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EXHIBIT REVIEW – Tying the Knot

As part of its efforts to revitalize interest in its collections, the Western Reserve Historical Society in Cleveland recently opened a new exhibition of wedding dresses called “Tying the Knot.” The exhibit features one gown from each decade from the 1830s through the 1970s, plus some trousseaux gowns, nightgowns, and bridal accessories.

The gowns chosen for this exhibition are truly gems. The highlight of the show is a House of Worth wedding gown worn by Cleveland socialite Alice Wade Everett in 1879. It features the exquisite trimmings and attention to detail that Charles Frederick Worth was known for.

The oldest gown in the exhibition is from the 1830s, but it isn’t all original. The only part that survived was the bodice. The curators constructed a skirt to match the material on the bodice, which resulted in a flawless presentation of what this gown would have looked like on the bride’s wedding day.

Other highlights include a gorgeous silver lame gown from the 1920s, a gold gown from the 1840s (not all brides choose white!), and a delicate “wedding night” nightgown and robe set that was sadly never worn, due to a broken engagement.

The labels for each gown contain historical information from the period in which it was worn to set each piece in context. When available, a wedding portrait of the bride wearing the gown has been included. The labels also point out significant styling details that were indicative of bridal fashion in each era.

While the exhibition was rather small, the gowns the curators included are fine examples of the signature style of each decade. There are approximately 25 mannequins and dress forms in the exhibition, but only 15 feature actual wedding gowns. Each gown has been presented with a simple headpiece and veil, but none of them are original to the dresses. Tulle is extremely fragile and can disintegrate over time, so the curators made veils from modern materials to complete the “bridal” look.

One dress form was used to display a lobster tail bustle, giving visitors a peek at the elaborate structures that supported gowns in the Victorian era. Several mannequins were used to display trousseaux dresses, which were the special gowns brides made or purchased for their new life as a newlywed. These gowns provided context for the wedding gowns, but it would have been nice to see more wedding dresses from the collection displayed in their place instead.

The entire exhibition is housed within a gigantic glass case. Visitors can walk around the perimeter of the case to view each gown. This arrangement does protect the gowns from potential damage from visitors touching them, but it limits exhibition design to a circular flow. Small cases along the gallery walls featured wedding photos, gifts, shoes, and other bridal accessories.

The exhibition is on view in the Western Reserve Historical Society’s Chisholm Halle Costume Wing through February 14, 2013.

The author personally paid an additional fee above and beyond admission to the exhibit because the Costume Society of America event she attended also included a behind-the-scenes tour of the museum’s textile storage areas.

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