Unveiled: Wedding Dress of the Week

This week marks the conclusion of Wedding Dress of the Week, as Unveiled: 200 years of Wedding Fashion from the Victoria and Albert Museum, London finishes at Te Papa on Sunday.

My final wedding dress pick is one of the most admired dresses not actually in the exhibition - that is except in photographic form. It’s the splendid white cotton organdie and poplin gown that adorns the cover of curator Edwina Ehrman’s accompanying book, Wedding Dress: 300 Years of Bridal Fashions.

Wedding Dress: 300 Years of Bridal Fashions. The cover features an exquisite photograph by John French of a Hardy Amies gown, 1953.

The gown was designed by leading British designer Hardy Amies, and wistfully photographed by John French (1907-1966), who has been described as ‘the man who brought a new glamour to fashion photography’ in the 1950s. When you view his archive you certainly can see why. (Thankfully following French’s untimely death, his wife Vere Dunning had the foresight to gift his archive to the V&A.)

Edwina had long admired John French’s ‘poised but very innovative fashion photographs’ and had been aware of this stunning photograph of Myrtle Crawford modelling a Hardy Amies wedding dress for some time. As such, it was a natural candidate for the cover of the book.

The gown was not originally made for a bride, but for a fashion show organised by the Cotton Board, a short-lived Manchester-based pressure group dedicated to the promotion of cotton in fashion. The Cotton Board regularly commissioned evening and cocktail gowns from leading English and French designers for promotional parades. Their aim was to demonstrate that cotton could be just as glamorous as silk or rayon. This obviously applied to bridal wear as well, for Amies designed this wedding dress for ‘This Year of Cotton’, a parade held at the Hyde Park Hotel, London on May 29 in 1953.

Last week we learned that the Cotton Board and Hardy Amies were successful in inspiring at least one bride to choose cotton for her wedding dress. Not only did the bride choose white cotton organdie, she had an exact copy of Hardy Amies’ dress made. The bride was Suzanne Cotter of Blenheim, New Zealand, who married Walter Lascelles Hill of the influential Christchurch based wool-buying and scouring firm Walter Hill & Sons.

Suzanne discovered a photograph of the dress in a magazine, and took it to Mrs Pooley, a popular Christchurch dressmaker who specialised in bridal wear and ball gowns.

Suzanne Hill (nee Cotter) wearing Mrs Pooley’s skillful copy of Hardy Amies’ design in 1954. Photograph courtesy of the Hill family.

It has to be said, that Mrs Pooley did both the bride and Hardy Amies proud as this wedding photograph of Suzanne shows. Even the photograph, while set in a suburban garden with a telegraph pole in the background, bears a hint of French’s stylish studio shot.

In the 1980s Suzanne’s wedding dress received a second outing at her son Nicholas’ wedding. The gown was worn by Suzanne’s future daughter-in-law Cindy (nee Heard) at their Hamner Springs wedding. In the heady 80s, when shoulder pads and pouf were in, Amies’ design and Mrs Pooley’s workmanship proved timeless.

Newly weds, Nick and Cindy Hill. Cindy wears her mother-in-law’s gown. Photograph courtesy of the Hill family.

Imagine Suzanne and her family’s surprise when they first saw the cover of Edwina’s book!

While we have been delighted to find such a wonderful copy of Hardy Amies’ dress on this side of the world – proof of the impact of international magazines – back in England another exciting discovery has been made.  When Edwina chose the John French image for the book’s cover, she did not dream that the dress itself could possibly still exist - we’ve all been on those fruitless curatorial hunts.  Recent detective work, however, has revealed that the original gown not only exists, but is in good condition and just as stunning in real life as in French’s photograph.

The volume of the skirt is amazing – it is big, big, big and the size of the waist quite tiny’.

Edwina Ehrman

After the Cotton Board fizzled out in the late 1960s, their collection of designer garments, including Hardy Amies’ cotton organdie wedding gown, made their way into the collection of Manchester City Galleries. Fittingly for a city famed for its textile industries, the gallery boasts one of Britain’s best costume collections. Edwina hopes that V&A will be able to borrow the gown for their showing of the exhibition in 2014.

‘Wedding Dress of the Week’ is posted in association with Unveiled: 200 Years of Wedding Fashion from the Victoria and Albert Museum, London which is on display at Te Papa until 22 April.

Claire Regnault – Senior Curator History

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