Interview with Unveiled curator Edwina Ehrman

Video | Updated 1 years ago

This interview is with Victoria and Albert Museum curator Edwina Ehrman, who curated the exhibition Unveiled: 200 years of wedding glamour, on show at the Western Australian Museum – Perth from 8 December 2012 to 2 April 2013.


Edwina: The exhibition's called Unveiled 200 years of [wedding] glamour and it presents some of the Victoria and Albert Museum's most beautiful, romantic, but also historically important wedding dresses. The earliest dress is 1828 and our most recent is 2008; so it's 200 years. It contains not just bridal wear, but also garments worn by bridegrooms, not many bridegrooms are less good at keeping their clothes, or perhaps their wives are less good at hanging on to them. And it contains photographs of the brides, many of the brides and grooms, it includes film, which is fantastic, because three of the dresses in the exhibition you can actually see on the film with the brides wearing them, and the film also includes some royal weddings. Royal weddings are important in Britan they're things that we all enjoy watching, and they can influence fashion.

Interviewer: So I guess the spectacular dresses on themselves are just the beginning of the experience?

Edwina: Yes, I think that the spectacle is important, a wedding provides a spectacle. I think the way the exhibition is designed, its chronological, it takes you on a journey through history, it takes you through the history of fashion, but it also takes you you through social history and many, many of these dresses have really interesting stories attached to them. And if... In fact one of my criteria for choosing them, the garments had to be robust enough to travel, they had to be able to carry story, but also I wanted them to have the greatest possible meaning for people today. So that they would look at these dresses, and when they read about the history of the brides and the grooms, that would unlock memories for them, and trigger thoughts both about the past, about their ancestors perhaps, and about their own lives and their futures.

Interviewer: One of the things that's quite noticable about this exhibition is that the not all the gowns are white. what's that about?

Edwina: Well... white has been a popular colour bridal wear since the 18th century, a long time. But in the 18th and 19th century, it was the wealthy woman's colour. It was also an extremely impractical colour to have in your wardrobe, unless you were rich. We didn't have the advantage of washing machines in the past, or dryers or dry cleaners, so keeping clothes clean was very difficult in fact only wealthy women would even contemplate having white dresses and... Of a certain age, however rich you were, it was considered in appropriate to wear white; it was a young woman's colour. Other women chose coloured dresses for practical reasons because all these dresses in the past were worn again. There was no concept of a dress for a day in the 19th century, and so you wore the dress that was going to fit into your life, into your community, and also for economic reasons other women, they just knew that, to had to be something practical like a washball cotton and there's one wonderful example of washball cotton in the show.

Interviewer: Do you have a favourite piece?

Edwina: I have lots and lots of favourites, and it's always hard to come down, to talk about just one favourite... So I'm going to talk about a favourite which is just to my left of where I'm standing here, and this is a very spectacular dress made by Charles Frederick Worth who we know is the father of couture it was bought from his fashion house in Paris by a very wealthy, and you had to be wealthy to go to Worth, a young American woman it is, beautifully - the skirt, the outfit is immaculately embroidered it's embroidered with artificial pearls, in a floral pattern, but it also incorporates three-dimensional bell flowers. And I think bell flowers are quite interesting, they often come up on wedding dresses and I found a letter in our archive when I was doing research and a woman wrote saying she was, she'd love us to have a veil with bells on it, wedding bells on it, and I wondered whether that was why people liked bell flowers. I can't substantiate this, but I always think of wedding bells and I see that dress.

Interviewer: It must be incredibly difficult to travel with something that is so fragile, but has such beautiful embroidery on it, and so delicate work.

Edwina: Well every single bead and tassel were checked to make sure the dress was stable enough to travel. Some elements of it were encased in their own little silk bags to make sure they didn't move too much, when it was in it's crate and container. So we are very, very careful everything that's in this show had to be robust enough to travel. Everything was also conserved, some things had many hours of conservation hour done to them before we decided they were ready to come...

Some will not be in the V&A exhibition because they'll need a rest by the time they get back to the V&A. So we have to make lots of judgements about how long we can put things out, how important the dress is.

Interviewer: So why is it important then, that collections like this are... a collection in the first place, but preserved and taken care of, and available to be seen by the public?

You know, maintaining them for public view is an awful lot fo work, but why is that important?

Edwina; Well I think access is at the heart of what museums do today. We have these very large collections and the collections are there because they tell us about the past, and if we think more deeply about them explore their histories they can tell us a lot about the present too, and about the societies that preserved them. And so we need to bear that in mind some garments in our collection will never be able to travel, in fact they would never even be conserved, but that doesn't prevent us from enabling people to see them. We now have the World Wide Web we are so lucky having the web, we have our "search the collections" site we have many thousands of garments on this site, and many of them have photographs attached to them so that's another way of seeing these objects from the past and informing ourselves about them.

Interviewer: So for the people coming through this exhibition and seeing these beautiful gowns and marvelling at how they've survived, what would you like them to think and to feel as they go through, and what would you like them to take away?

Edwina: Well the V&A's one of the world's leading museums of art and design, so, and because of that we are very lucky in that we have garments of the highest possible quality of design adn craftsmanship there's a lot of craftsmanship in the exhibition. And I hope that people would be, well they can get close enough because of the wonderful design of the exhibition, to see the marvelous work, the hand work, that's gone into the garments, and also the innovative design. We've got 200 years of wedding dress here, and the wedding dress is still relevant to brides today and that is due to design and innovation and utilising the technologies of one's time. [I'd] quite like them to take that away with them, and the beauty, the beauty of the garments. I'd also hope it will make people more curious about objects. I love looking at things, I'm a "thing person" and I only have to look at a thing and all these questions pop into my head, and I hope with the information we've given the public, they will start questioning their own objects maybe go home and look at a photograph of a granny, and say "what is she wearing? Why did she choose that? Where did she buy it? Why did she go to that place to buy it? Why did she have herself photographed in it?". And I think we can learn so much not just about our own lives, and our own families but about society as a whole through that.

Interviewer: So it's about a joint history and exploring our individual history, and perhaps finding our place in the world.

Edwina: I think so, it's about identity, and it's about community, and I think the great thing about the V&A bringing an exhibition to the Western Australian Museum, is that we are showing our collection with much, much wider audience, but we are at the same time learning about the Western Australian Museum. You have a lovely exhibit of wedding dress alongside ours, which I find absolutely fascinating, there's a wonderful waistcoat I want to know more about it. So I think we are through networking, through partnering each other we are starting a debate, and that is what life should be about, it should be about communication and sharing.

Interviewer: Lovely, Edwina Ehrman thank you for your time.