The Jewish Museum recently opened a small but evocative exhibition showcasing the history of Jewish weddings in Britain from the 1880s to the mid-twentieth century. When walking through the exhibition I came across intimate, precious and rare objects relating to weddings that ranged from a local Jewish matchmaker’s recorded notes to bills for wedding cakes and other hefty expenses. The exhibition is formatted chronologically, and charts the evolution of Jewish weddings with reference to seminal historical and cultural events such as the two World Wars and the shift from predominantly arranged marriages to the custom of courtship that became popularized in the 1920s.
For an exhibition documenting the changes within the traditions of Jewish weddings over several decades, I was struck by a remarkable sense of continuity that linked the marital photographs and videos from disparate times. I was bombarded with a plethora of images that invariably featured a blushing bride wearing a white dress and armed with a veil, bouquet of flowers and, of course, a smile. The fashion rhetoric belonging to weddings is evidently deeply entrenched in tradition, as the white, fancy, and long gown continues to be mainstay of the celebratory ritual in contemporary times. Of course, the evolution of trends has inevitably resulted in modifications to the wedding dress in terms of cut, length and fabric. The general silhouette and colour, however, have astonishingly remained virtually the same. For instance, upon examining a wedding dress from 1905 displayed in the museum, I could not help but establish stylistic parallels between my conception of the contemporary white wedding dress and the clearly outdated one situated before me. This dress is, in fact, not a single garment but a silk ensemble consisting of a blouse, belt, skirt and petticoat. Richly ornate, the ruched sleeves and ruffled neck of the blouse are echoed in the matching long skirt with interchanging panels of ruffles and intricate lace details, culminating with several frilled layers at the bottom. While the outfit’s separate pieces and excess of materials render it firmly embedded in its past historical context, the modern day wedding dress is merely a pared down version – conventionally a singular dress rather than an ensemble, often containing minor lace or ruched detailing.
The white wedding dress was first popularized in the Victorian era and has persisted throughout centuries, becoming a crucial component of the white wedding phenomenon pervading Western culture. In this vein, although the exhibition focuses exclusively on Jewish weddings in Britain, the static nature of marital fashion fosters a sense of universality, as the fancy white wedding dress’ ubiquity cuts across national, ethnic and class divides.