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Wedding Essentials

March of the bridal gowns

A new exhibition at the National Museum shows that despite centuries of fashion evolution, the wedding dress has endured.
The Straits Times - August 17, 2012
By: Ong Soh Chin
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March of the bridal gowns Violet shot taffeta wedding dress by Vivienne Westwood Couture (London, 2005). -- ST FILE PHOTO

In most narratives about weddings, the topic eventually boils down to what the bride wore. The wedding dress, after all, has always been the key to deciphering the context of the whole union. In one outfit, one can deduce the bride's social background, financial situation and personality (or lack thereof).

In fact, in the old days, when marriages were more about political, social and financial unions, rather than love matches, a bride's dress was the trussed-up endorsement of the top quality and high value of the gift being proffered.

I was reminded of this when I visited the National Museum of Singapore's new exhibition, called TheWedding Dress: 200 Years Of Wedding Fashion From The Victoria & Albert Museum, London (V&A). On display until Oct 31 are fine examples of wedding outfits from the 1800s to the present day - each one a telling indicator of the changing mores of its time and how brides related to them.

What stands out, not surprisingly, is the pervasiveness of the long white Western wedding gown as a design template. While there is a smaller companion display of local wedding dresses, including the Chinese kwa, Indian saree and Malay kurung, the outfits are predominantly Western in sensibility and style. This is, perhaps, apt, considering that the white lace Western bridal dress has been the most enduring icon of marital unions through the ages, adopted by cultures the world over.

The colour white, however, was not commonly used for wedding dresses until Queen Victoria popularised it. She had chosen white for her wedding gown in order to match some lace she wanted to use.

Previously, brides wore whatever colour they wanted, but white was largely seen as a colour of mourning, not purity.

Interestingly, among the exhibits is an old Chinese wedding headdress in black, the colour signifying mourning as the bride would be leaving her family behind to join her husband's. Similarly, in Japanese tradition, brides sometimes wear white kimonos, to symbolise that they are "dead" to their families.

Today, of course, the wedding gown is less funereal in spirit. It is seen, not just as a celebration of love, but also of exquisite craftsmanship as it is probably the single most expensive item of clothing a woman is likely to buy in her lifetime.

The world's best couturiers have all crafted their own versions. Indeed, many fashion shows still end with a wedding dress as the apotheosis of the designer's vision and artistry.

It is also a sartorial fantasy come true, symbolising the culmination of a fairy tale, as well as the tacit and sobering realisation that from here on, reality - in the form of slouchy track pants and mummy jeans - will set in.

The V&A show has ample proof of artisanal brilliance. One of its star exhibits is a Norman Hartnell silk satin gown from 1933, decorated with pearl and glass beads and boasting a stunning 5m-long embroidered train of beaded stars. It is a paean to beauty and elegance, albeit one which dictates that a woman has to stay put and sit pretty, on pain of ripping a seam or losing a pearl.

In contrast, it is perhaps not surprising that the most exuberant wedding outfits are from the 1960s, a decade noted for its renewed awareness of civil rights, including those of women. In particular, I love John Bates' white gabardine mini-coat and matching dress with silver PVC collar and lapels, designed for British Vogue's then-fashion editor Marit Allen in 1966; as well as the satinised cotton printed trouser suit by Ossie Clark and Celia Birtwell from 1969.

However, in the subsequent decades, the long restrictive dress would find favour again, as seen in Vivienne Westwood's full-skirted indigo creation for burlesque artist Dita Von Teese in 2005.

If one laments that the wedding dress always tends to lapse into a standard format, it should be noted that the men have it much worse. In fact, any of the men's suit and waistcoat designs displayed - from the Victorian era to the present day - could be trotted out today without alarming the fashion police.

It is ironic that, as marriages evolve through the decades, the vestments that symbolise the marital union still remain largely intransigent. It is also ironic that the wedding dress - the symbol of a permanent and lasting institution - is usually a creation of absolute fragility and ephemerality.

But marriage itself, some may say, is the ultimate irony. It squishes together two different individuals with their own specific experiences and expects them to stay glued together forever, no matter the circumstances.

It is a tough call, but also a lovely one. Some marriages may falter. But the best ones - no matter how delicate and frail the threads - will endure, just like the sumptuous wedding dresses at the exhibition.


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