April 30, 2014

{All Dressed in Vintage White}

Dear Bride-to-Be:
As a costume historian, I often write articles and give talks on a particular fashion from the past and tell stories not only about how it expressed a woman’s style, but also her personal sense of creativity—and how it influenced wedding fashion of that era.

Like the ├╝ber feminine white “lingerie dresses” popular in the late 1890s into the 19-teens which, ironically, “deftly impersonated a Victorian lady’s ‘unmentionables’” as author Kristina Seleshanko explained.* These dresses were filmy white confections—usually sheer cotton lawn or batiste, even tissue silk—deliciously trimmed with inserts of lace, floral embroidery, and tiny pin-tucks and worn as special-occasion dresses for warm weather soirees and ceremonies (even for outings at the beach!)
Fashionable with laced-up corsets underneath for a hourglass or S-curve silhouette and lushly up-swept ‘Gibson Girl’ hairstyles, high-society ladies wore fancy varieties of “lingerie dresses” to Ascot, spring boat races, or just to promenade in the park, topped with large elaborate hats. But these “little white dresses” were very democratic; with the popularity of the sewing machine, most all women (young and old) were able to wear some version of the favored frock. They also became de rigueur for tea-dances, graduations and other rites-of-passage ceremonies—even as a wedding dress since they were often an Edwardian middle-class girl’s “best dress.”

A bride of the time would add some “bridal-ey” accessories for her wedding day like a wreath of wax orange blossoms as well as tiny bouquets of them pinned here and there on her dress. She would also wear a gossamer tulle or lace veil—perhaps one that had been her mother’s—and of course she’d carry a bouquet of fresh flowers and herbs.

When I had my bridal art-to-wear store in Atlanta in the 1980s and 90s, my designers restored many of these old “lingerie dresses” that I’d found searching antique markets and fairs. Sometimes they were for brides, sometimes for her attendants, but always for someone who had a special eye for such vintage beauty. It was as though you could feel the intimacy of the intricate needlework detail…like you became a part of their feminine legacy.

What are you wearing for your wedding? It may be a brand-new, gorgeous designer creation; or a special gown borrowed from a friend or found at a gently-worn shop; or perhaps it’s indeed a rare vintage dress from another era with its own unique story to tell of romance and mystery! Whatever you’re wearing, remember to add your personal touch that includes a bit of old-fashioned spirit and a heart full of love.

Love. Listen. Let go.
…with love from Cornelia

*ps: Read more about “lingerie dresses” on Kristina’s delightful Vintage Connection website.
[Top photo: Courtesy of Historic Mobile Preservation Society]

April 16, 2014

{Being Old-Fashioned, Downton Abbey Style}

Dear Bride-to-Be:
One of my favorite bridal historians, British writer Ann Monsarrat, talked about how old “innocent superstitions...just for fun” became wedding “traditions” in Victorian times. Although most wedding customs have ancient roots back to the days of arranged marriages (like “the superstition that the bride and groom should not meet on their wedding day until they do so at the altar”), it was the sentimental Victorians who made them part of the “rules” of wedding etiquette. And even if a tad old-fashioned, some traditions stayed around while others disappeared in the regimented practicality guiding many weddings today.

It reminds me of the episode of Downton Abbey in season three when Martha Levinson, Cora’s very avant garde American mother played by Shirley Maclaine, arrives for Lady Mary’s wedding. At dinner the night before the ceremony, Violet, the other grandmother (Maggie Smith’s witty character, the proper Dowager Countess) tells Martha that Matthew won’t be dining with them since it’s “bad luck” for the groom to see the bride. Martha teases them about following such old-fashioned notions: “It’s 1920 for heaven’s sake!”

However, old-fashioned or not, keeping some traditions just brings out the sweetness in us! Remember the Downton Abbey scene later that night when Matthew slips into the Abbey to apologize to Mary and—with her slightly opened bedroom door between them—asks for a reconciliation kiss. After a pause, Mary softens and smiles: “Only if you close your eyes…it’s bad luck to see me before the wedding.” (He does, she doesn’t, and they seem even more in love when they meet at the altar the next morning!)

Now I can appreciate the benefits of being practical as much as the next fellow; and I understand that the current practice of taking photographs of all the wedding party before the ceremony is indeed “practical.” But don’t you think it spoils some of the romantic mystery?

Ann Monsarrat told this charming “groom not seeing the bride” story around the 1893 wedding of a future king and queen: 

…when Princess May of Teck and the Duke of York caught sight of each other from opposite ends of one of the long, long corridors of Buckingham Palace on their marriage morning, they took it as a happy sign. They were a constrained couple, always writing to explain how much they loved each other and apologising that they could not actually say so; both were warmed by the brief encounter. The Duke, according to Queen Mary’s official biographer ‘swept her a low and courtly bow. This gesture she never forgot.’

Certain old-fashioned notions may be worth saving—especially if they inspire such courtliness and tender memories. And in our “let it all hang out” modern world, they may prove absolutely essential in keeping some of our “mystery” intact—and a woman’s mystery never goes out of fashion and sometimes romance needs a bit of old-fashioned nudging.

Love. Listen. Let go.
...with love from Cornelia    

ps: I can’t mention Downton Abbey without reminding you that I’m speaking at the glorious Winterthur Museum next month during their Downton Abbey costume exhibition. Come join me...I think you’ll love my topic: “Vintage Inspiration: The Brides of Downton Abbey."