The most priceless thing you’ll ever wear, the feelings that come from slipping your wedding dress out of its box or bag stir up fond memories of the happiest day of your lives.
To celebrate the individuality of wedding dresses and the brides that wear them, Cannon Hall Museum are hosting a stunning new exhibition that is veiled in off-white beauty.
Tales of the Wedding Dress: From Homemade to World Stage looks at the changing trends of bridal gowns over the past few centuries and how economic, political and social issues affected both design and creation.
Along with eight dresses handmade by women here in Barnsley, the exhibition will also see iconic and elaborate dresses of TV and film grace the Georgian hall with their overwhelming presence from Cosprop, the world’s leading costumier.
Stitching together the history of dress designs and the art of pattern making, the handmade selection looks at why each bride chose to have her wedding dress made for her – or indeed make it herself.
Whether it’s a family tradition or a labour of love and energy, for most who have had a gown made their decision comes from wanting something completely unique that truly personalises their bridal experience.
Not just like sewing a cotton slipdress for your child to play in, bridal gowns are made using advanced sewing techniques and unfamiliar fabrics which are not for the faint-hearted beginners. The dresses on show at Cannon Hall were all made by talented seamstresses, both professional and amateur, who took great care and attention in making sure they were exceptional in every way.
During the war years, clothing was practical and had to be made to the strict guidelines of the Making Civilian Clothing Order from ration coupon bought fabric. For brides during those years, weddings were often rushed or organised quicker as their betrothed were granted minimal leave time.
For Kathleen Bennett, her fiance Albert served as a medic in the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry while she worked as a seamstress at McLintock’s quilt factory. For their wedding in January 1942, she designed and made her own dress from a floral printed satin bought from Barnsley’s Butterfields and Massies.
With its high neckline, A-line skirt and Gibson sleeves finished with a tie belt, Kathleen’s dress was modest yet simply elegant. Unlike the throw-away world we live in today, clothes were often shared in those days and Kathleen’s dress was worn by her friend for her own wedding.
Married at a similar time, Eileen Townend was possibly the luckiest bride in Barnsley in 1943 – her mother, Hilda Briggs, was the go-to wedding seamstress and had fashioned hundreds of gowns in her time. Eileen’s dress of satin silk with silver embroidery was the best ration coupons could create and seen by over 200 guests at her wedding to Harold.
While not always cheaper than shop-bought dresses, some brides chose to make their own gown to save money for other necessities.
Before Elsie Hutchinson got married in 1965, she was an independent girl about town studying to be a teacher at Bretton Hall College. Having lost both parents, Elsie rented a flat, had bought her own Mini and had always made her own clothes.
Using a Simplicity pattern, Elsie made the long sleeved dress in silk brocade, her only expense was having the buttons professionally covered. She even borrowed her veil and headdress.
Fast forward 15 years and Jacqueline Utley also prioritised life over a wedding, spending her hard-earned money on buying her first marital home rather than her dress. For Jacquie, she fell in love with another bride’s dress having seen her trying it on in Bent Gowns on the Arcade in Barnsley.
Fortunately for her, the bride-to-be never took it home and the shop agreed to remodel the bespoke lace design, taking the whole thing apart to fit Jacquie perfectly like it was made for her.
For one-of-a-kind brides, their wedding deserves an exclusive dress made especially for them.
Fashion saw a new sense of freedom in the 1970s and for Christine Knowles she wanted to make a statement at her winter wedding to David. Married on Boxing Day 1977 on her parents’ 30th wedding anniversary, Christine spent her pre-wedding weekends at her parents’ house sewing two patterns together to make her dress.
As a nurse, she lived away in the nurses’ home and had to combine her free time with wedding planning and seeing her fiancé – she’d sew behind him in the living room so as not to tempt fate before the wedding while taking care not to snag or stain her dress. I’m sure the wait would have been worth it to see her in her feather-trimmed hooded wool crepe gown with lace detailing.
A fashion designer and pattern cutter, of course Sarah White was always going to design her own dress. But as with many other modern brides, her design was inspired by a love of vintage plus a little bit of magic to make it unique.
After seeing a pair of ruby red slippers at the Wizard of Oz exhibition at Harrods’ art gallery, Sarah went down the yellow brick road route to bridal bliss, designing an authentic 1950s style taffeta bust with red underskirt.
Sarah’s dress design was brought to life by her machinist friend, Alina, who also made a replica doll to match as a tradition from her Romanian roots. She made her own button bouquet, poppy seed favours and her mum helped to create a fascinator to match.
And last but not least, a real family affair, Katy Symon’s dazzling handknitted gown was lovingly handcrafted over a year by her mum Pat who had grown up watching and learning from her own grandmother knit and make clothes.
Using a 1934 pattern and crochet technique, Pat delicately worked long into the night to turn her daughter’s Art Deco vision into a bat winged delight – she even unpicked it if bits didn’t go perfect.
The totally unique sleeved dress was made from 40 balls of bamboo silk wool, hand finished with tiny pearls and sequins on its picot edge hemline. Katy’s sister made her headdress, bouquet and buttonholes and she found her veil in a vintage shop.
From Friday 26th May, the handmade gowns will be joined by glittering stars of TV and film including Helena Bonham Carter’s gothic gown from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Keira Knightley’s 18th century elaborately puffy design from The Duchess and Jenna Coleman’s iconic Queen Victoria dress which incited the idea to wear white.
Whether you’re a wife who has also made her own dress before or a bride-to-be looking for some wedding dress inspiration, the new exhibition at Cannon Hall Museum is truly spectacular for all to see and definitely an I Do this summer.
For more information about the exhibition or to see the events happening throughout, visit www.cannon-hall.com