Amarriage may be expected to endure until “death do us part,” but a wedding dress has a far shorter shelf life. Most brides wear their gowns only once — on their wedding day —and a few years later their gowns, like their other clothes, have fallen out of fashion.
An exhibit now on display at the Pasadena Museum of History illustrates the changing fads and fashions of wedding gowns. “I Do! I Do! Pasadena Ties the Knot,” featuring 42 gowns worn between 1850 and 1950. This exhibit, on view through July 14, is the first of two shows; the second exhibit, featuring gowns from 1950 to the present day, will be presented from Aug. 2 through Oct. 2.
The museum has combed its 3,000-piece costume and textile collection to select the wedding gowns. Four curators, including two volunteers, spent two years researching and photographing the 70 gowns in the collection before choosing the dresses. In addition to the gowns, the exhibit chronicles the evolution of Pasadena wedding ceremonies with vintage wedding photographs, news clippings and gifts presented to brewer Adolphus and Lilly Busch on the occasion of their 50th wedding anniversary in 1911. The couple moved to Pasadena in 1904 and bought a mansion on Orange Grove Avenue’s Millionaires Row, where they spent their winters.
The words “wedding gown” conjure images of a long white dress. But the oldest dress in the exhibit belies this stereotype. On the day of her wedding to George Bingham in 1859, Lottie Bell Mathewson wore a silk taffeta gown, with alternating horizontal woven strips in shades of salmon and blue gray. Her dress featured a wide hoop skirt, common to 1850s wedding gowns, and originally had a bustle in the back. Lottie’s son, George Bingham Jr., was an architect with the Pasadena-based firm of Marston, Van Pelt and Maybury.
Most of the gowns in the exhibit are in more conventional shades of white and beige. White became the desired color in 1840, when Queen Victoria garnered worldwide attention by wearing a white lace dress with a long train at her wedding to Prince Albert. Victorian-era gowns were elaborate creations, with hoops and numerous crinolines worn underneath the dress to create a voluminous look and tiny, wasp waists that often required the bride to wear corsets and other undergarments. By the 1890s, the sleeves of wedding gowns had ballooned to enormous proportions.
At the beginning of the 20th century, brides were covered from head to toe in layers of lace and silk, with high collars held in place by bones, long sleeves and gloves to hide their arms and corsets that pushed the hips backward and the bust forward. The 1901 dress worn by Susie Markham exemplifies this trend. Her floor-length beige gown is made of silk chiffon and silk satin lace and features a pleated chiffon bodice overlain with lace, as well as individually hand-knit pearls on the sleeves and bust. Susie was the niece of Henry Harrison Markham, governor of California from 1891 to 1895 and a founder of the Pasadena Public Library.
In the 1920s, wedding dresses shed their modesty to reflect the more liberated flapper era. Gowns were shorter and, in contrast to earlier styles, deemphasized bust lines and narrow waists, eliminating the need for tight corsets. Dorothy Underwood was married in 1924 in a cream-colored silk gown adorned with fake pearls and beads. She wore matching colored shoes made of leather, wood and satin and decorated with faux orange blossoms. In addition to Underwood’s gown, the exhibit features several other dresses from the 1920s, as well as the sweeping, body-conscious gowns of 1930s.
During World War II, when silk and other materials were rationed, wedding gowns were made of less expensive fabrics, and some brides wore two-piece suits instead of the traditional dress. However, Sally Stanton Rubsaman, the 1941 Rose Queen, wore a more intricate dress with a hoop skirt when she was married at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church on June 29, 1944. The dress, she recalled, “was purchased at J. W. Robinsons for $100 — a tidy sum, as my father thought, to be spent, rather frivolously in war time!”
By the 1950s, Rosie the Riveter of the war years was back in the home, and the cult of femininity and modesty had returned to the wedding ceremony. Wedding gowns once again sported huge skirts, worn with crinolines underneath, exaggerated bosoms and small, corseted waists.
The Pasadena History Museum is at 470 W. Walnut St., Pasadena. It is open Wednesday through Sunday from noon to 5 p.m., and tickets can be purchased at the museum store, $7 general admission, $6 students and seniors, free for members and children under 12. For more information, call 626-577-1660 or visit the Web site at pasadenahistory.org.