Book Scene

The Wedding Dress: Styles and Stories

By Stuart Mitchner

For our lavish New York wedding (no music, no frills, no rice, bearded nondenominational minister, statue of St. Francis looking on), my wife wore a knee-length, crocheted off white dress purchased from the teenage girls’ department at Lord and Taylor (she’s 5’0).

Also 5’0 and two years younger on her wedding day in February 1840, Queen Victoria, according to numerous online sources, wore a white, off-the-shoulder gown with a structured, eight-piece bodice featuring a wide, open neckline; short, puffed sleeves trimmed with lace; a floor-length skirt containing seven widths of fabric; and a satin train over six yards long, which 12 attendants carried down the aisle.

Another thing my wife and Queen Victoria have in common is a fondness for Charles Dickens, who resisted invitations to visit the Queen until shortly before his death in 1870. Of all the wedding gowns in literature, the best known must be the one worn by Miss Havisham when young Pip first sees her in Great Expectations: “She was dressed in rich materials, — satins, and lace, and silks, — all of white. Her shoes were white. And she had a long white veil dependent from her hair, and she had bridal flowers in her hair, but her hair was white.” Dressed for a wedding that never happened, she had but “half arranged” her veil, her watch and chain “were not put on, and some lace for her bosom lay with those trinkets, and with her handkerchief, and gloves, and some flowers…” And everything within Pip’s view “which ought to be white, had been white long ago, and had lost its lustre and was faded and yellow.”

Credit to Victoria

In The Way We Wed: A Global History of Wedding Fashion (Running Press $24) by Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell, Queen Victoria is credited with popularizing the long, white wedding gown, which was solemnized with the proclamation of the Immaculate Conception by Pope Pius IX in 1854. Among the book’s illustrations is Michel Garnier’s painting The Marriage Contract Interrupted (1789), a preview of Miss Havisham’s dilemma that shows a bride in full wedding regalia “dropping her quill in surprise as an unexpected clause derails the ceremony.”

The Way We Wed presents styles and personal stories from the Renaissance to the present day, showcasing wedding gowns from around the world, as well as going-away dresses, accessories (shoes, veils, hats, and tiaras), and clothes worn by flower girls, bridesmaids, and mothers of the bride, and groom. Same-sex marriages are covered along with royal weddings, wartime brides, White House weddings, remarriages, and Hollywood weddings. The book features both everyday couples and celebrity brides, including Jackie Kennedy, Angelina Jolie, Frida Kahlo, Elizabeth Taylor, Princess Diana, Martha Washington, Ellen DeGeneres, and Meghan Markle.

Chrisman-Campbell is a fashion historian and author of Fashion Victims: Dress at the Court of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette, a 2016 Costume Society of America Award winner, and Worn on This Day (Running Press 2019). A former People magazine fashion and entertainment reporter, she has appeared as a fashion commentator on numerous media outlets.

In Vogue

Vogue Weddings: Brides, Dresses, Designers (Knopf $85), edited by Vogue’s European editor-at-large Hamis Bowles, with a foreword by fashion designer Vera Wang, showcases the work of “legendary photographers” such as Cecil Beaton, Patrick Demarchelier, Jonathan Becker, Norma Jean Roy, Mario Testino, Irving Penn, Arthur Elgort, Richard Avedon, Helmut Newton, and Annie Leibovitz. The book includes nearly 400 wedding photographs of royalty, models, artists, actors, musicians, and designers who have appeared in Vogue through the magazine’s 120-year history. Among the couples: the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge in London; Sofia Coppola and Thomas Mars in Italy; Kate Moss and Jamie Hince in the Cotswolds; and Bianca and Mick Jagger after their St. Tropez wedding. A chapter on models’ weddings features portraits of Natalia Vodianova, Coco Rocha, Maggie Rizer, Stella Tennant, Lara Stone, and Cindy Crawford in their own wedding dress choices.

Vogue Weddings also offers behind-the-scenes details from Hamish Bowles, and personal wedding stories from Mario Testino, Plum Sykes, Marina Rust, and Sarah Mower, as well as fashion portfolios of bridal photo shoots.

Indian Weddings

My Big Fat Indian Wedding by Tejwinder Laroya (paperback $27) is, the author writes, “a guide to the cultural experience of attending an Indian wedding. As children of immigrants, there’s a constant duality in our hyphenated existence. We have the freedom to pick and choose from both cultures, identities, and communities, but with that also comes the isolating reminder that we don’t belong in either.” The guide provides information for Hindu and Sikh weddings only. Laroya is a third generation Indian who grew up in the West Midlands and has attended many Indian weddings around the world over the years.

Available in paperback, Design Sketches: Indian Wedding Dresses (Marjb Design $10.99) is a fashion design book with figure templates for drawing and designing bridal gowns for Indian weddings. The book includes places in which to note the design style, trend, inspiration, textile, and in which to draw details and color or attach fabric swatches.

For African American Brides

Published in 2020 by Dazzling Prints, The Ultimate Wedding Planner and Organizer for the Bride (paperback $10.97) includes checklists, to-do lists, calendars, and budget trackers for African American brides. It’s only one among innumerable guides to wedding plans and etiquette that may also contain suggestions for what the bride might wear. For some “stunning wedding dress styles from across Africa,” visit the African American wedding week display on bridalmusings.com.

Proust’s Duchess

Michele C. Cone sets the scene in “Proust”s Muse” (artcritical.com, October 7, 2016): “On November 14th, 1904, a wedding took place in Paris at the neoclassical church of La Madeleine of peerless elegance, and public brouhaha. With the trappings of a royal wedding, including specially commissioned music and a veritable who’s-who guest list, the marriage was that of Armand de Gramont, duc de Guiche and Elaine Greffulhe. As reported by the press, however, it was not the bride’s outfit but that of her mother, Elisabeth, that drew the oohs and ahs: an embroidered Byzantine gown in beige lamé with incrustations of pearl, silver thread and paillettes, and a fur-trimmed train.” The creation of couturier Frédéric Worth, the dress was featured in the Fashion Institute of Technology’s exhibition, “Proust’s Muse, The Countess Greffulhe,” better known to a world of readers as Oriane, Duchesse de Guermantes in A la recherche du temps perdu. The show, which ran from September 2016 to January 2017, originated in the Paris fashion museum, the Palais Galliera, where it was titled “La mode retrouvée.”
The Runaway Bride

I have to admit I have a weakness for the wedding dress in motion, unfettered, flying free, veil tossed back, as the fugitive bride kicks off her heels, picks up the whole blooming fantasia in white, all the frills and finery, and flees, leaving the groom at the altar. Probably the most famous such scene in film history happens when Clark Gable absconds with Claudette Colbert in It Happened One Night, the first film to sweep the Oscars. The most spectacular, and my personal favorite, occurs three decades later in The Graduate (1966), when Dustin Hoffman sprints to the chapel, arrives at the moment of truth, leaps into the fray, and makes off with Katherine Ross, using a cross to bolt the chapel doors behind them. One of the most exhilarating scenes in American cinema is the great escape, with Hoffman holding the train as they run off, catch a bus, and we see the bride, veil and all, beaming in the back seat with her sweating hero. There’s something perversely beautiful in the image of all that bridal finery being gazed at in wonder by a bunch of people in a moving bus. My wife reminds me to mention the 1999 film, The Runaway Bride, wherein Julia Roberts deserts numerous grooms at the altar before finally marrying and riding off on horseback with Richard Gere.

She Didn’t Run Away

Good thing for me my mother stayed put. For her Christmas Day wedding, the local paper says she “wore a princess gown of white brocaded satin with a short train. The sleeves, wide at the shoulders, came to a point at the wrists and the high neckline was finished with an Elizabethan collar. Her finger-tip length veil of tulle was held by a Juliet cap of seed pearls with orange blossom clips at either side.”

I like the hint of Shakespeare, and of course the organist was playing Mendelssohn’s “Wedding March” from A Midsummer Night’s Dream.