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Wearing Our Ideals - an Introduction

Photographs of wedding dresses of Leontine McPhillips, Mary Lee Hartzell, and Anna Langdell

Some people, when they walk into this room, will see romance, beauty, tradition, history, and even fantasy. Indeed, American popular culture holds weddings in high regard, with images of weddings appearing throughout the mass media on a regular basis. Others will enter here with  a different, more critical perspective, where the objects here may represent sexism, heterosexism, racism, classism, and issues of church vs. state. How can the same objects simultaneously represent the fantasies of some, and the criticisms of others? Objects so laden with symbolism, so interwoven with our politics, so present in the mass media, can't help but have different meanings to different people.

For some of the brides represented here, the marriages ended in divorce, for others marriage lasted a lifetime - but you can't tell which ones just by looking at the dress. As art objects, the garments represent an idealized aesthetic of the time in which they were worn, with very different design choices in different times and circumstances. Some display exquisite attention to detail on the part of the designer and maker. They simultaneously reflect the designs of the past and inspire designs of the future.

While many historic garments bear no indication of who made them, or when, and have lost any trace of their original owner, wedding wear is often carefully preserved as a family heirloom, sometimes passed down from generation to generation, with at least an anecdotal story, if not documentation and photographs. These dated garments, representing the idealized styles of their times, help us to date other more casual clothing with similar features.

These outfits give us the incredible gift of context: the ability to appreciate them both as art objects and as historical evidence of the lives of the people who wore them. With each garment, we also have some of the story of the wearer, in most cases from their own mouths. The connections between their stories are as common as the similarities in their design features. While we’ve grouped them in sections according to the Who, What, Where, When, Why, and How of these weddings, the narratives bounce all over the room, connecting each outfit and each wearer to another in a complex web of our shared American culture.

Whether you enter this room viewing these objects through the lens of fantasy or the lens of critique, let us give you yet another lens to look through - consider a more close-up view. It requires a leap of the imagination, but imagine these outfits on headless mannequins and these two dimensional photographs on the wall related to the stories of the people they represent. Each of these outfits was a part of a real wedding, at a real moment in time, neither fantasy nor political symbol. These were worn by living, breathing people who made distinct personal choices about their weddings and about their marriages. Their choices are as personal as they are symbolic or political, and they represent an evolution of weddings where, over time, couples have become more and more able to choose which parts of wedding and marriage traditions they want to maintain, and which they choose to reject.

People everywhere are currently re-examining the institution of marriage and the traditions of weddings, a particularly hot topic as the Supreme Court considers two different cases related to marriage equality for same-sex couples. In our time, can weddings be about the personal commitments of each couple, without being tied to the "-isms" that were a part of traditional weddings? The weddings of Vassar community members represented here certainly seem to support this direction. But take a look at Brides magazine, or almost any wedding scene in a popular TV show or movie, or a celebrity wedding on the news, and you'll see that in popular American culture, this evolution is happening more slowly. Perhaps this exhibition can provide some perspective to continue the conversation about the future of weddings and marriage.


- by Arden Kirkland (Vassar class of 1993)