by Samantha Goodman
Figure 1: Henry Roth, Style No: 31655772. Photograph. Kleinfeld Bridal. Web. 13 Apr. 2010.
“Fashion, a naturally ambitious princess, tried to dethrone Usage and turn his kingdom upside down,” so wrote Antoine de la Roque in 1731 after seeing a ballet of twelve vignettes entitled “L’Empire de la mode” (Benhamou, 35). While the summary was certainly pertinent to the ballet, it can still be applicable today when regarding the wedding dress and the spectacle of the wedding, as the wedding gown, an element of fashion, usurps the necessity of usage as an expensive item that is only worn once. Today’s wedding gown, or bridal couture as top designers such as Vera Wang refer to it, is an example of eighteenth century finery still in use for the representations of extravagance and hierarchy it possesses. Though the large skirt and small bodice of the traditional gown might not be favored by all women, the idea of the gown still seems to hold an element of courtly power only attainable to the bride, playing the role of queen for a day. Where does this power come from? Why is it attributed to a dress that is only worn once in a woman’s life? And why does there appear to be an almost mythical reverence embodied in the wedding gown? To answer these questions, one must look to the past in an examination of the haute couture of the eighteenth century, specifically in the court of Marie Antoinette, as well as observe how deeply the Queen’s style has or has not influenced the bridal couture of today. A look at the modern wedding ceremony and reception is also necessary in understanding the themes of courtly power that are still present, even if only for a day.
Figure 2: Example of gowns at Cymbeline, Paris. Personal photograph by author. 2010.