Is There a Museum of Folk?

I don’t know of a museum that specializes in European folk dress – those strange costumes worn for specific carnivals or traditional ceremonies. I am sure European regional museums collect local garments, but wouldn’t it be great to see these pulled together into one spectacular exhibition and catalogue! I don’t even know of any good book that covers this information…

Gilles costume from Carnival of Binche, Belgium – a local festival held in the days leading up to Ash Wednesday where men and boys dressed like the two pictured here, throw oranges to (and at) spectators.


Jester festival commemorating the battle of Murten in 1476 when the Thun army captured Charles the Bold’s court jester. The jester, called Fulehung, chases crowds through the streets of Thun, Switzerland and hands out candy to kids.

Montreal in two days and six exhibitions – Exhibits 2 & 3 – Musee des Beaux Arts

Paco Rabanne outfit for Jane Fonda in Barbarella

The Musee des Beaux Arts has created some phenomenal fashion exhibitions in the past. This is where the amazing Yves St. Laurent retrospective was launched in 2008, as well as where the Jean Paul Gaultier exhibition was conceived and began its long world tour in 2011. This summer it has two exhibitions I wanted to see, although the first was not strictly a fashion exhibition.

Revolution was created in collaboration with the Victoria & Albert museum (modified and expanded for the Quebec audience.) The exhibition looks at consumerism, protests, drugs, concerts, civil rights, sex and everything else that was revolutionary about the late 1960s. Several galleries tell parts of the story in a categorical approach to the topic. The artifacts were spectacular – ranging from John Lennon’s suit from the Sgt. Pepper album cover to the chain mail outfit made by Paco Rabanne for Jane Fonda in Barbarella… really iconic pieces.

The dress on the left is by Thea Porter, but I couldn’t read anything more about it or the caftan next to it because the labels were either illegible or inaccessible due to the crowds in the Woodstock gallery standing in front of the cases

However, this exhibition had some organizational issues. Firstly, the audio sets were just music and added no further information to the show. The labelling was largely unreadable – dark text was often applied to vertical glass, becoming illegible in the dimly lit galleries. Some label information was missing or wrong: A Wiccan robe decorated with silver lurex was identified as dating from 1953 – unlikely as lurex was barely available in 1953, and besides the show was about the 60s, not the 50s. I could find no label to identify a peacock chair, and Greenpeace was not founded in California, but in Vancouver B.C. in 1971.

The show was also not well laid out for accessibility. In the second to last gallery, a massive wall projection of scenes from Woodstock was playing and the floor scattered with large pillows so that visitors could lie down to enjoy the projection. This left a narrow walkway at the back where other visitors stood to watch the film. The problem is they stood in front of the glass cases that had the REAL artifacts worn to Woodstock! Why anyone would waste their time watching clips they can see on Netflix while ignoring the actual garments worn by Roger Daltry, Jimi Hendrix, and Janice Joplin is beyond me!

A variety of Carnaby street fashions including Mick Jagger’s stuffed jumpsuit

Fortunately an exhibition of wedding attire by Jean Paul Gaultier downstairs more than made up for any complaints I had about the Revolution show.

Love is Love is a spectacular exhibition of wedding attire created by Jean Paul Gaultier that includes pieces he has designed over the last twenty-odd years. A massive tiered wedding cake in the middle of the gallery holds the bulk of the dresses and suits, shown in non-traditional pairings, while other unusual wedding outfits line the outer walls that have been covered with a scrim creating ghostly 3D images of chairs and picture frames – the presentation is fantastic.

In one corner is a mannequin on a swing with a massive train that had been the backdrop for the duration of a fashion show, until the wedding dress (traditionally the last image in a fashion show) appeared and the backdrop turned into her train. Gaultier’s clothes always surprise you – there is nothing typical about his work. Superb tailoring stands next to patchwork frou-frou and while some garments appear to be original ideas, others are unapologetically appropriated and reinvented.

The artifacts in Revolution, and the artifacts and presentation in Love is Love are worth seeing. Revolution concludes October 9, and Love is Love ends October 22.

Myth Information – Queen Victoria was the first bride to wear white

English illustration of wedding dress from Ackermann's Repository, June 1816

English illustration of white wedding dress from Ackermann’s Repository, June 1816

Weddings didn’t used to be a big thing. In the 18th century, weddings were usually held in the morning. They consisted of a solemn religious ceremony followed by a wedding breakfast for everyone in attendance at the church – maybe a dozen people. Brides wore their best dress and although white wedding dresses have survived from the 1700’s, they are rare. Most Georgian wedding gowns  are made of anything but white silk: yellow taffeta, brocade green twill, cotton calico…

By the early 19th century the white dress was in fashion – they were the ‘little black dress’ of their day and could be found on the ballroom floor as easily as at the breakfast table. A woman’s best white dress, in cotton or silk, was often used as her wedding dress. Royal brides however, wore gowns that more closely resembled court wear – ornately embroidered in silver thread and having long trains.

Queen Victoria and Prince Albert on their wedding day, February 10, 1840

Queen Victoria and Prince Albert on their wedding day, February 10, 1840

When Victoria married Albert in 1840, it was expected she would wear something regal. Instead, Victoria wore an elegantly simple dress of English-made cream silk with a honiton lace flounce, trim, and veil. Instead of a tiara, she donned a wreath of orange blossoms. The hand-made lace would have cost a fortune even in 1840, and there was a train 18 feet long, but with these exceptions, any middle class bride might otherwise aspire to wearing a silk wedding gown just like Victoria’s.

The white dress went from ‘probable choice’ to ‘mandatory wedding garment’ and the colour given significance. By 1849 the American publication Godey’s Lady’s Book was proselytizing: “Custom has decided, from the earliest ages, that white is the most fitting hue, whatever may be the material. It is an emblem of the purity and innocence of girlhood, and the unsullied heart she now yields to the chosen one.”

Josephine Bonaparte’s engagement ring

d64b9afb-4eb2-4fb6-aaaa-6f7a37b73b60_481110_496244733745644_823198479_nThe diamond and sapphire engagement ring Napoleon Bonaparte gave to Joséphine will go up for auction March 24 at the Osenat auction house in Fontainebleau, France with an estimate of $20,000. The gold ring is set with teardrop-shaped gems, a diamond and sapphire, each approximately one carat in size.

Empress Joséphine was a 32 year old widow and mother of two when the 26 year old Napoleon wed her on March 9, 1796. The general was not yet the self-crowned emperor and did not have a lot of money at the time, which explains the ring’s ordinary style.

Added April 3: The ring sold for $948,000

Trash the Dress

“Trash the Dress’ is a trend that has been around for about a decade, whereby a bride wears her wedding gown for a series of photos after the ceremony that essentially ruin the wedding dress.

My sudden hiatus the past three weeks was due to a publishing deadline I needed to concentrate upon. With that now under control I began contemplating what to blog about when a news snippet caught my eye about a woman drowning in her wedding dress.

In Rawdon, Quebec a recently married bride wanted to be photographed in a “Trash the Dress” photo shoot. This is a trend that apparently started in 1998 after a soap opera character ran into the ocean while wearing her wedding gown. Soon afterwards, brides started having photos taken of themselves wading into the ocean or some other activity that ‘trashed’ the dress. Many images I found online retell the story of Ophelia – the character from Hamlet who goes mad and drowns in a river.

In a tragic twist of fate, this is what happened to the 30-year-old Quebec woman last Friday. Wading into the shallow and calm Ouareau river, the dress became waterlogged, pulling her down and into the current. The photographer and a witness tried to help, but couldn’t save her because the dress became too heavy.

White Trash

Here’s a strange story… Priscilla of Boston, the venerable vender of bridal attire, closed its doors December 30. The company was founded by Priscilla Kidder in 1947 and was sold in 2002 to the May department store chain. Branches were opened across the U.S. but presumably the changing economy and over-expansion has lead to its demise. Normally, when a shop closes, stock is liquidated through an auction or donated to charity, but for some peculiar reason, Priscilla of Boston decided to trash their stock with spray paint and put everything into dumpsters for land fill!


Wedding dress worn July 19, 1947, made from parachute used in 1944. From the collection of the Smithsonian Institute, Washington, D.C.

A reader of my Forties Fashion book sent me a link to a blog about a wedding dress made from a parachute. I have seen, read about or heard of maybe two dozen garments made from parachutes, including underwear, baby clothes, and raincoats, but most of the time it’s wedding dresses that were made from parachutes.

Because of the lack of available material during and immediately following the war, parachute silk (which was rarely ever silk but rather nylon or some other man made material) was used to make civilian clothes. It was illegal to use found parachutes during the war because authorities required them to be turned over for investigation. All of the surviving garments made from parachutes I have seen were made from postwar surplus rather than wartime finds.

This wedding dress was made from the nylon parachute that saved the life of the groom, Major Claude Hensinger. In August 1944, Hensinger, a B-29 pilot, was returning from a bombing raid over Japan, when the engine caught fire and the crew had to bail. Years later, when Hensinger proposed, he offered his bride-to-be the parachute for making her wedding dress. The couple were married July 19, 1947 and the dress was later worn by their daughter and daughter-in-law before being donated to the Smithsonian Institution.

The First Royal White Wedding Dress

Period illustration of the wedding ceremony

On the 10th of February 1840, Queen Victoria wore a dress of white silk satin and Honiton lace to marry Prince Albert. Her choice transformed the growing popularity for a bride to wear a dress of white, a symbol of purity and virginity, into a tradition that continues to this day. She also popularized the wearing of orange blossoms, a symbol of fruitfulness and good luck, that originated in China. A period account of the wedding dress gives the particulars:

The original dress at the Museum of London, sans lace flounce

“Queen Victoria’s dress was of rich white satin, trimmed with orange flower blossoms. The headdress was a wreath of orange flower blossoms, and over this a beautiful veil of Honiton lace, worn down. The bridesmaids or train-bearers were also attired in white. The cost of the lace alone on the dress was £1,000. The satin, which was of a pure white, was manufactured in Spitalfields. Queen Victoria wore an armlet having the motto of the Order of the Garter: “Honi soit qui mal y pense,” inscribed. She also wore the star of the Order.

Portrait of Victoria in her wedding gown without the wedding accessories

The lace of Queen Victoria’s bridal dress, though popularly called Honiton lace, was really worked at the village of Beer, which is situated near the sea coast, about ten miles from Honiton. It was executed under the direction of Miss Bidney, a native of the village, who went from London, at the command of her Majesty, for the express purpose of superintending the work. More than two hundred persons were employed upon it from March to November, during the past year.

Victoria in her wedding gown, with some alterations including the lace flounce removed

The lace which formed the flounce of the dress, measured four yards, and was three quarters of a yard in depth. The pattern was a rich and exquisitely tasteful design, drawn expressly for the purpose, and surpasses anything that has ever been executed either in England or in Brussels. So anxious was the manufacturer that Queen Victoria should have a dress perfectly unique, that she has since the completion of the lace destroyed all the designs. The veil, which was of the same material, and was made to correspond, afforded employment to the poor lace workers for more than six weeks. It was a yard and a half square.”

Following the wedding, the dress was worn for several portraits, altered or accessorized differently for each. The honiton lace flounce was removed from the dress soon after the wedding but was worn again for an official photograph taken late in life.

The dress and the flounce are now held in the Museum of London collection. The dress is currently undergoing restoration for an exhibition at Kensington Palace on Queen Victoria, to open in March 2012.

Fashion Hall of Obscurity – Joe Allen Hong

With the upcoming royal wedding I thought it might be interesting to look at some other famous royal wedding dresses…

The dress worn by Grace Kelly on April 19, 1956 to marry Prince Rainier III of Monaco was a gift from MGM, the studio where Grace Kelly had been contracted. Kelly still had a seven year contract outstanding with the studio when she left to marry Rainier. In exchange for breaking the contract, MGM was granted permission to film the wedding — a decision Princess Grace later wished she had not agreed to due to the invasiveness of the cameras. A perk of the deal included a wedding dress designed by MGM costume designer Helen Rose, but the rest of the bridal party’s clothes were designed by Joe Allen Hong, the subject of this installment of the ‘obscurier couturier.’

Joe Allen Hong was born in El Paso, Texas on November 28, 1930 and attended the California College of Arts and Crafts. After a short stint in the army, he landed a job as a fashion designer for Neiman Marcus.

At the urging of Lawrence Marcus, Hong entered a competition to design the bridesmaid and flower girl’s dresses for the royal wedding, and won! The pale yellow dresses were demure and in keeping with the royal status of the wedding dress. The flower girl’s dresses were embroidered with tiny floral sprigs, in keeping with the spring time date of the wedding.

Hong eventually settled in San Francisco where his designing talent extended beyond the realm of fashion to include everything from posters to the gift box design for Joseph Magnin Co. Hong died on February 28, 2004.

Book Reviews: Victorian Wedding Dresses and Sunbonnets

(Originally blogged March 10, 2010)

I am often sent books to review and recently two books came in the mail from Texas Tech University Press:

Victorian Wedding Dress in the United States is part of the ‘History through Paper Doll’ series, written by Mei Campbell and illustrated by Norma Lu Meehan. The 32 page book includes 20 dresses and 3 paper dolls and sells for a reasonable $12.95 (or less). My only criticism of the book is that I am not sure who it is intended for. The paper doll gimmick suggests a youth audience was in mind but the libretto, which includes good information about the history of the white wedding gown, is written for a sophisticated reader with a good vocabulary and understanding of dressmaking terms (capacious, polonaise, basque.) Both the illustrations and text are well done but together they create a book that must struggle to find a market.

The Sunbonnet: An American Icon in Texas is written by Rebecca Jumper Matheson. The 256 page book is listed at $29.95 (or less) and includes illustrations from several collections that trace the origins of the sunbonnet from the late 18th century to its last vestiges in the mid 20th century. The greatest difficulty for writing a book about the history of the sunbonnet must have been locating the scant research and period references – everyday non-fashionable garments worn by rural women simply didn’t get a lot of press in their day. The book is an easy read and utilizes a variety of resources and interviews. The only thing I am not convinced of is its specific geographical significance to Texas. Sunbonnets were certainly worn well into the 1930s throughout the agricultural south and mid-west as well as in the Canadian Prairies.

The book is excellent and unique on the topic and should become a part of any library relevant to millinery history.