Of all​ the 19th-century innovations disparaged by Eric Hobsbawm as ‘invented traditions’, the white wedding must rank alongside clan tartans as the most enduring, a convention now so firmly rooted that many people think it’s medieval. To the Georgians a white wedding was a foreign novelty. In 1818 a British traveller in Normandy, Dawson Turner, remarked on a bride emerging from church that she was dressed all in white – ‘even her shoes’, he wrote with some astonishment. It was in 1840, when the blushing Victoria gave her hand to Albert, and chose to wear for the occasion a white satin dress of her own design, that the tradition was born. The Queen wore a veil of Honiton lace, a medievalising touch at a moment when the Gothic Revival was gathering pace and the turrets of the new Palace of Westminster were about to emerge from the Thameside mud. The veil was crowned with orange blossom, which, in the language of flowers (another largely Victorian creation), stands for purity and eternal love: that, too, became part of the default bridal costume ever after.

In the Blitz (1940).

In the Blitz (1940).

Even Victoria might have been surprised at the extent to which the idea caught on, for at the time white was considered an unusual choice. But as Wedding Dresses: 1775-2014, the V&A’s glamorous and informative new exhibition, shows (until 15 March 2015), it developed rapidly and unstoppably into something of a Frankenstein’s monster. From a dress suitable for a wedding, the bride’s outfit is now very often the main event round which everything else has to fit, or not. An extreme case was the 1992 wedding of the chef Marco Pierre White to the model Lisa Butcher. White was horrified to see his bride coming up the aisle of the Brompton Oratory in a dress by Bruce Oldfield which had no back, hardly any front and quite a lot cut out at the sides. He accused her of dressing for the press and the marriage lasted 15 weeks. The dress survived longer and is now in the V&A’s permanent collection. It’s probably not the only wedding dress to have helped end the marriage it was supposed to start.

Norman Hartnell’s dress for Margaret Whigham, not yet the Duchess of Argyll (1933).

Norman Hartnell’s dress for Margaret Whigham, not yet the Duchess of Argyll (1933).

By comparison with the farragos of the later 20th century the earliest exhibits, from the 18th and 19th centuries, are models of practical good sense. Gold and silver thread were popular with the wealthy, simpler fabrics for the middling sort, but the dress was always intended to be worn again. Detachable sleeves made for easy conversion to evening wear and bonnets were retrimmed for everyday. Elaborate veils and trains were unknown. As wedding dresses kept pace with broader fashion trends, the exhibition’s chronological arrangement shows waists rising and falling, hips and busts expanding and contracting. Once the dress became a separate genus, however, its relationship to fashion became more problematic. In the 1920s attempts to translate the flat-chested flapper look into something formal and feminine marked the nadir. A sack dress then and later (as reinvented by Mary Quant) is stylish; but the style is free and easy, androgynous and everything a wedding dress is not meant to be. A Debenhams dress of 1926 tries to reconcile the two looks with results that are more sack than dress. Even for those who could afford couture it was a difficult style and the trend for low-brimmed cloche hats, when converted to a veil worn across the middle of the forehead, made brides appear dim as well as dumpy. This was the fate of the late Queen Mother, seen setting off for her wedding in one of the newsreel compilations that enliven an exhibition that might otherwise have been just a forest of mannequins.

Jewellery designer Wendy Ramshaw (1962) – the bride designed her own dress.

Jewellery designer Wendy Ramshaw (1962) – the bride designed her own dress.

In the 1930s, bias cutting elongated women again. Trains became more usual and much more elaborate. Norman Hartnell created one 18 feet long, flowing from an ivory satin sheath dress, for Margaret Whigham, later the notorious, twice divorced Duchess of Argyll. She was filmed leaving the church followed by two perspiring ushers struggling to manhandle the yards of lace through surging crowds. It was one of the earliest single-occasion dresses and it marked the rise of the celebrity wedding, with massed reporters and sightseers bringing the Kensington traffic to a halt. Among the most recent celebrity dresses in the show is Galliano’s for Kate Moss. With 270,000 sequins and 2800 pearl beads, it took 701 hours to embroider, plus another 253 for the veil, and it quite puts Queen Victoria in the shade.

The exhibition is drawn from the V&A’s own collection and might have benefited from a few loans. Victoria’s dress is now in Kensington Palace, and the most famous wedding dress in living memory could perhaps have been borrowed from Althorp, since the Spencer family have closed their Princess Diana museum. It features only in a film compilation of royal weddings but when I was at the gallery the moment of Diana’s appearance, huge blue eyes sliding from side to side behind the thick lace veil, produced an audible intake of breath from visitors. Viewed with hindsight, that long progress up the aisle of St Paul’s has considerable, ominous drama.

Not all the post-1840s dresses are white or shades of oyster, pearl and pale pink. Among the dissenters is a dashing silk gauze frock in vivid crimson, worn in 1938 by Monica Maurice, the first female member of the Association of Mining Electrical Engineers, for her wedding in Rotherham Bridge in Yorkshire. The 1960s generated a predictable crop of alternative, foil-lined, mini-skirted outfits, and the civil ceremonies that are now much more common have no historical conventions, but all these are still a sideshow compared with the white wedding juggernaut set rolling in 1840. Recession makes little difference. The exhibition explains that ‘the bridal industry offers designers some stability in a volatile market.’ The scene in Sex and the City: The Movie in which Carrie Bradshaw tries on a series of wedding dresses for a Vogue fashion shoot did wonders for sales of all of them and today the average dress, according to Brides magazine, costs £1340. Why this should be at a time when social conventions matter little, money is tight and formal religion in decline is a question the exhibition leaves unasked, but perhaps those are the very reasons. The dress is what we have left.

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