A Century Of Wedding Gowns

Hexham Abbey – 17 April – 13 June 2023

The exhibition of wedding gowns which are currently being displayed really is stunning.  The dresses are positioned all around the Abbey Church, making walking around the exhibition easy and intuitive.  The collection included a range of wedding dresses spanning from the early 1900s to the early 2010s which are not on display in chronological order, or even thematically, they are just displayed nicely.  There is a mixture of styles on display as well as a mixture of value, some dresses are homemade, others shop-bought, the guide to the exhibition highlights that one was designed by Coco Chanel in Paris as well as replica copies of Kate Middleton and Diana Spencer’s wedding dresses displayed in amongst the other offerings. 

Although the white wedding dress is seen as the most traditional part of a modern wedding it was in fact only popularised after Queen Victoria wore white when she married Prince Albert in 1840.  That isn’t to say that this was the first white wedding dress as Mary, Queen of Scots wore white at her wedding in 1556.  Prior to 1840, it was common for a bride to marry in any colour which she desired or could afford to wear.

Replica of Diana Spencer’s wedding dress

The dresses that are replicas of those worn by Kate Middleton, and Diana Spencer, are situated closest to the sanctuary in the Abbey church, whether this is by accident, or because these are deemed to be the most special garments and are therefore given pride of place in the most prestigious sot is unknown.  They are both amazingly large gowns which would these days be described as traditional wedding dresses because of their bright white colour, voluminous skirts and their trains – although the train on the replica Diana dress is much longer than on that of Kate Middleton. 

Wedding dress inspired by Jane Seymore painting – designed by Catherine Hutton

Those two share their space in the heart of the church with the 1920s wedding dress by Coco Chanel which was created in the then-fashionable Flapper style.  Personally, this one is not something that I would consider an appealing garment, though that’s mostly personal bias as the fashion style is over a century old now.  However, the other dress that is standing in the same area is a self-designed dress, it was designed and created by Catherine Hutton who wore it at her wedding in 2001 in Easington Village, County Durham.  Although self-designed, it was professionally made within the setting of a bridal shop.  The design itself was based on that of a dress in a portrait of Jane Seymore (1508-37), wife of Henry VIII, because of its red colour and its semi-medieval design, the curators thought to place it in front of the screen with lots of Hexham Abbey’s medieval paintings, in this position it looks absolutely amazing. 

Lynne Charlsworth wedding dress.

As I walked around the exhibition, there were a few minor details that caught my eye, one was a dress made from a particular Swiss lace with a butterfly design repeated over and over, and another was this beautiful dress with a pastel link layer of place over the top.  At first sight, it looks like something that may have been worn by a bridesmaid, but a brief inspection reveals that it is of very good quality and cut even if it now looks slightly dated.  This one-off wedding dress was owned by Lynne Charlesworth, and is described in the exhibition guide as “Created for a fashion show” and was bought with a heavy discount in a sale. This dress was worn to her wedding in St Johns Church in Westerhope, Newcastle. St John’s is a modern catholic church with seventies architecture, so it would have been quite wonderful to see such a traditional-looking outfit in there.

The final stretch of the exhibition is hidden away in the Cloister Porch at the end of the nave. If it wasn’t for a couple of pieces of furniture, this scene could almost look like a bridal shop display room. This part of the exhibition contained a number of beautiful items and different styles, walking through there and examining each one while reading the small amount of information in the exhibition guide helped to bring these to life for me.

This exhibition is highly recommended to anyone visiting Hexham during its duration. The exhibition is free, but the guide is £3 and really does help with understanding each garment better.



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