Every dress tells a story, as this gem of a show featuring frocks by Ossie Clark, Vivienne Westwood and many others sets out to prove.
“I thought I wouldn’t be affected by seeing Dorothy’s dress, but I could visualise her in it, and it certainly brought a lump to the throat.” Peter Helm is telling me about his late wife’s contribution to the Something Blue show at the Gallery of Costume, which features 18 unique wedding dresses, including Dorothy’s. Separated into two periods, there are frocks from 1914-1958 in the rococo dining room at Platt Hall and, in the main exhibition room on the ground floor, dresses from 1961 to the present day. “Of course, my eye was drawn immediately to Dorothy’s dress when I went upstairs,” Helm continues. “It seemed quite ordinary compared with some of the others, but to me it was something special. And more people than I expected were interested in it at the launch, even though it couldn’t compete with its more impressive neighbours.”
The dress in question is a conservative number, a jersey fabric in blue, stopping just below the knee and with a button-up neckline. Dorothy wore it to her marriage to Peter Helm, formerly part of the ground crew for the RAF, on 25 June 1949 at Christ Church in Moss Side, with a reception afterwards at the Mersey Hotel. “Dorothy’s father was a catering manager, and knew Mr. Pearson, the landlord,” Helm tells me. So how did the dress end up here? “Our links with the gallery go back a very long time and, in 1975, Dorothy donated the dress, hat and shoes. What a shame that she didn’t live to see the exhibition.”
The individual stories behind each of the 18 dresses are as interesting as some of the exhibits themselves, with portraits of each of the couples on their big day displayed alongside descriptions of how the brides chose their outfits. The earliest dress was donated by Annie Appleton, a former mill worker from Todmorden, who tied the knot the day after the start of the First World War, and many of the dresses on display are local, including two by the Northern Quarter (and Urmston) based designer Jean Jackson Couture, one of which was modeled by actress Mischa Barton.
Each dress tells its own story, from an Ossie Clark to an unconventional 1930’s number
“Each dress has its own story,” says gallery assistant Adam Quinn, co-curator of the show with Andy Hunt and Rosie Gnatiuk. “One of our favourites is a dress worn by Kathleen Soriano in 1995. She had planned to wear white or cream, but didn’t want something traditional. She spotted a red backless Valentino dress in an editorial in Vogue and tore out the image, then forgot about it. Some months later, with the wedding fast approaching, she was shopping in Bond Street and saw the dress on sale. Her mother, who was with her, loved it! She nervously informed the priest, but he said red was his favourite colour and that he would wear white.”
So why wedding frocks, I ask the gallery’s senior curator, Miles Lambert? “We chose wedding dresses as a deliberate change from our designers in focus series,” he tells me from his office upstairs in Platt Hall, itself a perfect backdrop for a wedding, all Georgian architecture and sweeping staircases. “We thought we would try something more people focused.”
“Most of the dresses were selected from Platt Hall’s collection, donated by brides and family members over the years, although some are on loan,” continues Adam Quinn. “Recent donations include the cream full-length crepe Ossie Clark dress, which was donated by Judith Dorkin after she visited our Ossie Clark exhibition.” It is not this gorgeous creation that is Quinn’s favourite, however. That accolade goes to a “beautiful bias-cut evening dress of silk chiffon, printed with red and yellow roses and purple stocks, dated 1935 and donated by Sylvia Saunders, daughter of the bride, in 2000. The dress caused quite a stir among the older wedding guests as it was a very bold and unconventional choice of dress for its time.”
It is lovely, but I think I’m going to have to stick my pin in the blue and white floor-length gown worn by Maria Balshaw, director of Manchester City Galleries and the Whitworth, when she got hitched in 2010 to Manchester Museum’s director, Nick Merriman. It’s Vivienne Westwood, natch – but from the sale rail.