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Friday, April 27 Local

A bridal fashion walk down the aisle of time

The barn at the Darien Historical Society has been transformed into a bridal showroom that offers anyone stepping inside a walk through time and fashion.

Twenty-one dresses are on display in "Here Come the Brides -- Grace and Elegance 1855 to 1950," the historical society's fashion exhibition, which opens Friday, April 25.

The society, 45 Old Kings Highway North, has displayed four exhibits in the barn in the past featuring fashion styles from the Jazz Age to the women of Prospect Avenue in Darien. Over the years, dresses are donated to the historical society and placed in acid-free boxes on the second floor of the barn, waiting to be used.

"What was left, but the brides," Babs White, the curator of the exhibit, said. "Above all, people are going to keep their bridal gowns."

The dresses showcase period styles such as bustles, large puffed sleeves, corsets and princess-style cuts.

"Brides followed the fashion of the day, but made the dress her own," White said.

From all the dresses donated to the exhibit, White attempted to choose the most unique ones.

Tia Sidey, of Norwalk, donated the dress belonging to her mother-in-law, Eileen Wilkenson, who was married in 1941. Wilkenson, whose father was the Lord Mayor of London during the London Blitz, tried to have her wedding in two churches, but they both were bombed.

She was successful with the third church she selected, and wore a dress made of silk satin that featured a four-leaf clover motif, because her birthday was on St. Patrick's Day. The high-neck, long-sleeved fitted dress was so small that White had difficulty buttoning all the buttons that ran down the back of the dress to put the dress on the mannequin.

Walking through the exhibit, visitors may notice that none of the dresses are stark white. While some of them have yellowed from age, White doesn't believe any were pure white, but rather cream.

Each dress tells its own story. One silk dress from 1896 is deteriorating because of the fabric. White explained that silk thread was sold by the pound to weavers. Before the thread was shipped, the natural silk gum was removed, decreasing the weight. In order for the sellers to maintain the original weight of the silk, they added a weighting substance: arsenic, which is slowly breaking down the fabric, making the dress look as though it was shredded. The practice of adding the weighting substance was stopped in the 1920s.

Wealthy Albro's dress is the first dress visitors see when walking into the room. She was a bride of the gilded age, White said. Albro married Richard Lewis in New York in 1883.

"When she was a little girl, she probably played with her bridal doll and imagined or dreamt of the day she would be in this magnificent gown," White said. "And her parents would give the big reception with prominent members of their family and then she would go on an extended honeymoon to Europe with her husband, leaving plenty of time to drop into Paris couture and him to go to London for his clothes."

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The dress features extravagant beading along the skirt and a unique hem line. The train on the skirt is one of the longest of all the dresses on display and is fanned out behind the mannequin.

"You'll find a lot of the pleating and embellishments were because of the Industrial Revolution because that involved the invention of the sewing machine so the dress makers could trim with these elaborate hems," White said.

The bridal exhibit has been in production since September 2013, White said, which involved selecting the dresses, dressing the mannequins and filling the dresses, creating the paper hair pieces and stylizing the flowers and overall look of the room.

The exhibit will run from Friday, April 25, through August during the regular historical society hours. A champagne reception will take place on April 25 at 6:30 p.m. While the exhibit is on display, there will be two events to meet with White on May 8 and May 21.

There will be a champagne reception on Friday, April 25, from 6:30 to 9 p.m. Tickets are $50 for members and $60 for nonmembers.

An evening reception with the curator is scheduled for Thursday, May 8, from 7 to 9 p.m. The cost is $20 for members and $25 for nonmembers.

Coffee with the curator will be available on Wednesday, May 21, at 9:30 a.m. Tickets are $10 for members and $15 for nonmembers.

mspicer@bcnnew.com; 203-330-6583; @Meg_DarienNews