The exhibit includes antique dresses so old and fragile they almost felt apart when people touched them, Indian saris so complicated that an expert had to come from Tampa to put them on mannequins, wedding gowns that were worn by three generations of a single family.
There's a wedding dress worn by a "flapper" in the 1920s, displayed next to an elegant gown worn by a traditional woman of the era. There are the bright whites of recent American weddings and the deep, vivid red of traditional Norwegian bunads.
Ken Erickson and Joe Loccisano of the State College of Florida have spent the past few months putting together the exhibit, titled "Art of the Wedding Costume: Ritual and Romance." It opens Friday and continues through Dec. 3 in the Fine Art Gallery at SFC's campus in Bradenton.
It all started with an ad in the newspaper. Erickson, the theater program manager at SCF, and Loccisano, the gallery director, asked people in the Bradenton area to send in photos of wedding suits and dresses they might be willing to loan for an exhibit. They thought they'd get maybe 20 responses, which would have been enough.
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"We got 65," Erickson said. "We ended up using most of them, because we had a hard time saying no."
The exhibit ended up being too large for the gallery. A lot of the dresses are displayed in the adjacent space, the lobby of the Neel Performing Arts Center.
It wasn't just that they were too nice to turn down offers. Loccisano said. Many of the dresses came with compelling stories that became integral to the exhibit. There was the World War I-era dress purchased by a young bride-to-be whose fiancée was killed before the wedding. She never wore the gown. It was packed away and has been seen by only a few people in the past century or so.
There were the two wedding
gowns worn by two women who live in the Bradenton area but went to Canada to be married. There's a dress worn at the weddings of four women from a Venice family between 1958 and 2014.
Erickson and Loccisano were determined to create an art exhibit, not a fashion exhibit. Although the changes in tastes and styles are evident in the fashions that span 160 years, the dresses, suits and accessories are arranged with an eye toward aesthetics, not history.
"They're sculptures made of fabric" Loccisano said.
By showing the gowns as fabric sculptures, Erickson said, the exhibit encourages visitors to look at wedding attire with a fresh eye.
"These dresses were made to be worn by women," Erickson said. "They weren't made to be looked at on their own."
Though white gowns predominate, Erickson said the tradition of white wedding dresses, and the association with chastity, goes back on to the 19th century.
"Blue is the color of virginity," he said, gesturing to the only blue dress in the exhibit. "People didn't start wearing white wedding dresses until Queen Victoria wore one, and she was trying to promote the Irish lace industry."
"Art of the Wedding Costume" is the third costume-oriented display Erickson and Loccisano have curated for the gallery. Five years ago they put together an exhibit of costumes from the Asolo Repertory Theatre, and last year they curated "Art of the Costume Reinvented," a display of theater costumes made from recycled and re-purposed materials. It was one of the most popular exhibits in the gallery's history. About 500 people showed up for the opening reception.
The opening reception for the new exhibit is set for 6-8 p.m. Friday. Wedding cake will be served.
Details: Sept. 19-Dec. 3, State College of Florida College Fine Art Gallery, 5840 26th St. W., building 11 North, Bradenton. Admission: Free. Exhibit hours: 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Monday-Friday. Information: 941-752-5225, scf.edu.
Marty Clear, features writer/columnist, can be reached at 941-708-7919. Follow twitter.com/martinclear.