Fashion & Fantasy: 250 Years of Wedding Dresses

 Italian immigrant Theresa H. Dardani wore this cream-colored silk, ankle-length dress, adorned with lace, small crystal beads and a string of large pearls when she was married at the St. Thomas Aquinas Church in Fairfield in 1916.

Italian immigrant Theresa H. Dardani wore this cream-colored silk, ankle-length dress, adorned with lace, small crystal beads and a string of large pearls when she was married at the St. Thomas Aquinas Church in Fairfield in 1916.

The Fairfield Museum and History Center announces the opening of a new exhibition, Fashion & Fantasy: 250 Years of Wedding Dresses, on view Feb. 19-May 31. With beautiful wedding gowns spanning several centuries-from 18th-century silk and military-inspired Civil War dresses to the ubiquitous white dress of today-this exhibition looks at how fashions and the traditions of “the big day” have changed over time, comparing the relatively simple rituals of the past with the more elaborate wedding events of today.

The exhibition will open to the public Feb. 19 at the Museum After Dark (MAD) event, from 6-8 p.m., a wine and cheese sponsored by Fairfield Living magazine. Fairfield fashion designer Jennifer Butler will be on hand to discuss her original designs, which draw inspiration from the past. MAD is free for members and $5 suggested donation for non-members.

In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, most weddings were informal affairs, often held in the home of the bride’s parents with a handful of witnesses, followed by a reception and a home-made wedding cake. Brides frequently wore their best church dress, of no special design or color.

A highlight of the exhibit is a 200-year-old, sky blue silk and linen embroidered gown worn by Lucy Nichols of Stratford who married the Reverend Philo Shelton in 1781.

A highlight of the exhibit is a 200-year-old, sky blue silk and linen embroidered gown worn by Lucy Nichols of Stratford who married the Reverend Philo Shelton in 1781.

A highlight of the exhibit is a 200-year-old, sky blue silk and linen embroidered gown worn by Lucy Nichols of Stratford who married the Reverend Philo Shelton in 1781. This gown reflects the fashions of the day with its V-shaped bodice, small waist, and full skirt.

The white wedding dress began gaining in popularity in the early nineteenth century, but it was Queen Victoria who really popuarlized the white wedding dress when she wore an elaborate white gown at her wedding to Prince Albert in 1840. The images and descriptions of Victoria’s white wedding dress spread world-wide, informing women in North America and Europe of how a proper bride should look.

Made of heavy silk faille, this two-piece wedding dress, c. 1870, exemplifies the military style that was popular after the Civil War, when women’s dresses echoed elements of soldiers’ uniforms including short jackets and metal buttons.

Made of heavy silk faille, this two-piece wedding dress, c. 1870, exemplifies the military style that was popular after the Civil War, when women’s dresses echoed elements of soldiers’ uniforms including short jackets and metal buttons.

Wealthy brides were the first to embrace the white wedding dress. White clothing was a sign of status at a time when laundry was done painstakingly by hand with a washboard. Wealthy women could afford to pay servants to wash their clothes, but for the less well-off, white was not a prudent choice. Brides of upper social status also chose wedding dresses of rich, elegant materials, such as silk, fur and velvet, to show off the family’s wealth.

Brides were also expected to follow certain social standards, as outlined in an 1894 issue of Ladies’ Home Journal where Isabel A. Mallon described the era’s ideal wedding dress: “There are some things a bride must remember: her bodice must be high in the neck; her sleeves reach quite to her wrist, and her gown must fall in full, unbroken folds that show the richness of the material, and there must not be even a suggestion of such frivolities as frills or ribbons of any kind.”

weddingdress3One of the more elaborate dresses in the exhibition is a cream-colored full-length gown borrowing romantic elements from eighteenth century French style, c. 1878-1882. It was most certainly worn by a member of elite society who traveled to France herself to have her gown made by Mme. Eyglunent, a Parisian haute couturier.

As we entered the early twentieth century, wedding dress designs allowed women to have a greater degree of movement and flexibility compared to the heavy, stiff fabrics, petticoats, and bustles of previous generations. Reflecting this changing style is a cream-colored silk, ankle-length dress worn by Theresa H. Dardani, an Italian immigrant when she married Louis Carissimi at the St. Thomas Aquinas Church in Fairfield in 1916. The dress is adorned with lace, small crystal beads and a string of large pearls draped across the bodice.

Today, wedding dresses are available in a wide variety of colors and lengths. A full-length Monique Lhullier wedding gown represents current-day fashion in the exhibition, while James Coviello’s Queen Anne dress represents an alternative image for today’s bride. Its short, ruffled hemline and use of lace make a romantic yet modern statement, according to Coviello, who grew up in Fairfield and now lives in New York City, where he has been creating his ready-to-wear collection since 2000.

The exhibition also features some remarkable wedding gifts and objects, including a silver-plated tea kettle Helen Jennings James received from her aunt, Annie B. Jennings in 1920; white Haviland porcelain, c. 1839 with a “wedding band” motif and other wedding-related objects from the Museum’s historical collection.

The Fairfield Museum and History Center is a community cultural arts and education center established in 2007 by the 103-year old Fairfield Historical Society. Located at 370 Beach Road in Fairfield, the Museum is open seven days a week, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Admission is $5 for adults; $3 for students and seniors. Members of the Museum and children are free. For more information, call 203-259-1598 or visit Fairfieldhistory.org.

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