Harrogate’s Royal Pump Room Museum unveils its exquisite wedding dress collection spanning 150 years of fashion history. Victoria Benn reports.
Harrogate’s collection of nearly 40 historic and contemporary wedding dresses is not only an awe-inspiring and revealing exposé of almost two centuries of fashion history, but it also offers a unique opportunity to see Flowerbomb – the incredible dress created by award-winning designer Ian Stuart for the V&A’s blockbuster exhibition, Wedding Dresses 1775-2014.
“The Pump Room’s fashion journey starts in the 1870s and takes in every era to the present day,” says May Catt, curator of the museum and the Mercer Art Gallery. “As always, our aim is to amaze as well as inspire and so we are absolutely thrilled to show Flowerbomb – a stunning example of haute couture, along with two contemporary avant-garde dresses by textile artist Julia Triston.
“With most of the dresses accompanied by the real-life stories of their owners – all collated into an ‘order of service’, the collection offers rare insight into the fashion aesthetic and social influences of the different times, along with captivating glimpses of the brides’ dream-selves.”
The Harrogate Collection is indicative of the affluent spa town Harrogate was and in many ways still is. Incredibly British in their origins and style, most of the gowns reflect the international trade links that were common in the Victorian and Edwardian eras, being created from fine French silks and Indian cottons – fabrics which have enabled them to remain in a flawless condition.
“This exhibition illustrates that the wedding dress has increasingly become a display of fashion and wealth – or about creating the appearance of wealth,” adds fashion curator and writer Laura Gray, who has worked on the exhibition.
“Yet, wedding dresses haven’t always been white. Queen Victoria’s wedding dress of white satin and handmade Devon lace was unquestionably the most extravagant of her generation. From that point, it was inevitable that the white wedding dress would come into fashion.
“Most Victorian women had to take a much more pragmatic approach to their wedding attire, and so we see the majority getting married in a dress they already owned, or in a new dress which was of a practical enough colour for them to wear again, which is why most of the Victorian wedding dresses in the collection are in a palette of grey, green and blue.”
Despite the lack of “white” Victorian wedding dresses, the ensembles on display are unequivocally magnificent.
“One of my favourite dresses is a cream silk one consisting of a bodice and skirt from the 1890s, which is made from metres and metres of plain silk,” says Laura. “I just love the impact of its huge, exaggerated ‘leg o’ mutton’ sleeves against its tiny petite bodice. Anyone who has tried to set a sleeve into the shoulder of a dress will appreciate that the construction and attention to detail in this dress is an absolute work of art. And, although it looks austere, it is incredibly extravagant for the time.”
Another gem within this part of the collection is the pair of kid leather and gold heeled shoes worn by Martha Dawson on her marriage to Thomas Hartley Lawton in 1873. The miniscule, hand-stitched shoes exude the exquisite theatricality of an Alexander McQueen design.
Although the glamour and extravagance of the Edwardian era and 1920s and 30s affirmed the fashion ideal of the white wedding dress, the Harrogate Collection continues to present an eclectic range of designs and colours along with their owners’ stories.
“What is really powerful about this exhibition,” says Laura, “is that it offers insight into the women behind the dresses. The act of choosing a wedding dress enables a woman – just for one day – to become the person they dream themselves to be.
“And the dress that evokes this to me more than any other is the incredibly elegant lace dress from 1935. This floor- length cream and brown dress was made for Ellen Topham by her mother and I can almost imagine them poring over the fashion magazines together, then going shopping to look at styles and choose the fabric. The bold lines and geometric shapes of the lace and its beautiful buttoned sleeves make it incredibly of its time.”
The dresses featured from the 1970s onwards offer deeper glimpses into their brides’ personalities, as social expectations relaxed and personal expression became more acceptable.
“Celebrity weddings of the 1960s, like Twiggy’s or Bianca Jagger’s, really started the idea of playing around with fashion to create a look and style which reflected the wearers’ personality,” adds Laura. “There’s a few dresses in the exhibition which offer such an insight, with the earliest being the boho-inspired satin dress from 1977. With its unusual cascading sleeves and folkloric touches, this unstructured dress was also made from polyester, a new fabric available in the 1970s.”
The collection is brought up to date with two dresses that – for some – may confound all expectations of a wedding dress exhibition. Made by acclaimed textile artist Julia Triston, they include Julia’s own 2017 – To Know a Veil – dress, which is a vintage 1930s wedding veil beautifully embroidered with revealing entries from her “divorce journal”.
With half-finished phrases like “I wish I had said…” and “I wish I hadn’t said…” exposing the artist’s regret and anger, this piece reminds us that, in the excitement of choosing “the dress” and pursuing the image of our dream-selves, we might also pause to take a realistic view of the commitment we are making.
Visually inspirational and intellectually poignant, this is a fashion exhibition with something for everyone.
Wedding Dresses From the Harrogate Collection runs until September 15 at the Royal Pump Room Museum, Harrogate. www.harrogate.gov.uk/weddingdresses
* Dresses to win Yorkshire Ladies’ Days at the Races here