On February 10, 1840 – her wedding day – Queen Victoria drew a sketch of herself in her journal and wrote, “Had my hair dressed & the wreath of orange flowers put on my head. My wreath & veil were worn, according to the rough sketch. … I never saw such crowds as there were in the Park, & they cheered most enthusiastically.”
With that orange blossom wreath and long veil, the Queen unknowingly set a trend that would influence bridal attire for the next 100 years. These elements were adopted so keenly by 19th century brides that they, alongside the white dress she wore, quickly came to be seen as traditional.
Veils were made from lace and silk tulle – extremely expensive, and not within the reach of most brides. For those who could afford a veil, it became “both a status symbol and an investment, like jewelry,” explains Edwina Ehrman, curator of the London V&A Museum’s new exhibition, "Wedding Dresses 1775-2014," and author of The Wedding Dress: 300 Years of Bridal Fashions. “And like jewelry, veils could be worn by anybody. There were no issues of size or fit. Because of this they were often handed down from generation to generation, gradually becoming heirlooms, with lots of inherited family memories attached to them.”
They remained more or less in style until the mid-20th century, when many brides began to choose hats instead. Looking back, it would have made sense if veils had disappeared permanently at that point. By then, they had unfashionable paternalistic associations -- after all, they were once worn to suggest modesty and purity, turning a bride into a gift to be unwrapped by her groom.
And yet veils are well and truly back in style in the 21st century. The V&A exhibition includes several examples worn by high-profile brides – Kate Moss and Gwen Stefani, for example, both wore silk veils designed by John Galliano. When Dazed magazine’s fashion editor Katie Shillingford married in 2011, she wore a ghostly Gareth Pugh gown with a Stephen Jones veil wrapped like a shroud around her face and head, her pink hair visible through it (see above); a veil, as it turns out, doesn’t have to be old-fashioned.
So why are we drawn to them after all these years? “A veil makes you look like a bride,” says Ehrman, and she’s got a point: On our wedding day, we dress to show the world that we’re going into marriage deliberately and wholeheartedly, and there’s no clearer way to say that than by wearing something as iconic as a bridal veil.
It’s an item that also has its own ceremony attached – the lowering and lifting of it – giving it a reassuring gravitas on a day that we want to feel meaningful. “Many women have told me that the most powerfully emotional moment of their wedding was when they lowered the veil before walking down the aisle,” says Ehrman.
What the exhibition shows is that even aside from veils, there’s been a steady link between brides and headwear since the 18th century – the two are drawn to each other. We’ve fallen in and out of love with anything and everything that could be put on our heads on our wedding day: bonnets, veils, garlands, hats and sculptural headdresses. Maybe it’s because anything worn so high has the effect of increasing the bride’s physical presence in the same way that an enormous meringue dress would, making her the unmistakable focal point.
The exhibition includes several modern examples of bridal headwear, each highly theatrical and unwearable for almost any other occasion. There's the pointed golden hat that Philip Treacy designed for Selina Blow in 1998; the striking feather headdress worn by Prince Charles’s wife Camilla in 2005 (also by Treacy); and the purple Stephen Jones hat chosen by Dita von Teese.
In the 21st century, headwear has become something we usually reserve for the beach – yet on our wedding days, it endures. Perhaps, if we’re honest, that’s because there’s something about wearing a headdress that’s a little like crowning yourself. Though Queen Victoria set her example almost 200 years ago, a wedding day still feels like a moment to be regal.
Wedding Dresses 1775-2014 is at the V&A from 3 May 2014 - 15 March 2015.