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SYDNEY — When London’s Victoria and Albert Museum first began planning a wedding-dress exhibition back in 2008, little did the museum know the show would open within months of a global wedding-dress frenzy sparked by one Catherine Middleton.
Nor did the museum probably envisage the world premiere of its show being in Bendigo, a regional Australian city located 93 miles from Melbourne.
Running until Nov. 6 at the Bendigo Art Gallery, “The White Wedding Dress: Two Hundred Years of Wedding Fashions” features more than 170 gowns and accessories.
Sourced from the museum’s 200-strong wedding-dress collection and on loan, the exhibit includes work from couturiers and designers such as Charles Frederick Worth, Norman Hartnell, Hardy Amies, Zandra Rhodes, Vera Wang, Christian Lacroix, Lanvin and Stephen Jones.
In spite of the title, not everything in the show is white. Loaners include the eggplant silk Vivienne Westwood ballgown in which burlesque star Dita Von Teese married rocker Marilyn Manson in 2005, accompanied by a Mr Pearl corset and Nina Ricci lace peignoir from her trousseau. Also on display is Gwen Stefani’s pink and white ombré faille John Galliano for Christian Dior haute couture gown, from her 2002 wedding to Gavin Rossdale.
“White has been a constant, but there have been periods when it was not as fashionable as other colors,” says the V&A’s curator of fashion and textiles, Edwina Ehrman, who traveled to Bendigo for the opening. “The 1920s were a very good example, when many brides wore either silver or gold lamé dresses and metallic brocades. It was like, ‘Oh God, my mother wore that. Let’s do something slightly different.’ Going right back to the 18th century, silver had always been a bridal color, and royal brides until Queen Victoria all wore silver.”
Von Teese and Stefani are not the exhibition’s only bold-face brides. Also making the journey to Australia are what Ehrman describes as the exhibition’s two most historically important dresses, both designed for Thirties society brides: Margaret Whigham (later the Duchess of Argyll) and Baba Beaton, sister of renowned British photographer Cecil Beaton.
Wigham’s elaborate embroidered silk Hartnell gown with trumpet sleeves and 12-foot train brought Knightsbridge traffic to a standstill when it later went on display in the designer’s studio, according to the exhibition’s catalogue. Charles James designed Baba Beaton’s bias-cut silk satin sheath with flyaway train and wax orange blossom choker. Both dresses are from a capsule V&A collection that was curated by Cecil Beaton himself for the gallery in the early Seventies.
What’s the Australian connection?
In 2008, the Bendigo Art Gallery beat Australia’s much larger metropolitan museums to the V&A show “The Golden Age of Couture: Paris and London 1947-1957,” pulling in 75,000 visitors. No mean feat for a city with a population of just 100,000.
Bendigo Art Gallery director Karen Quinlan pitched for the V&A’s wedding exhibition, and due to scheduling delays, the V&A made the decision to tour the show first. New Zealand is the next stop, then Singapore and Russia, before the show finally comes home to London in spring 2014.
Quinlan has added to the original exhibition a mini capsule show called “The Australian Aesthetic: 25 Items from Colonial Settlement to the Present Day,” with gowns from local design names such as Beril Jents, Hall Ludlow, Linda Jackson, Martin Grant, Akira Isogawa and Toni Maticevski.
“Some people say to me, ‘Look I’m divorced, there’s no way I’ll go and see a wedding dress exhibition,’ ” notes Quinlan. “But some of the people who were here for the members’ preview were quite emotional about the stories. Because wedding dresses are quite special when you look at their history — they’re not just a garment in the wardrobe.”