IN time for the annual high season for weddings, the Stamford Historical Society is offering a double exhibition called “Wedding Belles: Bridal Fashions Then and Now” and “A Wedding Album,” on view through Aug. 16.
“Traditionally, our textile committee has been responsible for our spring-summer show,” said the society’s curator of collections, Karen Donnelly. “The idea for ‘Wedding Belles,’ which had been kicking around for a number of years, was fanned by a recently received cache of new wedding gowns. We decided to add ‘A Wedding Album’ to complete the package. By adding the photographs we were better able to explore some of the traditions and diversity of the wedding celebration.”
The exhibition, spread through three galleries, is arranged chronologically to show the evolution of wedding gowns and make it easy to spot style trends. Gowns worn by mannequins are paraded in groups on elevated platforms in the Red Gallery.
Traveling from the Civil War to the present brings home the fact that white was not the traditional color of wedding dresses. “White really took off when Queen Victoria married in 1840 and wore white,” Ms. Donnelly said. But three dark wedding dresses are shown in the exhibition. Women often wore their best dress, which could be dark and suitable for other occasions as well. Another reason was being in mourning for a loved one. “Mourning was very prescribed,” Ms. Donnelly said.
“You had different stages. For a close relative it lasted two years and you wore varying dark colors starting with black, then brown, followed by purple.”
Another reason was preference, individual or dictated by fashion. “Just prior to the Civil War,” Ms. Donnelly said, “plaids were extremely popular. Wearing a plaid dress was a sign of affluence because the hoop required a lot of material and matching the plaid took extra fabric. In 1886 blues and browns were popular and Godey’s Lady’s Book conveyed that to potential brides as the colors of choice for the season. Then there was a period in the 1930′s when black dresses were popular. And today vibrant colors are shown as an alternative to the white standard.”
Though the white wedding gowns on display have taken on a patina with time, they probably were not white but varying shades of cream, which are much more becoming to most women.
The white wedding dress, which is considered to be traditional today, first appeared in the 1820′s, though it did not then negate wearing other colors. For those choosing white, bridal literature provided guidelines. In 1894 the Ladies Home Journal advised: “When wearing a white gown thought must be given to the becomingness of the shade, for, after all, there are as many tints in white as in other colors; the one that may suit the pale blonde is absolutely unbecoming to the rosy brunette.
“Dead white, which has a glint of blue about it, is seldom becoming to anyone. It brings out the imperfections of the complexion, tends to deaden the gloss of the hair and dulls the brightness of the eyes. The white that touches on the cream or coffee shade is undoubtedly the most artistic and best suited to the general woman.”
A stroll through the show reveals gowns were long until the mid-1930′s. “Wedding dresses reflected day-dress style,” Ms. Donnelly said. “In the period when women wore hoops to do their marketing, they also used them for their wedding dresses. So if you wore a long day dress, you also wore a long wedding dress. In the 20′s during the flapper style, dresses came up to just below the knee. In the mid-30′s they started to go long again and remain that way to this day. But since the 1930′s wedding dresses no longer represent day-dress style.”
The first and oldest gown displayed, circa 1859, a cream silk satin and faille, has a billowing skirt layered with petticoats to give the effect of the hoop skirt. Petticoats were heavy and hoops eventually gave women more freedom.
A dark brown and black bustle dress, circa 1880, probably represents a best dress, or a time of mourning. A blue-gray speckled with white reflects the big puffy leg-of-mutton sleeves of the 1890′s. One standout, with a highly detailed, shirred and flounced white net and lace bodice, was worn by Grace Carol Ferguson in 1898.
Women were heavily corseted to achieve thin waists. “Some went to the extreme of having lower ribs removed,” Ms. Donnelly said. “They carried smelling salts because they were so tightly corseted they had trouble breathing.”
Another focal point is the Trousseau Room, which represents a bride’s bedroom, circa 1906. A wedding dress hangs on a mannequin, a going-away outfit is draped over a sleigh bed, and camisoles, corset covers, drawers and other undergarments, ready to be packed, cascade from dresser drawers.
“A Wedding Album” creates a grand finale in its own gallery bedecked with 94 photographs dating from 1860 to the present, covering several generations and historical eras.
“We solicited wedding photos from the community,” Ms. Donnelly said. “Ninety percent are on loan, the other 10 percent from the museum’s collection. The prerequisites for inclusion were that the wedding took place here in Stamford or, recognizing that Stamford is a transient community, that the couple spent a portion of their life here.”
Several generations of the same family are represented along with changing styles and fashions. Early wedding photography tended to be formal. “In the beginning, they were nonsmiling pictures because of the technology,” Ms. Donnelly said. “The exposure could be a minute or longer and people had to remain still. Also, when photography first came in, it mimicked portraiture, which was formal. It was not until the 1930′s that people started smiling, and the 1960′s that photographs were consistently colored.”
“Although weddings vary in the way they are celebrated — formal or informal, with different cultural traditions,” Ms. Donnelly said, “they all share a common bond representing an important rite of passage.”
The Stamford Historical Society, 1508 High Ridge Road, is open Tuesday through Sunday, noon to 4 P.M.