Vintage gown exhibition shows history of weddings
BETHEL, Conn. (AP) — Gail Furniss flips to another page in the photo album and another quartet of photographs encased behind a plastic sheath. Here are some of the first brides she ministered to, who wanted huge bows, cathedral trains, puffy sleeves, oversized shoulders and high necklines when it came time to walk down the aisle.
“Look at all those bows,” she says, smiling, as she makes her way, page by page, through the early years of her Bethel shop. Furniss opened Occasions Bridal in 1987, just six years after one of the 20th century’s most watched weddings. “I think Lady Di really elevated the whole fairy-tale wedding idea. I was in bridal at the time and there was such a buzz.”
Understandably so, Furniss sees the bridal gown as crucial in manifesting that magical feeling to the proceedings. It is a special frock, one that in contemporary times is rarely worn again, yet the wearer is loath to part with it. “It truly is a life-changing dress, because once you are married, your life is never the same.”
Furniss has watched as bridal fashion has changed to reflect clients’ tastes and personalities. From the high necks and long sleeves of 30 years ago, to the short sleeves and off-the-shoulder look of the 1990s, and on to the sleeveless gowns, then tanks and strapless, and finally, sleeves again. She is a firm believer in the adage, what is old is new again. She could have kept this to herself, but as her 30th anniversary approached, Furniss wanted to share in her success and celebrate with her customers. Why not put on a show about wedding gowns through the decades?
Last week, fashionistas, romantics and history buffs wandered through more than 100 years of wedding fashion at the Bethel Historical Society. Many of the very dresses Furniss watched head out her door are back, steamed and ready for display, along with other donations from women in the community who felt their dresses could be part of the story. A series of photographs will be on display, too, the only vestiges of the wedding finery of women from the late 1800s and early 1900s.
“I tried very hard to get a wedding suit, but, of course, they are not around because women wore them again,” Furniss says. There were other times in history, say during the Depression, when women simply wore a fancy dress, or the nicest dress in their closet, because that was all they could afford. Those frocks are long gone, too, many having been worn until threadbare or used to create other pieces of clothing.
On a recent morning, a couple of weeks before the exhibition opened, Furniss was getting the last of the photographs together, as well as steaming and prepping donations. One of the photos set for display is that of a bride and groom, sitting in their Sunday best, while their wedding party surrounds them in outfits of a similar style.
“That’s Gilbert and Bessie,” says Sharon Shea, of her maternal grandmother and grandfather, who were married in England. Shea, who works in the store, not only donated the photo, but a pair of dresses — hers and her mom Doreen’s. Both were made by the latter. Shea, who was married in 1991, conceived the streamlined, classic gown and put it to paper, which she sent off to her mother, who lives in Hampshire, England.
Ironically, in an exhibit about the passage of years, Shea’s dress is an example of how every bride gets to make the decision as to whether she wants to follow the prevailing fashion or create a timeless look. “I wanted an elegant, non-trendy dress. I didn’t want a design that would date it.”
Several inches behind Shea’s slim, off-the-shoulder, shantung silk gown is her mother’s. With its clean lines, white cotton lace and expert stitching, it could easily be at home in a wedding today for a bride whose fashion sense is a bit more modest and not so sheer. Such is the conundrum of bridal fashions, and one that Furniss hopes becomes evident once all the dresses are together and on display. With every passing decade, designers reach back to borrow popular styles and details and make them fresh for the next generation.
“People for years used to say to me, “Oh, you know, a wedding gown is a wedding gown; they don’t change that much,” she says, laughing. “I’d want to say of course they do.”
Today’s brides are across the map. Some want to get married in a barn or at a beach, others want that huge ballroom spectacle. For the former, it is a matter of finding a comfortable and casual dress that still elevates its wearer above all the other guests. For the latter, Furniss makes sure to stock quintessential fairy-tale gowns. “It is such a wide range. And it is even broader now than it has been in the past.”
Although the exhibition marked her anniversary, Furniss has reminded so many other people of their weddings, whether or not it is their actual anniversary.
“I am honored to be a part of such an exciting time in people’s lives. And I really wanted to share that with my customers — to thank them. I wanted to do something for the public that would be meaningful.”