SALEM, Mass. — For an exhibition that opens with rows of virginal white gowns, "Wedded Bliss, The Marriage of Art and Ceremony" ends up being full-bodied and at times risqué.
Running through September at the Peabody Essex Museum here, "Wedded Bliss," a 130-object show, features gowns, jewelry, textiles, paintings and multimedia presentations, and takes the perspective that marriage globally inspires art and virtuoso craftsmanship. There is a miniature portrait painted by the artist Sarah Goodridge of her own breasts, presented as a secret love token to the statesman Daniel Webster.
While the two never married, there are other keepsakes from more traditional couples. On display is the romantic Tiffany bracelet a Civil War general gave to his wife in 1865, made of linked gold hourglasses inscribed with battle names, commemorating the hours the war kept them apart. In another gallery sits the crown with 1,500 old mine diamonds worn by doomed Empress Alexandra during her wedding to Czar Nicholas II. The pair was executed during the Russian Revolution.
Among the most dazzling items is a 150-year-old Chinese wedding headdress woven of silk tubing and inlaid with cerulean kingfisher feathers, seed pearls and coral beads. Paula Richter, the museum's curator of costume and textiles, noted how Queen Victoria originated modern wedding attire by opting for a white gown instead of marrying in royal court robes. In doing so, her canny political statement — the satin was woven by British textile mills — had a lasting fashion impact.
One of the oldest complete American wedding gowns, worn in 1719 by Mary Leverett, the daughter of Harvard College president John Leverett, makes the show. It's a vibrant yellow silk jacquard with a surprising underskirt the color of a Kraft cheese single. There's also a white muslin gown worn by African-American slave Sarah Tate on her wedding day in 1845, a garment remarkable for its rarity and for the fact that it was never dyed or reworked. Tate lived to be 100 years old, saving the dress alongside a Bible and beads her mother brought from Africa.
On her big day in 1931, Sally Parker, daughter of Parker Brothers' founder George S. Parker, wore an Art Deco gown the languid satin drape of which is achieved by a series of lead weights in the lining. Fifty years earlier, in a vastly different social climate, Alice Poore married her financier beau in a height-of-Victoriana hobble skirt that's a panoply of pleating, puffs, ruffles, swags, lace and beading. Even Poore's orange blossom nosegays, made of wax and cotton by her milliner, are preserved.
Amid the echoes of brides past are a few pieces of contemporary wedding couture — Vera Wang's Victoria Gown (2004) featuring curvaceous satin stripe appliqués on tulle netting, and Christian Lacroix's Wedding Cake Dress, (late Eighties) a tiered miniskirt confection with swagged ruffles meant to resemble icing. The show also devotes space to Priscilla Kidder, who founded Priscilla of Boston in 1945 and whose lace appliqués for decades set the pace in bridal fashion.
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