Object Biography: The Wedding Dress
by Jaiya Anka, PhD Candidate, Co-curator
Dress serves as one of the most important markers of cultural identity (Barnes and Eicher, 1992). And, perhaps more than any other, it is the wedding garment that is the most evocative of dress modes. Life Stories features a traditional Crow wedding robe by the late artist Winona Yellowtail Plenty Hoops (1917-2012) and a Japanese wedding dress ensemble, as well as a provocative photograph by Nina Raginsky of a bride in front of St. Joseph’s Oratory in Montreal. Entrenched in cultural traditions, such wedding attire – and especially the bride’s dress (Foster and Johnson, 2003) – participates in a complex set of interlocking relationships: uniting a couple in marriage, it also binds families and societies together. While meaning may change across time and place, wedding attire proves to be both highly adaptable and cherished deeply, imbued with a rich and symbolic language. Wedding garments that figure prominently in unions across cultures, genders, and sexualities reveal the dynamic nature of culture, wedding rituals, and the values, hopes, and dreams of the couple and their communities.
The choice of what the couple wears for their wedding follows both the spirit of their cultural traditions and their individual worldviews. For example, today a Japanese wedding ceremony may be Shinto, Christian, Buddhist, or non-religious. Both of the main forms of Japanese weddings – the traditional Shinto wedding and the “white wedding,” a version of Christian wedding traditions – are popular in Japan.1 Japanese wedding rituals often incorporate items that have strong symbolic meaning. Because of its strength and simplicity, for instance, bamboo represents both prosperity and purity, while the mizuhiki knot given at Japanese weddings is often shaped like a crane. Since cranes mate for life, they represent good fortune, longevity, and peace in the marriage.
The Japanese wedding gown on display in Life Stories is embroidered and stylised with cranes, greenery, and water with metallic threading in gold and silver. The stitching techniques employed in the embroidery increase the reflection of light, lending radiance to an auspicious landscape. Uchikake is the term for a formal style of wedding robe traditionally worn by upper class women for the wedding ceremony itself. Unlike more familiar kimono styles, the Uchikake is made to be worn open over the bride’s kimono2 rather than fastened.
The furisode (“swinging sleeves”) or Japanese underdress is a type of kimono with long sleeves, worn by unmarried or young women. This style emerged among the upper and wealthy merchant class in the middle to late Edo period (1603-1868). This kimono design was created with a dye technique known as yuzen, or hand-painted by brush. The base colour of red is a favourite festive colour a young woman’s kimono. This furisode was likely made in the late 1920s to 1930s, along with the Uchikake, as part of the wedding ensemble. One of the motifs featured on this furisode is the chrysanthemum (“Kiku-mon”), one of the favoured design motifs in Japanese culture for more than 900 years.3
The traditional wedding robe created by Plenty Hoops (Crow, Apsaalooke culture, Montana USA) is constructed from elk hide and multi-coloured beading. Such special garments communicate the status and wealth of the wearer along with the artistry and knowledge of Plenty Hoops whose work is considered truly one-of-a-kind – the artist learned traditional ways from her grandmother and did not follow patterns or keep written records.
Plenty Hoops was considered to be one of the finest traditional Crow beaders and the elk hide used in this piece was tanned by the artist in the traditional manner. This style of robe would have been given as a wedding gift by the groom’s family to the bride-to-be, celebrating the uniting of the couple and a family’s acceptance of its new member. The giving of clothing is meant to extend a gesture of welcome and acceptance and to honour that individual.4
While there is a variety of meanings and cultural uses for bridalwear, there are also striking commonalities. For instance, many communities require the bride to wear items which symbolize the hope for a successful union – one of luck, good fortune, health, and happiness. In fact, the wedding dress itself may form its own kind of talisman. In addition, the symbolism of colour in the bride’s wedding dress appears nearly universal. The long-familiar use of white for the more traditional bridal gown, as we see in the photograph by Nina Raginsky, symbolizes the idea of “purity” in many European and North American rituals, and reflects the tenacious power of English Victorian society throughout many parts of the world today.
While a few historic women wore white gowns to the altar over the centuries – including Mary Queen of Scots in 1558 – it wasn't until Queen Victoria debuted a white silk-spun gown at her wedding to Prince Albert in 1840 that the look really took hold. Coincident with this event was the advent of the medium of photography, which was accompanied by the significant reach of illustrated magazines. White then became the colour of choice and it was Christianity’s association of white with purity and innocence that formed an important symbol. Even today, the white wedding dress has lingering connotations of virginity and it is worn by brides of many faiths across the world. While the religious associations of the white dress remain significant, for women of different faiths it can be a symbol of modernity, wealth, status and romantic love (Ehrwin, 2011).
During the 1960s, a period when traditional values were challenged, the institution of marriage was increasingly questioned. The bride pictured in Raginsky’s black and white photograph (ca. 1968) appears to have opted for a more traditional Christian wedding. Yet, the image seems to question such values for the woman herself is nearly invisible, dwarfed by the church looming in the background, subsumed by the volume of her dress and veil and the expanse of space around her. We can only guess at how she might be feeling. Do you think she is subscribing to a more traditional ceremony or flouting more modern trends? By the end of the 1960s, wedding dresses, like the trends of fashion in general, reflected a renewed interest in historical styles which included lace, frills and flounces.
The link between contemporary fashion and wedding clothes was revitalized in the early 1990s. Although white remained fashionable, it was not considered the only stylish colour fit for a wedding dress. Through the first two decades of the twenty-first century, social and technological developments – particularly the internet – have had a considerable impact on wedding fashions. With intense media coverage, the public is able to engage further with celebrity weddings and this has bolstered the demand for designs that draw upon celebrity wedding gowns. Celebrity culture and world trade are also interconnected, with internationalism impacting both design and manufacture. Further, environmental concerns prompt new ways of making fashion more sustainable to challenge the idea of the dress for a day. The growth in civil partnership ceremonies along with the advent of same-sex couples entering into state-sanctioned unions has also influenced wedding fashion – as a more recent development, the ceremony has no predetermined pattern of dress, perhaps giving participants a greater degree of fashion freedom.
1 While the word “tradition” may communicate a certain static quality, customs are in fact constantly changing to reflect different goals and values.
2 The kimono is a universal garment for women, men and children for all occasions. This was the only garment Japanese people wore until the turn of the twentieth century. While the roots of kimono can be traced back millennia, the recognizable form emerged in the Japanese “Golden Age,” the Heian period (794-1185). Today kimono remains a vital element of Japanese identity.
3 Information on the kimono and the Japanese wedding robe and underdress was kindly provided by email to the author by Hitomi Harama, August 4, 2020.
4 Insights into the traditional Crow wedding robe were sourced from the Legacy Gallery archives. Additional information was provided by Lauren Peterson, University of Victoria alumni, Metis Nation, BC.
References and Further Reading:
Barnes, Ruth and Joanne B. Eicher, eds. Dress and Gender: Making and Meaning in Cultural Contexts, Oxford: Berg, 1992.
Brennan, Summer. “A Natural History of the Wedding Dress.” September 27, 2017. https://daily.jstor.org/a-natural-history-of-the-wedding-dress/ (Accessed 3 July 2020.)
Ehrman, Edwina. The Wedding Dress: 300 Years of Bridal Fashions. London: V&A Publishing, 2011.
Foster, Helen Bradley and Donald Clay Johnson, eds. Wedding Dress Across Cultures. Oxford and New York: Berg, 2003.
Leeds-Hurwitz, Wendy. Wedding as Text: Communicating Cultural Identity Through Ritual. New Jersey and London: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2002.