FASHION : Wedding Finery : She Didn't Always Tie the Knot in Satin and Lace

TIMES STAFF WRITER

You don't have to be a June bride to enjoy a historical retrospective of wedding dresses on exhibit at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

In fact, most modern brides would feel downright dyspeptic in the tightly corseted, crinolined wedding dress popular in 1860 or the wasp-waisted gown in silk faille and satin from 1894. But imagine slipping on a 1907 Jean Philippe Worth gown of gauzy silk with soft flounces and embroidered satin ribbons that echoed the sensuous, stylized lines of Art Nouveau.

Or a Christian Lacroix confection from 1987, which required nine months to make and was inspired by Norma Shearer's 1937 film "Marie Antoinette." With its swept-back overskirts, or panniers, bustle and layered ruffles and train, this ensemble is Parisian couture at its most haute .

"From Fashion to Fantasy: Dressing the American Bride, 1830-1990" displays 21 gowns from the museum's collection. More than just a bevy of pretty dresses, the show, which runs through July 16, traces the historic development of the wedding dress--a relatively recent phenomenon.

Other revelations: White wedding gowns didn't become the fashion until the 1830s, and most brides got married at home until the 1880s. Until this century, many women wed in practical daytime ensembles that saw several years' use. Even back in 1886, an elaborate lace wedding gown cost a staggering $1,500.

Dale Carolyn Gluckman, LACMA's associate curator of costumes and textiles, has assembled period costumes, illustrations from women's magazines of the day and historic scholarship.

It was Queen Victoria's 1840 wedding dress, for example, with its flounces of Honiton lace, that first made the delicate embroidery de rigueur for brides. The queen's motive was financial, not aesthetic: she wanted to boost the English lace-making industry.

The wearing of orange blossoms--a European custom imported to the United States in the late 1830s--perfumed the air as well as symbolized the Virgin Mary, and thus purity.

Moving through the exhibit, one can see historic and cultural trends reflected in the dresses as fashion unfolds.

Wedding attire democratized alongside the country. After the sewing machine came into widespread use and women began to sew at home, wedding dresses took on elaborate detail and heavy fabrics until by the 1880s, they hung with drapery-like material, tassels, fringes and other flourishes.

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Still, the well-heeled bride generally looked to London or Paris for her sartorial inspiration.

"Anyone who could afford it certainly wanted to have a French designer," Gluckman said.

The first tea-length dress in this collection appears in 1921, the dawn of the liberated flapper era. In 1937, acclaimed Hollywood costume designer Adrian evoked screen goddess glamour for actress Jeanette MacDonald's marriage to Gene Raymond with a silk organza, taffeta, linen and lace dress in pinkish white.

A 1947 Christian Dior gown with a fitted bodice and below-calf full skirt exuberantly announced the lifting of textile restrictions after World War II. James Galanos used a visual pun to capture the Flower Power era in 1966 with a white lace wedding dress made entirely of three-dimensional white flowers forming a long sheath with simple lines.

Wedding dresses, which started out mirroring the fashion of the day, edged closer to fantasy as the 20th Century wore on. The wedding gown reached its apotheosis in the bullish '80s, when Wall Street was king.

Consider Tony-award-winning designer William Ivey Long's melding of theater and bridal fantasy in 1983 with a silk satin and lace (with buttons of Austrian crystal) dress whose off-the-shoulder neckline and fitted princess-line bodice mold the torso and evoke 15th-Century English fashion.

Appropriation of earlier styles--from full Medieval costumes to nuns' habits to Renaissance opulence--has been a constant in the fashion world. And bridal gowns are no exception.

Says Gluckman: " 'Twas ever thus."

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