Bridal dress exhibition, from the gauzy to the grotesque
A new exhibition in Holon explores the status of the most emotionally charged and significant item of women's clothing - the bridal gown.
The dirt path leading to the Hachava Gallery in Holon, where the exhibition “Happily Ever After” opened on Saturday, is reminiscent of a typical Israeli events hall. The tree-lined path, lush green lawn and old building on the low hilltop are the perfect setting for a fashion show featuring wedding gowns.
But a surprise is in store for anyone who might have expected to see trendy, contemporary wedding gowns and a kitsch catalogue. Some of these wedding gowns look so over-the-top that they are almost grotesque, while others look morbid, as though they bear painful emotional baggage. Some of the gowns are technical feats with delicate, fragile handiwork, an idiosyncratic interpretation of the most emotionally charged and symbolic item in Western fashion.
The mixture of interpretations is no coincidence, of course. The exhibition – which runs until October 31 -- is an attempt to investigate the prominent status of the wedding gown for many women, who turn it into the central object on “the most important day of their lives,” and also for fashion designers, who use it to express a fantasy far from functional, daily wear. Fourteen designers of wedding gowns, fashion and accessories, who were invited to participate in the exhibition, were asked to examine the many contexts in which the gown exists: emotional baggage, personal fantasies, religious and family ceremony, memory and pain or sanity and madness.
“The fact that the wedding season is almost over provides perspective. It allows us to look at the wedding gowns and examine them from various angles. Instead of showing the gowns and the designers according to my personal tastes, I wanted to examine the wedding gown from the personal perspectives of prominent designers in the industry and as a major component of our culture,” says exhibition curator Yaara Keydar. Among its participants are well-known designers such as Victor Bellaish, Lihi Hod, Alon Livne, Anya Fleet, Liora Taragan and Mordechai Avraham.
Designers go overboard
“This is different from an ordinary situation, where the bride goes to the designer with her desires, dreams and expectations,” says Keydar. “Unlike the dynamic that occurs during this kind of process, in which everything has to be perfect, the exhibition gave the designers a new challenge. They were asked to choose their bride themselves and create a personal interpretation of a wedding gown. They chose what they wanted to do, when to stop, when to add something or go overboard, and they could ignore any principle of garment design that they wanted. You have to remember that a wedding gown is by definition an uncomfortable garment, but from the moment the designers didn’t have to make sure that the bride would be able to dance, walk or stand beneath the wedding canopy, it became a liberating experience. The fact that they didn’t have to work on the body allowed them to take the project to their own personal places.”
For example, the giant mannequin that Victor Bellaish used became an integral part of his bridal gown, which is covered entirely in lace, embroidery and precious stones. Inbar Spector’s over-the-top gown is made of chiffon folded in impossibly complicated origami shapes. Liora Taragan’s bridal gown is made of white silk taffeta dyed in tea over stages, making it look like an Orthodox dress dipped in black ink.
Hagit Kassif and Omer Poizner present “I, Heart,” a giant heart-shaped dress made of leather. Along its seams, LED lights flash in time with the bride’s heartbeat. Tami Bar-Lev created a hat loaded with tulle, fake fur, silk, sequins and other decorations. They form a monstrously large pile of objects, a kind of decadent, rococo headdress combining the symbols and icons that make up the “perfect wedding.”
“I tried to mark out a few perspectives of this concept of a 'wedding gown,’” says Keydar. “For example, the fact that it’s so over-the-top and out of all proportion – along with all the craziness that a bride experiences – is expressed in Spector’s insane dress, Efrat Kalig’s pompous, take-over-the-room gown or Tami Bar-Lev's hat.
An engineering degree required?
“A different direction is the anatomical research and the enormous technical knowledge that wedding gowns usually demand. We have to remember that this is complex work with intricate and delicate fabrics that you have to know how to touch, cut and drape, as well as what needle to use to keep from harming them. Just the girdle, a major element in the design of a wedding gown, is a whole world of knowledge and technology; working with bones and how they are placed on the body. You need almost engineering-level know-how to design a wedding gown, which we can see in Ronen Levine's work, with his dress full of dramatic folds and an empty, silent space in the center, made of beaded embroidery, sequins and Swarovski crystals. Or Mark Goldenberg’s dress, which is made entirely from fabric strips that were hardened with bone used for making girdles, and is designed in a way that makes the strips break out from the body like wild feathers.”
Another subject which Keydar sought to highlight is work made by hand, which used to be part of the bridal wear tradition, but is now becoming extinct. "The professionals who work by hand are disappearing," she says. "The amount of time that these professionals need to invest and the use of new machines that compete with them means that they – and their knowledge – have become a rarity. Older professionals assisted many participants in the exhibition to integrate embroidery, knitting and the art of handicraft into their dresses. You can see this in the tremendous amount of work that went into Lihi Hod's dress, which covered a human skeleton in French lace, Swarovski crystals and glass beads, or in Mordechai Avraham's work, made from pieces of embroidery that were taken from a curtain from the 1970s and then embroidered with gemstones and other ornaments.”
Gaudy and grotesque
But beyond marveling at the technical knowledge and fantastical creations of each of the designers, the exhibition also asks profound questions about how wedding dresses have become removed from their elementary purpose. "I know designers who've seen brides whose families have spent more money than they have in the bank just so they can have the perfect wedding dress. Many people think it's the most important night in their lives. I always wonder why. What happens when the first child is born, or what about the moments when family and marriage don't play a part? Omer Poizner and Hagit Kassif's giant heart-shaped dress returns the lost symbolism of love to the wedding dress, turning it into something gaudy and grotesque by tossing aside the other concepts we associate with it.”
Keydar, who studied fashion design at Shenkar School of Engineering and Design, knows the field well, as she used to design wedding dresses herself. "It's a vibrant discipline, where you are able to work by hand and customize the sewing. A designer who wishes to fulfill large fantasies through clothing can do so in a wedding dress, precisely because it is a once-in-a-lifetime dress that needs to be perfect. The process of accompanying the bride can sometimes take months, and it is an especially long technical and emotional process.
"When did wedding dresses become this way?" Keydar wonders aloud uring a conversation in the gallery – which has been painted black. "In the past dresses were inherited from mother to daughter, and in Israel there were periods when there just wasn't the possibility of them being grandiose. My grandparents got married in a tent, where they ate herring and didn't have a wedding dress. I think that over the last three decades it's completely spiraled out of proportion and become a display of strength, power and money.”
But Keydar thinks the status of the wedding dress is unlikely to change. "It has power, and that's something I wanted to convey in the exhibition. It has a long history, and it changes in accordance with trends, but in my opinion the basis will remain the same. The definition of a wedding dress is two words: a 'white dress'. Saying 'a wedding dress' really says it all.”
Following the heart
Hagit Kassif, 27, and Omer Poizner, 31, who present the giant heart-shaped dress “I, Heart” in this exhibition, have recently set up a new brand, called Roomeur. The two met in the fashion department at Shenkar, and when they finished studying two years ago worked together in New York for designer Elie Tahari. They then took separate paths – Poizner began designing for the young New York fashion house "torn," while Kassif went to London to study for a masters degree at the Royal College, before returning to Israel. Now they've decided to collaborate.
"We're trying to build a brand that bridges the boundary between evening and casual wear. It revolves around sophisticated and meticulous design and doesn't compromise on fabrics or finishes. The brand will speak to fashion-conscious clients and offer a new, unified language by way of a collection including dresses, suits, and casual clothing made from quality materials," they say.
"We want to take advantage of the strengths of the two cities: New York offers materials and fabrics; Israel offers technical work and manufacturing in small quantities."
The fruits of their labor – items from their first collection, will be revealed in fall 2013.