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300 Years of Wedding Dresses on The 9 O’Clock Show

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Historian Michelle O’Mahony and costumier Gwen McGuirk talk about the history of wedding dresses and the exhibition ‘The Dress: Three Centuries of Weddings’. Listen back above.

Would you wear a red wedding dress? Or a blue one, or even a gold one? Before the white wedding dress was made fashionable by Britain’s Queen Victoria, it was anything goes in terms of colour; according to fashion designer and wedding dress collector Gwen McGuirk. Gwen spoke to Brendan on the 9 O’Clock show, along with historian Michelle O’Mahony about the historical importance of wedding dresses and the exhibition they’re mounting this weekend: The Dress: Three Centuries of Wedding Dresses.

The West Cork town of Dunmanway has a thriving historical society, with its status as the birthplace of GAA legend Sam Maguire as just one of its claims to fame. Now, local historian Michelle O’Mahony has teamed up with designer Gwen McGuirk to bring some of Gwen’s extraordinary collection of vintage wedding gowns to a wider public. They’re also raising funds for the Dunmanway Historical Association, which acts as a one-stop-shop for information for locals and tourists alike. Michelle says it was a perfect meeting of minds between her and Gwen:

Gwen mentioned she has a private collection of dresses and we linked that with the fact that The Historical Association compiled before COVID two booklets of old black and white photographs to do with weddings, and we sold them in the community as wedding pictorials. So we decided we’d link both and came up with the idea of ‘Three Centuries of Wedding Dresses: The Dress’.

Wedding dresses can reveal a lot of social history, says Michelle O’Mahony. You can study the garment and it will give up its secrets, she says:

“How would you read a dress? What does that tell us about society? The wedding dress is a great communicator of fashion trends – It’s a great communicator of society, society’s norms; what people perceived at the time, viewpoints they held. It’s also a great insight into class structure.”

Dublin-born designer Gwen has returned to the county of her mother’s birth after a distinguished career in fashion and costume design in Ireland and in Italy. Over the years, she began restoring old wedding dresses and has built up a large collection, dating back to the 1860s, the era of the oldest dress in her collection. It’s one of her favourites, she says:

“The fabric is, like, it’s like a muslin, it’s so delicate, like a cobweb.”

In repairing the dress, Gwen had to take it apart, and she came face-to-face with the stitching of past seamstresses, now long gone:

“I’ve taken it apart only recently, because I literally bought it in 2018. The lady gave it to me to restore because she couldn’t sell it, because it had been damaged. And I’m taking it apart and I’m seeing the work of these two – two – seamstresses. Like the really old one, every single one is just, stitched lace … made by hand, so it’s just like a muslin.”

As well as the snow-white wedding dress, handmade lace was also made popular by Queen Victoria, Gwen says; and its popularity in England also gave a boost to Irish lace making. In fact, celebrities and royals have been influencing the fashion choices of the population for longer than you might think. The actress Grace Kelly was a paid influencer long before the invention of Instagram, Gwen explains. Kelly bucked the trend of using French designers and wore a Hollywood sponsored gown for her 1956 wedding to Prince Rainier of Monaco:

“It wasn’t made by a French designer, it was actually a Hollywood costume designer who did her costume and they actually sponsored the dress, because they wanted like full coverage of the event and publicity.”

In the early to mid-19th Century, the amount of fabric you could afford or the amount of gold stitching on a bodice was a way of showing off your wealth, Michelle says. Some features like extremely wide skirts became popular among the wealthy as a way of displaying more and more expensive fabrics. But it could cause problems at the dinner table:

“They had to think very carefully about where they were positioned a woman at the dining table because her place-setting had to be much wider to allow room for the dress, because otherwise whoever’s sitting next to her is going to be elbowed and hit with the side hoops.”

Fabric and lace was always reused and repurposed, even among the wealthy – that was before fast fashion and lightning-fast production techniques. Michelle says that until recently, people in Ireland were more sparing about their clothes – wedding dresses were made to be reused and remodelled:

“During the late 1930s, early 1940s people would get a tweed suit and it would be their best Sunday best suit, and they would use that for their wedding and then it would be used for christenings, subsequent weddings and their Sunday best and they would manage it from that. Or they would repurpose suits and clothing that they already had.”

Nobody was expected to have a different outfit for every occasion, Michelle says:

“There was no such thing as I’ve been seen in that outfit before when you went to a local wedding, but weddings during the 1930s were a quieter affair in Ireland at the time.

There’s much more on the history of wedding dresses in Brendan’s full chat with Gwen and Michelle; listen back above. For more from the 9 O’Clock show, check out the show page here.

The Dress: Three Centuries of Weddings runs from Friday 1st December until 5pm on Sunday the 3rd in Atkins Hall, Dunmanway, Co. Cork.

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