"When the end of the world comes, I want to be in Cincinnati because it’s always 20 years behind the times.” Whether or not Mark Twain uttered those cheeky words, and there is some debate that he did, imagine what he could have said about Central New York. Cynthia Amneus, curator of fashion arts and textiles at the Cincinnati Art Museum, dropped the quote during a conversation about an exhibit she put together for her home museum, and the words fit Utica, where the works of art are on display through Sept. 18.
But these aren’t paintings, sculptures or photographs. Instead, Wedded Perfection: Two Centuries of Wedding Gowns brings to the Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute more than 50 wedding gowns dating from the late 1700s to today. Many of the dresses are part of the permanent collection in Cincinnati, while others are on loan. The dresses on the museum’s second floor were all worn by brides; two on the first floor are provocative, inviting commentary.
“We start the exhibition downstairs,” notes Anna D’Ambrosio, assistant director and curator of decorative arts, “for people to get the idea that as much as this is an exhibition about fashion, it also talks about women’s history, social history and art history. That’s one reason this exhibit is so perfect here, because it relates so well with our permanent collection.”
In addition to the two first-floor conversation starters, the gowns in Wedded Perfection are arranged by theme: the fairy-tale bride, designer gowns, bridal traditions, the alluring bride, historically influenced gowns, brides in color and the modern bride. They range chronologically from a simple yet elegant gown from 1735 to a decidedly modern, red poppy-covered Zac Posen-created gown from 2004.
“That the show is organized by theme, not chronologically, is a real strength to the exhibition,” says Amneus. “You can look at them side by side, make comparisons and contrasts as you’re reading the descriptions. And general aesthetics come into play, too. You can see the train, or the back or side, and really get a look at how the dress was constructed.”
While reality television programming like Bridezillas and Say Yes to the Dress (a guilty pleasure for this writer) have brought the quest for the perfect wedding gown into living rooms everywhere, there actually was a time—gasp!—before dresses had to be white and when it was quite likely the dress would be worn again. Lace insets, tea lengths and removable accents converted a wedding gown into a dinnerparty dress with minimal effort.
“The designation of specific wedding dresses likely had something to do with mass marketing and commerce morethan anything else,” notes Margaret Susan Thompson, professor of history and women’s studies at Syracuse University. “You look at reproductions of early Sears catalogs and there are wedding gowns in there. Through department stores people’s desires got shaped, so instead of just purchasing or making a nice dress, there was this notion of wearing a specifically designated dress. And that’s not necessarily an American notion. Look at our fascination with royal weddings, especially this most recent one. Queen Victoria was one of the first to wear a white dress.”
Further, the bridal industry as we know it today really didn’t come together until right around World War II. “The white dress, the long train, the veil, the bouquet of flowers—this was not the case until the first half of the 20th century,” posits Amneus. “There is a whole lot of history where women are wearing something we don’t think of as the traditional wedding dress. It could have been something that was pulled out of the closet. Even in the 19th century, it was an opportunity to have a best dress made, entirely with the intention of wearing it again. It was just too expensive for most women to have a wedding dress made.”
One of the dresses on display proves that very point. From 1883, its convertability is visible. “That dress has a little modesty panel that’s set into the neckline, and it’s obvious it was put there for the wedding and then taken out for another use,” points out Amneus. “Even for brides who are wealthy, they still didn’t waste money by having a special dress made for this one day.”
The gowns on display in Utica run the gamut while still being works of art all on their own. Strategically placing them among MWPAI’s permanent collection is a bonus for all. “This would be a tough exhibit for museums that have a fashion collection,” Amneus says. “Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute can incorporate the dresses with their permanent collection, and offer something new for their audience.”
And their audience has responded.
More than 100 visitors come each day to the Utica museum to check out the exhibit. “It’s better than we expected,” says Joe Schmidt, the museum’s public relations director. “We’ve had a very enthusiastic response from the community and many people are here for the first time, just to see this exhibition.”
Gowns of Renown
It all began in Cincinnati when staff at one of the oldest American museums of art was brainstorming ideas for exhibitions that could make substantial money for the museum. “I threw out a number of ideas including a wedding dress exhibition,” Amneus says, “which sparked immediate interest. Most fashion curators are generally not interested in doing wedding dress exhibitions because they feel there’s nothing new to be said and because wedding dresses are sentimental and popular, but not of general academic interest.”
About two-thirds of the gowns on display come from Cincinnati’s permanent collection, while the remainder are on loan from the brides themselves or other art museums. “Every piece really needed a reason to be there because we had so many to choose from,” says Amneus. “I needed to be specific in terms of fitting each piece into each themed section and I also wanted most of the gowns to have been worn, if at all possible.”
Wedded Perfection went up in October 2010 and remained on display through Jan. 30, 2011. “It was received here beyond my wildest dreams,” says Amneus. “I knew it would be popular because it was wedding dresses, but it resulted in the highest attendance of any exhibition here at the museum: 63,000. We never expected that number and we had to extend hours for it.”
On this end, MWPAI had collaborated with Cincinnati 15 years earlier on a fashion art exhibit, and D’Ambrosio was interested in another. So she called Amneus and the stitches all fell into place. “This is such a great match for us because it relates to our collections in that it goes from the 18th century through contemporary art, relates to our fine and decorative arts collection, and it offered something new to our visitors,” she explains.
In early June two tractor trailers traveled from Cincinnati to Utica to deliver 42 naked mannequins to 310 Genesee St. A week later, 10 crates full of delicate dresses showed up. “Each mannequin is custom fitted for the dress,” says D’Ambrosio, “so fitting out the mannequin to the gown could take anywhere from a couple hours to one that took 60 hours. The dress needs the appropriate shape; the architecture underneath is important.”
For the two weeks after the goods arrived, staff at MWPAI set up Wedded Perfection. “It’s a large exhibition,” D’Ambrosio adds. “Even though it’s only 50 objects, they take up a lot of floor space. Because we don’t have dedicated changing exhibition galleries, there was a lot of artwork that had to be moved.”
Another compelling reason to head east to see this show is that, unlike most other traveling exhibitions, the foothills of the Adirondacks is the only stop. “Other than Cincinnati, the exhibit will only be shown in Utica,” notes Amneus. “We hadn’t really planned to travel it because in terms of planning it’s a huge undertaking. It’s hard for some museums to take a costume exhibition, because a lot of the pieces are fragile.”
To respect the fragility of the gowns, as well as the harmful effects of direct lighting, many of the skylights in the ceiling of the museum were covered and bulbs dimmed. “The light level is kept lower because the effect of light on these fabrics is always a concern,” D’Ambrosio explains. “And the effects of light are cumulative. Some of them probably have never been cleaned; sometimes it’s just a simple vacuuming.”
Here Come the Brides
Begin on the main floor, where a Christo performance piece perverts a wedding gown into the ball-and-chain metaphor some assign marriage; it’s also our cover photo. The second gown, “Mixture of Frailties” by British artist Susan McMurray, on an enormous mannequin, presents a clever play on the word “housewife.” The skirt of the gown is made up of hundreds of yellow Playtex gloves—the kind you would wear to do housework— turned inside out and appearing like so many five-fingered flowers. A more elegant scathing criticism of the institution of marriage probably doesn’t exist.
“This dress is certainly saying something about marriage,” D’Ambrosio says during a June 17 media tour of the exhibit, “and this is what this exhibition is about—how wedding dresses have evolved over time.”
Imparting a human touch to the dresses is a wall of wedding photographs—brides in their gown or couples after the nuptials—both color and black-and-white.
“You could sponsor a dress for $250,” Schmidt explains, “and submit a wedding photo of your choice.” Schmidt made sure his parents’ wedding photo made the cut: “Having these photos here really gives validity to the exhibition.” Stroll along the corridor for a happy intermission from the couture in the surrounding studios.
But you won’t linger long, as these dresses will call to you. In the “I could never afford that!” category stand designer gowns from the likes of Vera Wang, Geof frey Beene, Christian Dior and the man considered the father of haute couture, Charles Frederick Worth, who is credited with inventing the oh-so-flattering bustle. “Worth very much considered himself an artist,” says Amneus of the designer who worked in Paris in the mid-19th century. “This is a very important piece because it was worn by a Cincinnati woman and we know from that piece that women from Cincinnati were going to Paris as early as the 1860s to have dresses made there.”
The gown, from 1874, features a dropped neckline with short sleeves, a tiny waistline and a pretty picture all around (it’s the gown in the top, right photo on this page). “It’s a very special dress,” she adds. “It’s very forward looking in terms of its design—especially the fact that Worth didn’t like lace, particularly on wedding dresses, so no lace. The overlay of the sheer silk that is in excellent condition is really remarkable.”
Also remarkable are the orange blossoms crossing the bodice like a beauty queen’s sash. Just as white signified purity, the orange blossom held special marital significance as well.
“Only a bride would wear orange blossoms,” Amneus continues. “They signify fertility. The orange tree is the only tree that blooms and bears fruit at the same time. At one time there was the manufacture of orange blossoms out of wax—not everyone could afford them.”
Another orange-blossom bedecked dress is so stunning that it adorns the cover of the exhibit’s program. Meant to be worn by a corseted bride, and shown top, left of this page, the tiny waist accentuated the bust and hips of the wearer.
A broad, low neckline calls attention to the bride’s shoulders and neck. Adorned with orange blossoms, the bodice is laced together a la Frederick’s of Hollywood, although not so skanky. Perhaps this dress was designed in 1887, but there’s no question about its true goal, so it’s perfect for the program cover. In fact, one staffer at MWPAI suggested that the ads and banners for the exhibit that feature this dress should say “Opening Soon.”
“The orange blossoms are still on that dress,” says D’Ambrosio. “When I refer to the dresses as canvasses, I think that’s such a perfect example of something that shows such incredible design and craftsmanship. Those beads were all silver; we’re looking at something that’s slightly tarnished. Imagine how they glistened on top of that white silk and tulle. It’s such a stunning image; it’s eye-catching.”
While the more historic pieces speak volumes about women’s roles in the last three centuries, the modern gowns do the same while marrying tradition with contemporary sensibilities. Hence the flowing, red Zac Posen piece and a decidedly odd dress that falls just above the ankle and is made of small, white leather squares embellished with aluminum; you’d have to see it to decide if you would say yes to that dress, pictured on page 23.
Whether it’s the elegant pale blue lace dress from 1935 or the over-the-top Russian fantasy bride ensemble from 1986 and designer Bob Mackie, each dress on display says something about the bride who chose it. “The point for me of the whole exhibition is that I didn’t want it to just be a group of pretty wedding dresses,” says Amneus. “What I began researching was the history of marriage, of women in marriage and looking at women’s status in society and within the institution of marriage and how that paralleled how wedding dresses looked over time. How it spoke to the decisions they and their parents made.”
Perfection: Two Centuries of Wedding Gowns continues through Sept. 18 at
Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute, 310 Genesee St., Utica. Regular
hours are Tuesdays through Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Sundays, 1
to 5 p.m. The exhibit will be open until 7:30 p.m. on Wednesdays, Aug.
10, and Sept. 14. Admission is $10 for adults, $5 for students ages 7 to
18. For more information, call 797-0000 or visit www.mwpai.org.
Want to contact the writer about this story? Email her at menglish@ syracusenewtimes.com.; or follow her on twitter @englishmolly.