A Century of Wedding Gowns exhibition at Ripon Cathedral

A century of bridal gowns line up in Ripon Cathedral 

A century of bridal gowns line up in Ripon Cathedral - Credit: Kathryn Armstrong

Ripon Cathedral hosts a magical exhibition charting the changes in wedding dress fashions over a century.

Christine Wood thought her much-loved wedding dress was all but lost in the 57 years since her big day at Ripon Cathedral. 

But during a lockdown clear out Christine’s husband Tony made the surprise discovery and the wedding dress she thought she’d lost managed to escape the skip to be in her hands once again.  

‘We’d moved between Harrogate and Birstwith and I thought it had been lost between moving – so it had been missing for 41 or 42 years,’ she recalls.  

Christine Wood and the wedding dress she was reunited with after a lockdown clear out

Christine Wood and the wedding dress she was reunited with after a lockdown clear out - now on show at Ripon Cathedral - Credit: Kathryn Armstrong

Christine’s dress is more than making up for lost time. Now it’s among a number of gowns taking pride of place at Ripon Cathedral, where Christine was married in 1964. 

Her white dress was a design of its time – nipped-in waist, full skirt and big sleeves trimmed with lace. It was designed and made for her at The Bridal House on The Headrow in Leeds.  

Christine’s dress is one of many donated to an exhibition running at Ripon Cathedral called, ‘A Century of Wedding Gowns’ with dresses, headdresses and veils collected from 1885 to 2021. 

Detail from a winter velvet dress designed in 1923 by Coco Chanel for a family friend

Detail from a winter velvet dress designed in 1923 by Coco Chanel for a family friend - it was never worn as the bride eloped with her father's chauffeur before the big day! - Credit: Kathryn Armstrong

It’s a gorgeous piece of history with many stories - like Christine’s - told in words and pictures with throwback photographs of the big day. Styles change enormously over the decades and it makes fascinating viewing to see the changing shape of gowns, from handmade to machine-made, lace to satin, and the fashionable of its time 1970s crocheted dress costing £8 and made from a pattern in Woman’s Weekly. 

Of its time - this 1970s crocheted dress cost £8 and was made from a pattern in Woman’s Weekly

Of its time - this 1970s crocheted dress cost £8 and was made from a pattern in Woman’s Weekly - Credit: Kathryn Armstrong

There’s a 1923 winter velvet dress handmade made by Coco Chanel, a copy of the gown worn by Katherine Worsley to the Duke of Kent for their wedding at York Minster in 1961.  

You can also take a peek at a copy of the Crawley’s Downton Tiara worn in the TV series Downton Abbey.  

On display is the wedding dress of Jo Ropner, the Lord Lieutenant of North Yorkshire. She was married to Robert Ropner in Dunblane Cathedral in 1986 and wore silk and lace gown from Tatters in London for her big day and a family headdress and veil. 

Dresses through the century reflect changing fashions and fabrics 

Dresses through the century reflect changing fashions and fabrics - Credit: Kathryn Armstrong

Some of the most fascinating dresses are those made by hand – often by family dressmakers during periods of recession when fabric was in short supply. Beautiful examples of what you might call austerity gowns, made with great skill, attention to detail and simplicity.  

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At the other end of the spectrum, you can also see a lavish dress donated by Kleinfeld in New York, a store known to fans of ‘Say Yes to the Dress’ on TV. 

Exhibition curator Kevin Thornhill has long been in the fashion business and collects the dresses to take on tour for charity. To date exhibitions like the one at Ripon have raised more than £265,000.  

An art and design graduate from Manchester University, he served his time with the Emmanuels at Brook Street in Mayfair before going on to make and design costumes for a number of London West End musicals before eventually returning to his native North East to open a bridal studio. 

B44WM1 Prince Charles and Princess Diana return from St Paul s cathedral July 81 after their wedding

Exhibition curator Kevin Thornhill was part of the Emmanuel team who made this famous gown for Princess Diana and dressed her on the day of the wedding - Credit: Alamy Stock Photo

Kevin has his own fascinating piece of wedding dress history. As a designer he worked on the wedding dress of Diana, Prince of Wales when he worked for David and Elizabeth Emmanuel, who created Diana’s iconic dress. 

He was one of the team who dressed Diana for her wedding to Prince Charles in 1981. 

‘The dress was layer upon layer upon layer of net. It had been stored flat so we got her in it then had to pull out the layers of net to get it to its shape – so we were underneath it!  

‘Getting it inside the carriage was a challenge – the dress was huge and the carriage had a tiny seat – we looked at the dress and though how the hell is that going in there? Certainly, there was no practice run. We tried to concertina the train in so that when she got out it would fall properly but it was creased when she got out!’ 

The exhibition is raising funds for the Cathedral’s upkeep and there are two fashion shows featuring replica gowns on July 29, the fortieth anniversary of Charles and Diana’s wedding. This will feature replicas of the most recent royal wedding gowns.  

Continuing the wedding theme, Ripon Cathedral will hold a Golden Wedding Service on October 3 this year as a celebration of thanksgiving for those who have been married 50 years.  

Details at riponcathedral.org.uk