Wedded Perfection: Two Centuries of Wedding Gowns

Cynthia Amneus, Cincinnati Art Museum

Tuesday, March 13, 2012Mini-exhibit: 7:15pmLecture: 8:00pmGould Theatre, Palace of the Legion of Honor
Legion of Honor
Wedding Dress 1

Wedding ensemble: dress, crinoline and headpiece (1954), linen and silk, by Christian Dior (1905-1957), France. Gift of Countess de Rochambeau, 2008

Japonesque Wedding Dress

Wedding dress Japonesque (2000), wool, silk, cotton, cashmere and linen, designed by Arlette Muschter (born 1970) and made by Claudy Jongstra (born 1963), Netherlands. Cincinnati Art Museum purchase: Lawrence Archer Wachs Fund, 2009

Cynthia Amneus examines the compelling allure of the white, single-use wedding dress for modern women - and the wedding dress’ current iconic stature. This gown has an almost hypnotic power over women - even those who regularly defy or ignore tradition. A woman’s wedding day remains as a singular opportunity to be transformed into something she has fantasized about her entire life. Today, the pristine white gown, worn once and then carefully preserved, seems to be the tradition. We assume this singular piece of clothing has always been white, fitted to the body, decorated, trained, accessorized with a veil, and used on a single, momentous occasion. However, the present manifestation of the wedding dress is an assemblage of invented traditions created, in large part, by 20th century commercialism. Ms - or is it Miss? or Mrs.? - Amneus will attempt to demystify some of the more egregious assumptions that color - or whiten - our beliefs about wedding clothing.

Cultural values and attitudes toward women, and women’s role in society and marriage, have informed and shaped the aesthetics of female wedding clothing in Western cultures over time. White has symbolized purity and innocence since the classical period. White is therefore the color most frequently associated with brides in Western cultures. The use of white for wedding apparel, however, has not been a continuous tradition.

Wedding attire in past eras was both fashionable and ordinary. Such clothing was often colorful rather than white. If the dress was opulent, the purpose was to display family wealth and station rather than for the personal beautification of the bride. For many brides, it was simply one’s best dress intended to be worn again for other special occasions.

Contemporary brides may choose colorful gowns for economic reasons, out of modesty or even to express their personal taste. They are no longer bound by the dictates of a society that equates white with social status or sexual purity. Today, women enter into marriage willingly, happily, experienced and without the shadows of fear and trepidation that plagued their forebears of past centuries. Nudged by tradition and goaded by the bridal industry’s pervasive marketing, however, many women are caught in a tug-of-war between reason and long-held fantasy.

Even those women who do not routinely participate in traditional feminine concerns such as trendy clothing or beautifying activities often indulge themselves when they become a bride. For the contemporary woman, a conflict arises. The act of being wed is an ancient ritual in which her personality is eclipsed by centuries of conventions that define what she should be, even though those ideas have changed dramatically. Many contemporary brides-to-be seek alternative attire as a way to disengage from deferential cultural expectations and, in doing so, give material expression to both the institution of marriage and their role within it.

Cynthia Amneus earned a bachelor’s degree from Xavier University, followed by a master’s degree from Illinois State University with a concentration in textiles and fibers. Her career has run the gamut from studio artist to fiber arts instructor and professor (at the University of Cincinnati, then Xavier University), costume technician and, most recently, curator. As a costume technician, she mounted more than 100 costumes for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio. She also reproduced millinery for “Becoming American Women: The Immigration of Jewish Women to America” at the Chicago Historical Society and for “The Gilded Cage: Victorian Bustle Fashion 1867-1889” at the Mint Museum of Art in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Ms Amneus’ service to the Cincinnati Art Museum began in 1996 as the assistant curator of costume and textiles, then associate curator of costume and textiles, and she is now the curator of fashion arts and textiles. Her many exhibits for the Cincinnati Art Museum include “Art Deco: Fashion and Design in the Jazz Age” (2011), “Wedded Perfection: Two Centuries of Wedding Gowns” (2010) (for which she also wrote the exhibition catalogue), “Masterpiece Quilts from the Shelburne Museum” (2007) and “Designed to Dazzle: Cincinnati Collects Tiffany“ (2007). She also wrote the exhibition catalogue for “A Separate Sphere: Dressmakers in Cincinnati’s Golden Age, 1877-1922” (2003).

7:15pm mini-exhibit

Celebrate your nuptials again with wedding photographs and albums! Unpack your wedding dress and veil. Share your wedding accessories. Perhaps you still have that wedding cake bride-and-groom, bride-and-bride or groom-and-groom decoration.


Gould Theatre, Palace of the Legion of Honor, Lincoln Park, San Francisco. Enter at the west side lower level near the café, or through the main entrance for day-time events.