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DALLAS — Dresses are the subject but not the theme of “American Brides: Inspiration and Ingenuity,” on view through Oct. 24 at Patterson-Appleton Center for the Visual Arts in Denton, Tex.
“I wanted to present the emergence of American style through bridal gowns — those subtle changes from 19th-century to 20th-century modern dress,” explained Myra Walker, curator. “My favorite thing in fashion history is not the obvious but the transitional time, and those are the hardest moments to capture and define.”
Bridal’s evolution — and abrupt changes — are on display from nearly every decade since 1840. Most of the 45 gowns came from the voluminous Texas Fashion Collection at the University of North Texas, where Walker is a professor and director of the 18,000-piece fashion archive. Others were borrowed from local women, including Stanley Marcus’ granddaughter, Allison V. Smith.
“These are really special artifacts,” Walker reflected. “A wedding is the most formal occasion that any one woman may have in her life. A person of any economic stratum— it doesn’t matter — wants to dress the best she can. Often, it’s the best she will ever look.”
The exhibition is a charming and informative walk through 170 years of bridal fashions, from detailed, ecru silk satin dresses with shockingly narrow waistlines to Smith’s cropped navy jacket over a slim white jersey column, which designer Matthew Earnest sheared to cocktail length before the reception.
“My focus is American brides and the essence of their fashion energy,” Walker explained. “It’s a different lens to look at fashion when you have this one type of gown, and it has more back and forth from one century to another, and reinterpretation. It’s formality and decorum and all the things that are less valued these days.”
Walker chose to begin the show with a candlelight full-skirted classic from 1844, four years after Queen Victoria donned the influential white wedding frock that bucked tradition for royals to wear metallic silver or gold.
“She had just gone through all that pomp of coronation and she was done with it,” Walker explained. “She wanted a dress that showed off lace and showed her individuality, her personality.”
As would succeeding brides — to a degree. All the dresses in the main gallery are ecru, candlelight, cream or white, reflecting Queen Victoria’s ongoing influence. Dresses of color stand in a smaller gallery that presents a 19th-century plum satin and velvet gown along with a hot pink bustled number by Victor Costa. Simple cotton prairie dresses from the Seventies — including a purple calico frock — are among the most surprising.
“The American attitude is more athletic, sporty, jaunty, and that’s what’s fascinating to me,” Walker pointed out. “It’s a regional focus, but we’ve covered a lot of ground in terms of fashion history and social history. I planned this show for more than 10 years.”
Previously, Walker curated the “Curious and Treasures” fashion exhibition at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1999, and cocurated “Rock Style” at the Met in 2000. In addition, she curated “Balenciaga and His Legacy” at Dallas’ Meadows Museum in 2007, which was one of the gallery’s most popular shows. She has also done exhibitions at the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth and the Dallas Museum of Art.
Next up: a Mariano Fortuny show at the Meadows Museum in 2016. She’s already completed “the bible” — selections of art, fashion and objects for the exhibition.