Ryerson Fashion Research Collection

Opening the closet door to a Canadian fashion archive


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A Study of Design Elements in 1930s Bridal Wear

“Fashion in the 1930s saw a move towards a more feminine silhouette, with bias-cut clothes in smooth fabrics emphasizing the natural contours of the body” (note 1).

 

1930s fashion is characterized by its romance and elegance. Garments from this period shed the boyish frivolity of the 1920s and predate the War-imposed practicality of the 1940s (note 2). The 1930s, although most often remembered for the economic hardship of the Great Depression, were also a time of glamour and escapism. With the growing number of films being made, Hollywood was beginning to take center stage. Many designers were inspired by the allure of the Hollywood image and created feminine pieces that accentuated the figure. Bridal wear followed close behind, mirroring the trends of the mainstream fashions of the time.

By comparing it to other wedding dresses from the 1930s, the context of Hamilton’s wedding dress can be better understood. Garments from the online collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Victoria & Albert Museum were used to identify the defining characteristics of 1930s bridal wear (note 3).

The sampling of comparable 1930s bridal ensembles included gowns that were cream coloured, slim-fitting, long-sleeved, and featured at least one embellishment or exaggerated manipulation. The defining features of these comparable dresses can be organized into elements that focus on the simplicity, the train, the Medieval Influence, the selective embellishment, and the fit. All of these defining features are seen in Mollie Hamilton’s dress and thereby show it to be a classic example of bridal attire from that era.

The Simplicity simplicityMainbocher dress from the Metropolitan Museum Costume Institute C.I.50.110a–j

Garments from the 1930s seem to exude a feeling of effortlessness and ease. Whether it is the way the fabric draped, the textile’s smooth surface texture, or the lack of elaborate embellishment, bridal gowns from the 1930s can be characterized by their clean and simple lines (note 4).

The Train Picture 027 Callot Soeurs dress from the Metropolitan Museum Costume Institute 2009.300.1300a–f

The train was an important feature in many 1930s wedding gowns. Historically, it was a sign of wealth and rank. There were sumptuary laws restricting the wearing of certain fabrics and garments to designated groups. By the 1930s, however, this was no longer the case (note 5). Trains would have come at an added expense due to the surplus of fabric, but one did not have to be royalty to be able to wear them. The dramatic exaggeration the train brought to a dress increased the visual interest of the often otherwise plain garment.

The Medieval Influence 56.16a-e_front 0010Elizabeth Hawes dress from the Metropolitan Museum Costume Institute 2009.300.3559a–e

Many bridal gowns from the 1930s featured embellishments and details reminiscent of the Medieval period. For example, the bow headdress on the above garment is similar to the horned headdresses and hennin worn in the 15th century (note 6). Many small accessories, necklines, and fabric manipulations are very similar to those used in the Middle Ages.

 The DetaildetailHerman Patrick Tappe dress from the Metropolitan Museum Costume Institute 2009.300.7325

 1930s bridal wear, as previously stated, was often very simple in appearance. This does not mean, though, that the garments were completely lacking in adornment, intricacies, and drama. In fact, the opposite is true. The simplicity of dresses from this era often acted as a sort of blank canvas, allowing the details to shine. Common details from this period include beading, lace, covered buttons, and gathers (note 7).

 The FitfitCharles James dress from the Victoria & Albert Museum T.271-1974

One of the most defining features of 1930s bridal wear is the slim-fitting silhouette and emphasis on elegance (note 8). Since the dress hugged the wearer’s body, the fit of the garment was very important. Elements such as fabric drape, strategic placement of seams, and accentuating a curvaceous female form were essential to the success of a stylish dress of this period.

How These Elements Come Together in Mollie Hamilton’s Wedding Dresswalton-ball-epherema_photograph-6

Mollie Hamilton’s wedding dress from the Ryerson Fashion Research Collection

The Simplicity

 Mollie Hamilton’s wedding dress was made of a sleek, shining, cream-colored satin. The body of the dress has very little decoration; the emphasis is on the flowing fabric and long, elegant lines. Mollie exuded an effortless beauty in the garment on her wedding day of June 27, 1936 when she married Dr. Horace Gifford (Lou) Walton-Ball.

The Train

The long flowing train on Mollie’s dress highlights its drama and elegance. Her trailing veil drapes over and beyond the length of the train to create a captivating difference in textures.

The Medieval Influence img_4093editPhotograph by Hannah Dobbie, 2016.

The headpiece Mollie wore with her wedding gown resembles a divided hennin (note 6). The beaded rosettes along the dress’s collar are also reminiscent of the neckline embellishments used in dress from the Middle Ages.

 The Detail img_4097editPhotograph by Hannah Dobbie, 2016.

 Mollie’s wedding dress features smocking around the cuffs and on the shoulders. This decorative effect is enhanced by small imitation pearl beads. Beads are also used to elevate the centers of the neckline rosettes. These features create interest and drama on the otherwise unadorned dress.

The Fit

The dress Mollie wore on her wedding day fit her perfectly. The draped fabric fit closely to her body and clung to her curves. The gathering in the bodice created a slight blouson effect that was mirrored in the sleeves. The slim fitting dress was an embodiment of elegance.

Mollie Hamilton wore a very fashionable dress to her 1936 wedding. As this comparison to wedding dresses in other museum collections has shown, her dress illustrates the stylistic features most common in 1930s bridal wear.

Notes:

Note 1: “Introduction to 20th-Century Fashion,” vam.ac.uk, accessed October 31, 2016, http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/i/introduction-to-20th-century-fashion.

Note 2: To view more garments like this, visit “Collections”. The Met Museum. Last modified 2016. http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection.

Note 3: This is Question #15 on the Reflection Checklist (Appendix 2) in The Dress Detective: A Practical Guide to Object-based Research in Fashion (Bloomsbury, 2015), 201.

Note 4: M. DeLong and K. Petersen, “Analysis and Characterization of 1930s Evening Dresses in A University Museum Collection,” Clothing and Textiles Research Journal 22, no. 3 (2005): 99-112.

Note 5: Catherine Kovesi Killerby, “Sumptuary Law in Italy 1200-1500”. Oxford Scholarship Online, 2002. Chapter 6. DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199247936.003.0007

Note 6: For more information on Medieval headdresses, visit “Glossary of English Hairstyles and Headdress,” sites.tufts.edu/putajewelonit. September 21, 2011. http://sites.tufts.edu/putajewelonit/2011/09/21/glossary-of-english-hairstyles-headdress/

Note 7: To view more garments with these features, visit “Victoria and Albert Museum Search the Collections”. Collections.Vam.Ac.Uk. Last modified 2016. http://collections.vam.ac.uk/.

Note 8: M. DeLong and K. Petersen, “Analysis and Characterization of 1930s Evening Dresses in A University Museum Collection,” Clothing and Textiles Research Journal 22, no. 3 (2005): 99-112.

References:

“Collections”. The Met Museum. Last modified 2016. http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection.

DeLong, M. R. and K. Petersen. “Analysis and Characterization of 1930s Evening Dresses in A University Museum Collection.” Clothing and Textiles Research Journal 22, no. 3 (2004): 99-112.

Ehrman, Edwina. The Wedding Dress. London: V & A Publishing, 2011.

Harris, Kristina. “On Collecting Bridal Gowns.” Antiques & Collecting Magazine 06 (1997): 22-26.

“Introduction to 20th-Century Fashion.” vam.ac.uk. Accessed October 31, 2016. http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/i/introduction-to-20th-century-fashion.

Killerby, Catherine Kovesi. “Sumptuary Law in Italy 1200-1500.” Oxford Scholarship Online. 2002. Chapter 6. DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199247936.003.0007

Mida, Ingrid and Alexandra Kim. The Dress Detective: A Practical Guide to Object Based Research. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2015.

Toplis, Alison. “Wedding Dresses 1775-2014.” West 86th: A Journal of Decorative Arts, Design History, and Material Culture 22, no. 1 (Spring-Summer 2015): 102-105.

“Victoria and Albert Museum Search the Collections”. Collections.Vam.Ac.Uk. Last modified 2016. http://collections.vam.ac.uk/.


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Mary Hamilton’s Wedding Dress: A Study of a 1930’s Gown

Wedding dresses are often only worn once and then carefully stored away as a material memory of a significant event” (note 1).

This is true of  a fashionable 1930s satin wedding dress and headpiece that was worn by Mary Hamilton (1908-2000) at her Toronto wedding in 1936. Mary’s dress and headpiece as well as related ephemera were recently donated to the Ryerson Fashion Research Collection by her daughter, Mary Walton-Ball.

Walton-Ball Ephemera_newspaper clipping.jpg

Newspaper clippings of Mollie Hamilton from June 6, 1931 and February 1, 1930 (left to right). Publication unknown.

Mary Hamilton, known as Mollie, was born into a prosperous Toronto family in 1908. The Hamiltons were in the steel business and made many contributions to the city’s industry. Mollie studied at the Royal Conservatory of Music and sang in Healey Willan’s choir, as well as the Yorkminster Park Baptist Church choir. In 1935, Mollie was offered a position with a stage company and performed live before the main show at the Imperial Theatre. In addition to these endeavours, she sang on a radio show called the “Blue Coal Hour”.

On June 27, 1936, Mollie married Dr. Horace Gifford (Lou) Walton-Ball. The reception was held in the garden of their home at three in the afternoon (note 2). The couple went on to have two children; David in 1939 and Mary in 1945. Mollie contributed to her community as a volunteer at the Toronto Western Hospital gift shop (note 3). Throughout her life, Mollie travelled across Europe and North America. Mollie, in her 92nd year, passed away on July 4, 2000. She was described as “feisty with a quick sense of humour” and “elegant, articulate, and graceful” (note 4).

The words elegant and graceful describe 1930s fashion just as fittingly as they do Mollie’s personality and demeanor. According to the book The Wedding Dress: 300 Years of Bridal Fashion, dress styles from this period were, “eclectic, but the strongest trends were slim-fitting draped styles inspired by classic or medieval dress” (note 5). Mollie Hamilton’s wedding dress fulfills all of this criteria, making it an embodiment of a fashionable 1930s bridal gown.

walton-ball-epherema_photograph-6

A photo of Mollie on her wedding day; June 27, 1936.

The dress is made of a creamy white bias cut satin (FRC2015.09.001). It has no labels, so there is no indication of where or by whom it was made. Mollie’s daughter Mary suggested that the garment was likely custom-made by a dressmaker in Toronto (note 6). The bodice features gathers on either side of the point created by the empire waist seam. Those gathers are repeated along the neckline, which is topped by a border of silk rosettes with beaded centers. The sleeves of the dress are adorned with beaded smocking on the shoulders and along the cuffs at the wrists. There are snaps at the base of the wrist to allow the hand of the wearer to pass through this snug closure.
picture2

Sketch of the wedding dress sleeve, rosette, and bodice by Hannah Dobbie, 2016.

The gown’s skirt begins at the empire waist and continues in a gradual flare. The skirt’s already long length is extended by a train of 41 inches (104 cm). The train begins at either side of centre front, growing in size as it reaches the centre back of the garment. The flare created is dramatic; to ensure that the fabric fell with the desired effect when worn, small weights were sewn into each side of the hem.

This dress was machine-stitched, with the beadwork being sewn by hand. The dress is unlined and does not have any pockets. The selvedge of the fabric can be seen in one of the seams between the train and the skirt. There is no form of reinforcement and there has not been any finishing process on the fabric. Four self-covered buttons arranged vertically down centre back with a hook and eye closure above them serve as this garment’s only form of closure.

The dress is in good condition. It shows little to no fading and only very slight signs of wear. Some beads have fallen off and there are some small stains on the under side of the train where it would have dragged on the ground. There do not seem to be any signs of alteration or intentional removal of embellishments.

When worn, this fabric would feel smooth, cool, light, and luxurious on the skin. A faint swooshing of the satin would be heard when parts of the dress rubbed against each other. The garment’s construction is relatively simple, but the intricate details and beadwork create an impression of understated beauty.

According to a study of vintage evening wear by DeLong and Petersen, dresses in the 1930s were characterized “by slim-fitting elegant shapes and vertical lines that created the image of a womanly curvaceous body, with surfaces defined by fluid fabrics and enhanced by fitted shapes” (note 7). Mrs. Walton-Ball’s wedding dress was a very of-the-moment, stylish piece that, 80 years later, still looks fashionable. This garment evokes a sense of glamour, elegance, and femininity — characteristics that Mollie Walton-Ball herself exemplified.

Notes:

Note 1: Ingrid Mida and Alexandra Kim. 2015. “Case Study of a Lanvin Wedding Gown” in The Dress Detective: A Practical Guide to Object-based Research in Fashion. London: Bloomsbury, 160.

Note 2: Handwritten letter written by Mollie Walton-Ball in April, 1968.

Note 3: Funeral program for Mollie Hamilton dated August 8, 2000.

Note 4: Ibid.

Note 5: Edwina Ehrman, The Wedding Dress (London: V & A Publishing, 2011), 117.

Note 6: Email correspondence with Mary Walton-Ball dated October 6, 2016.

Note 7: M. DeLong and K. Petersen, “Analysis and Characterization of 1930s Evening Dresses in A University Museum Collection,” Clothing and Textiles Research Journal 22, no. 3 (2005): 99-112.

References:

Ehrman, Edwina. The Wedding Dress. London: V & A Publishing, 2011.

DeLong, M. R. and K. Petersen. “Analysis and Characterization of 1930s Evening Dresses in A University Museum Collection.” Clothing and Textiles Research Journal 22, no. 3 (2004): 99-112.

Mida, Ingrid and Kim, Alexandra. The Dress Detective: A Practical Guide to Object Based Research. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2015.