam, and was made by her mother.  The dress in the middle was worn by Ruth Petty Pringle in 1931.  It was bought in a Charleston specialty shop, The Frock Shop.

Left to right:  1937, bride Martha Kirk; 1942, bride Jean Walsh; 1945, bride Ruth Raymond Huegel; 1948, Bernice Alice Byrd, but altered in 1989 for her daughter Amy Bassett Cole; 1952, bride Elizabeth Lamis.

The textile gallery also has a section of casees and drawers to display accessories.

And, of course, what is a fashion exhibition without some shoes?

Unveiled runs through July 19, 2016, and I highly recommend it to anyone living or traveling in the Charleston, South Carolina area.

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Fashionable Romance at the Biltmore Estate

Last week I had the pleasure of visiting the Biltmore Estate with friend Liza of BetterDressesVintage and her friend Sarah.  The occasion was a new fashion exhibition at Biltmore, Fashionable Romance: Wedding Gowns in Film.  As the title tells us, all the garments on display were actual film costumes, and there were some very interesting ones.

For those of you not familiar with Biltmore, it is one of the Vanderbilt mansions.  It was built by George Vanderbilt, and was officially occupied in 1895.  In 1930 the house was opened to the public.  It is still owned by Vanderbilt’s descendants and is today, big business.  The estate is a major employer in this area, with more than 2000 workers.

Over the years I’ve been to Biltmore numerous times and it always amazes me how they continually update the experience of the visit.  Six years ago they added costumes to the house tour after doing their research and seeing how popular costume exhibitions have become.  Last year they had the Downton Abbey costume exhibition, and this year they have followed it up with Fashionable Romance.

In all the years I’ve been to Biltmore, they had never before allowed inside photographs, so when we got there and found that photos were allowed, I was caught without my good camera.  I’m afraid we’ll have to made do with the inferior cellphone shots that I took.  And I took a lot of them, probably because it felt like I was getting away with something naughty.

One of the real treats of visiting Biltmore is how it is always decorated with flowers and plants.  On this visit there was the addition of drapery and ribbons, as if the house were a setting for a wedding.  Very effective, as you can see in the top photo.  This is the banquet hall, from the rear of the room.  The tour twists and turns, and often visitors are treated to multiple views of the same space.

And now for the clothes…

Despite the title of the exhibition, not all the costumes were wedding attire.  This is one of the dresses worn by Keira Knightley in 2008’s The Duchess.  As I study mainly twentieth century clothing, this 1770s dress is well beyond my area of knowledge.  As much as I would love to, I can’t say a thing about this dress other than it is pretty.

This is the wedding dress worn by Knightley along with the wedding attire of Ralph Fiennes.  This dress has the panniers and stomacher expected on a dress of this era.

The next set of costumes are from the 1995 version of Sense and Sensibility.  That is the wedding dress of Elinor Dashwood as worn by Emma Thompson, and Edward Ferrars, as portrayed by Hugh Grant.

And here are the clothes of Marianne Dashwood as played by Kate Winslet, along with her groom Colonel Brandon who was portrayed by Alan Rickman.  Both dresses looked like reasonable early 1800s dresses, though I thought it was a bit odd that both were white, seeing as the vogue for white wedding dresses came along in 1840 with the wedding of Queen Victoria.

These three dresses were worn in a 1992 adaptation of the E.M. Forster novel, Howards End.  From left to right, the wearers were Vanessa Redgrave, Emma Thompson, and Susie Lindeman.

You may have noticed that the three films mentioned thus far are all British productions.  That’s not a coincidence, as the exhibition was produced by Cosprop, a London-based costume production business.  Cosprop was founded in 1965 by designer John Bright, and he and Jenny Beavan (the recent Oscar winner for best costumes) designed the costumes for several of the movies represented.  Cosprop was also responsible for many of the costumes used in Downton Abbey, and they produced the Downton Abbey costumes exhibition that has been traveling around the USA.

This dress was worn by Helena Bonham Carter in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein of 1994. It was designed to be a wedding dress, but plans changed and it was worn in a ballroom scene.  I knew that Helena Bonham Carter is a small woman, but she is tiny.

Here’s another shot of the dress.  It was placed in Biltmore’s library, one of my favorite rooms.  It may be just that I’m so familiar with the house and that I was focusing on the clothes, but the interior of the house seemed to be relegated to being merely a background for the costumes.  I hope that first time visitors were not so distracted.

This costume and the one following were used in a 2002 BBC  production of Daniel Deronda. The book was written in 1876, and I’m not familiar with the story so I don’t know the time frame.  Both dresses have bustles, though the skirt on the green one looks to be a bit plain for 1876.  But then, I’m no expert.

When it comes to more recent stories that involve real people, the costumer is often able to begin with photographs, or even an existing dress.  You might recognize this as the Mainbocher dress worn by Wallis Simpson for her wedding to the Duke of Windsor.  Actually, it is a costume based on the original dress, which is now faded to grey and which is part of the Met’s collection.  This was worn by Joely Richardson in Wallis & Edward of 2005, and by Andrea Riseborough in W.E. in 2005.  I was impressed at how much this dress looks like the original, though Wallis definitely wore it better than the mannequin.

The dress is also based on an actual wedding dress, that of Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon.  The dress she wore in 1923 to marry Prince Bertie was not particularly flattering to her, and this reproduction is downright dreadful.  The fabric looked to be a heavy poly knit, though I could not swear to it.  I didn’t see the movie, Bertie and Elizabeth, so I can’t say how well or poorly the dress photographed.  I assume the headdress was improved with a bit of hair peeking out the sides.

I’ll finish this long look at movie wedding attire in my next post, where I’ll also have some things to say about historical sites.

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The Other Royal Wedding Dress

I was on the road Friday morning, and so I missed seeing the live showing of the Royal Wedding.  But thank to Sirius Radio, I did listen to it on CNN.  When they finally got to see Kate’s dress, there was a flurry of description – so much so that I had a design mish-mish all visualized.  But then one of the commenters said, “The dress is very reminiscent of that of  Princess Grace.”  Immediately, it all fell into place.  From those nine words I could clearly “see” what hundreds of words had failed to illustrate.

So much has been written about Princess Kate’s dress that I can’t add a thing to that conversation.  But I do want to say a word or two about Princess Grace’s gown.

It was designed by Helen Rose, designer at MGM, as a wedding present from the studio.   In her wonderful self-published biography, Just Make Them Beautiful,  Rose tells about the dress and how it came about.   They started with discussing the costumes Rose had made for Kelly for The Swan, and Kelly added her fabric preferences.  Sketches were made, and Kelly chose the designs the entire staff had preferred.

The Rose Point lace for the bodice and the train was found in France and cost $2500.  Seed pearls were re-embroidered all over.  The skirt was made from silk  gros de longer, which is no longer made, and silk taffeta.

Before it was announced that Helen Rose and the MGM costume department would be making the gown, designers and custom departments around the US and Europe pestered Grace Kelly, trying to convince her they should be making her dress.  Neiman-Marcus managed to convince her that they should make the bridesmaids dresses, which had already been designed by Rose.

It was very important to Grace Kelly that the dress design remain a secret until the ceremony.  According to Rose, she was besieged by press requests for sketches, and every maker of wedding dresses in the country was trying to gain information through bribes!  The secret remained, though, partly because the dress was sewn in a private part of the wardrobe department, and it was locked up after work every evening.  The sketches were kept private, never leaving the work room.

Rose and her team also made the suit Grace Kelly wore for the civil ceremony, and a chiffon negligee.  All three pieces had to be transported to Monaco, which was a problem.  Finally, the studio prop men built a special container of aluminum, about seven feet by four feet.  They stuffed the gown with foam pads, and tissue.  It was packed so carefully that it did not even need pressing when it arrived at the palace in Monaco.

Today, the gown and the accessories are at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, having been donated by Princess Grace.

I bought Rose’s biography several years ago after finding a Helen Rose gown.  I was hoping the book would help date it, as there are numerous sketches and photos of her work in the book.  My gown wasn’t pictured, but I later found proof that the dress was worn in 1962.  Anyway, I found my copy on ebay, and was pleasantly surprised to find this on the inside cover:


Top Illustration from Just Make Them Beautiful, copyright 1976, Helen  Rose

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