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VM inspiration: VM at the V&A makes the most of wedding dress exhibition

The Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) usually offers a crowd-pleasing exhibition at mid-summer and its collection of Wedding Dresses is no exception.

While the array of mostly-cream dresses - would-be brides please note, they photograph rather better than pure white - are fascinating in themselves the exhibition, sadly, does not offer a discourse on their meaning.

Instead it displays them chronologically. As interesting as this is - and it is fascinating to take one category of merchandise and trace its history in any VM window - exploring the desire to be ‘the most beautiful bride ever’ would have added an extra touch to the exhibition. As John Wanamaker (1838 - 1922), founder of the eponymous department store and benefactor of the Philadelphia Museum of Art observed, Visual Merchandising is akin to museum curating, but without the price tags. There is much we can learn from museum exhibitions.

Unlike other fashion retailers, wedding dress stores are hampered in their internal layout by the dominance of white and near-white merchandise. Colour is one of the primary mechanisms to attract the eye, or the human brain to be more precise. Fashion retailers know this and employ colour to appeal to the customer.

The strongest-colour exceptions, including Dita von Teese’s purple moire silk Vivienne Westwood dress, were showcased separately in the exhibition.

Gwen Stephani’s Dior dress, deepening from the knee to an ombred-red hem, was displayed with matching red shoes.

Matching veils, tiaras, hats and accessories helped set the scene, just as they do with good VM. An 1830 silk brocade dress, garters, fans, and gloves was displayed with period photographs of the bride on the her big day.

Whereas seasonal use of fabric might be a criterion for the wedding dress retailer, with brocades and velvets to the fore in winter and light chiffons and strapless styles for the summer, at the V&A the seasons were documented in the choice of flowers, either in the bouquets, or as applique or embroidered motifs on the dresses. These hinted at April weddings – which formerly carried a tax advantage. Among earlier dresses were ones to be worn on Christmas Day, the only day all paid staff received as a holiday.

Seasonal orange blossom was prevalent, but lily of the valley starred too, as did lilies – all hinting at Spring and Summer events. For wedding-dress VM a backdrop using these popular choices would enhance the floral feel and create an atmosphere.

The Duchess of Argyll’s cream dress was dwarfed by her train, with a fully-spread, wonderfully-ruched, frothy net edge, the whole scattered with appliqued lilies with embroidered edges. VM bridal specialists might add more lilies scattered across a window to underline the matching choice.

Every bride must hope for the transformative power that a wedding dress promises, and with the benefit of hindsight and a knowledge of fashion, we can see how often this hope has strayed from the ‘princess in a white ball-gown’ look. While many of the coat-dress versions were striking, they lost the specialness of the Disney fairy tale, although many offered the opportunity to add a bouquet, as with Geoffrey Beene’s 1970’s version. Again, this an idea that VM bridal retailers might adopt.

The few Cinderella-styles, with their tight bodices and full bouffant skirts, were displayed in large cabinets in the upper gallery. Visible from 360º, several also accommodated a spread train. Even the more restrained styles were generally visible front and back, allowing visitors to note the all-important back details, the view normally seen by the guests for most of the ceremony. A strapless laced-up version finished with a large Minnie-Mouse bow hinted at the famous Madonna image inspired by Mainbocker’s corset photograph and was the most perfect example of these.

Quotations, selected by curator Ewina Ehrman and reproduced on wall panels, added a personal touch, as did video footage of weddings. These devices also divided the relentless appearance of the dresses, which occurs too often in bridal store windows crammed with various white dresses: when planning for a very special day, multiple brides are never a good look.

Multiple pageboys – dressed as Beefeaters, poor things – and bridesmaids are a different topic, and their dresses looked very cute. In addition, the exhibition pays lip service to gay weddings and a few ethnic/global ones, but they are not the main event.

A bridal store has to accommodate far more merchandise than the exhibition does, but the inclusion of videos and photographs brought the displays to life to some extent. The mannequins are tailored without heads or arms so nothing detracts from ‘The Dress’ in a collection of ‘The Dresses,’ although it was interesting occasionally to notice the difference in fit between the bride’s image in a photograph and the same dress on a mannequin.

Lastly, whilst the exhibition is a ‘must-see,’ the best is kept for the last cabinet: Kate Moss’s wedding dress by John Galliano is truly more wonderful in reality than any photograph has shown. No photograph has yet done justice to this lovely, lovely dress, but I’ve included a good one of the hem just to tempt. It was accessorized by Manolo Blahnik shoes with a pale-blue leather insole – Kate’s ‘something blue.’