LOCKPORT– Saying “yes” to the dress is a relatively recent phenomenon. So is wearing white when a woman walks down the aisle.
These and other interesting nuptial facts are being shared during a new exhibit, “Weddings Through the Ages,” which debuted last week in the Col. William Bond/Jesse Hawley House, 143 Ontario St.
The event, curated by Bond-Hawley House co-director Rebecca M. Pittler, showcases more than 50 dresses that Niagara County women have worn to the altar since the late 19th century.
Most are in the collection of the History Center of Niagara, which owns the house, although about a quarter of those on display – generally the more recent ones – were borrowed from private local collections.
“We have a huge collection of wedding dresses,” Executive Director Melissa L. Dunlap said.
“Some of the dresses, I’ll know whose they were. Other ones, I won’t have any idea,” said Pittler, who takes care of the Bond-Hawley House with her mother, Gloria E. Pittler.
The display in the house, built 190 years ago and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is arranged so that the most recent dresses are on the first floor and the oldest are on the third floor. They are laid out on beds, hung from hangers or in many cases, shown on dress forms.
Of course, much of the focus will be on the stylistic differences and similarities as time marched on.
The earliest dresses in the collection are not white. Lockport-area women in the 1880s and 1890s, like their contemporaries, tended to wear a wide variety of colors to their weddings.
Visitors will see blue, gray and dark purple, among other colors, which might cause a 21st century “bridezilla” to fire her wedding planner or, at the very least, pass the garments on to her unfortunate bridesmaids.
Pittler said England’s Queen Victoria wore white to her 1840 wedding and was tended by adult bridesmaids instead of children of relatives. Both choices were cutting-edge and created a sensation that echoes to this day.
“Before Queen Victoria got married in a white wedding dress, you didn’t wear white,” Pittler said. “Her wedding had more influence on wedding traditions than any wedding in history.”
But it took time for the practice of wearing white, which Pittler said was a stylistic move rather than a proclamation of purity, to filter down from British royalty to wealthy Americans and then to the masses.
The display includes the dress of Cordelia Little, a local woman who wore a two-piece cranberry-colored outfit with lace undersleeves in 1898.
It also took a while before the practice of buying a special wedding dress caught on.
“Ladies got married in their best dress. It might be the dress they wore to church on Sundays. Before 1870, you didn’t want to marry anybody in white because that was ghostlike, and you didn’t want to marry a bride who was ghostlike or flighty. People used their best dress to do everything,” Pittler said. “They wore their Sunday best, or you could get married in black, too.”
In the 1920s, wedding dresses rose in common with other hemlines. Flapper-length dresses, worn at or just below the knee, were seen in weddings as well as on the street. “Coco Chanel was the one who officially introduced the short wedding dress,” Pittler said.
Clara Ballentine Lockie’s 1924 dress, seen on the second floor, had a short, narrow train with metal weights inside the hem at the end to keep the train flowing off the short dress.
In the 1930s, “dresses became very form-fitting. That was the style,” Pittler said, pointing out Lorraine Brady’s 1935 wedding dress.
Lorraine Hamilton Grace’s 1933 wedding dress also is on display. It’s pink, which Pittler said would have been unusual for the era. And Lorraine Wendel Few’s 1937 dress had a collar, a floor-length veil and a tremendous train.
During World War II, it was hard to obtain satin, and weddings often were put together on short notice because of servicemen having to depart for duty, so the wedding dress tradition went into mothballs,
“A lot of the wedding dresses worn in this era would have been borrowed or rented. They couldn’t get a wedding dress during World War II,” Pittler said. Heavy satin and long gowns came back later, with sweetheart necklines and wide shoulders. “Some gentlemen brought satin home from European countries for their wives to make wedding dresses,” she said.
Brides of the 1950s wore wider skirts, with tulle netting often used for veils as well as skirt lining. However, the circular skirts in vogue at the time weren’t quite floor-length, as is demonstrated by the dress of Joan Ann Hardiman, who married John Charles Grigg of Lockport in 1952. “None of these are ballerina-length, but ballerina-length was shorter in the 1950s,” Pittler said.
A 1960s veil often was attached to a lacy hat. Pittler said veils tended to be thicker than in the past because of bouffant hairstyles.
High waists also were in style. “This is more of the flowing, free-spirit kind of dress,” Pittler said, pointing to one 1960s example.
In the 1970s, many brides had veils that were longer than their dresses, Pittler said, pointing out an example on display in the Bond-Hawley House’s library.
The display includes some 100-year-old cake toppers and a display on the history of the engagement ring and the “something old, new, borrowed and blue” tradition.
Several of the rooms are set with themed “tablescapes,” including place settings that will be raffled off when the display ends in late October.
The dress show is open Saturdays, Sundays and Mondays from 1 to 4 p.m. A donation is requested.