By Kes Murray, Registrar
A few month ago, our curator, Melissa, came to me with a research request. She said she had a dress that no one could figure out. No one knew what year it was created or worn in. Some decades were suggested, but nothing concrete could be put with the dress. It was a cream coloured satin dress, supposedly a wedding dress, as that was what it appeared to be. But that was all. As an enthusiast of historic fashions, I was fascinated with this mystery and took on the challenge.
The research itself took some weeks of pouring over wedding dress books and other museums’ online collections. I hit gold on the Metropolitan Museum’s online collection. I came across an almost identical dress. The dress was a 1931-1933 wedding ensemble, created by Best & Co, made of silk, cotton, and wax. It had the same cut on the bodice, and was even in a similar colour. I now knew that our wedding dress was from the 1930s.
My research ended with a fairly good idea of 1930s wedding dresses.
1937 Wedding Ensemble and neck detail (020.8.1 & 020.8.2)
Fashions from the 1930s were a continuation and a contrast to 1920s fashions. In the 1920s, women fashions were quite distinct, with their boxy, figureless silhouettes. Towards the end of the 1920s, silhouettes began to hug the body, emphasizing the curves of the hips. This would flow into the 1930s, with silhouettes hugging the body, emphasizing the natural shape of women’s bodies.
The contrast to 1920s fashions is that of glamour. Many fashion historians call 1930s women’s fashions a more mature, elegant and feminine silhouette when compared to 1920s fashions. The 1930s is the golden era of Hollywood and the ‘silver screen,’ with influential actresses such as Greta Garbo, Mae West, Jean Harlow, and Joan Crawford wearing memorable fashions, and many imitations were made and sold world-wide. New fabrics were used, such as velvet, wool crêpes, silk satins, lames, and many other artificial or “knock off” luxurious fabrics made clothing more elegant looking.
As for wedding dresses, as with typical 1930s fashion, they were designed to complement the sculptural female body. They draped along the body but had been cut and sewn in certain areas as to emphasize the natural shape. Our wedding dress has a bias cut beneath the bust, which means it has been cut on an angle. This allows the dress to emphasize the bust and to flow down along the hips. It is made of satin or some sort of silk imitation. As well, the dress comes with a floral necklace, which is secured along the collar with a series of clasps. All together, the dress creates a rather elegant image. After all my research had accomplished, it seemed that it may have been in vain, as Melissa found the original information that came in with the dress.
In her book, The Wedding Dress: 300 Years of Bridal Fashions, Edwina Ehrman wrote something that stood out to me. She says: “Wedding dresses were prolonged by tailoring…also passed down within families.” In our dress, I noticed that the dress had been altered. The bust line had been shortened. This got me curious about the things our families keep and pass down. Perhaps the original wearer of the wedding dress gave it to a family member who had it tailored? Of all the possibilities that ran through my head, I kept coming back to my own family and our wedding dresses.
My grandmother’s wedding dress fifty years later. My grandmother, Donna Jean, on her wedding day, with her parents Marion and Harold Lang, December 1957, in St. Mary’s, Ontario.
Some years ago, my grandmother gave me her wedding dress. When I got it, I immediately tried it on. It fit but just barely. If I were to get married in her dress, there are definitely some things that would need adjusting.
Another family wedding dress is that of my great-aunt’s. On June 5, 1954, my great-uncle Ron married Birthe Simonsen. The same dress that Birthe wore was given to my great aunt Shirley when she married on August 20, 1955. Then, the dress was given to Shirley’s daughter Chris when she married on July 2, 1983. I was fascinated and continue to be fascinated by the amount of women in my family who have worn the same wedding dress throughout so many years.
My great aunt Shirley on her wedding day, August 20, 1955. My grandmother, Donna Jean, is on the far right. My great aunt Shirley’s daughter, Chris, in her mother’s wedding dress.
Why do we keep family wedding dresses? While so many reasons come to mind, I can only think of the significance we place on the person who wore the dress. Wearing their dress would be a way to remember them and share a special day with someone who may not be here anymore. As I am sure is the case for many heirloom dresses, after each year or decade, they become more special and highlight that piece of family history.
Special thank you to my family members who helped with the family research: Chris Henderson, Meggen Janes, Suzanne Janes, and Donna Jean Lang.
Ehrman, E. (2011). The Wedding Dress. London: V & A Publishing.
Fiell, C. (2021). 1930s Fashion: The Definitive Sourcebook. Welbeck Publishing Group.