Guest Speaker

As a sought-after guest speaker, Cornelia Powell shares entertaining costume history presentations featuring influential personalities from Downton Abbey's Lady Mary to Princess Diana. Below are descriptions (a short and long version) of her talk and PowerPoint presentation based on her new book, The End of the Fairy-Tale Bride {Volume One} For Better or Worse, How Princess Diana Rescued the Great White Wedding.

[Short Version]

For Better or Worse, How Princess Diana Rescued the Great White Wedding

In the middle of the nineteenth century, “the custom-made, white wedding, with all the frills we know so well,” explained British historian Ann Monsarrat, came together “to make the great tradition.” Launched by Queen Victoria’s all-white, orange-blossom nuptials in 1840 with their sentimental ethos, brides and their wedding-planning mothers followed suit for over a hundred years, using “all the ingredients we now think of as virtually indispensable to a white wedding.”

But this “great white wedding” and its beloved traditions of fancy costumes, cakes and rituals—as well as its “immense and highly organized industry”—could have all flamed out in the purple haze of the counterculture revolution of the late 1960s and ‘70s if not for Lady Diana Spencer’s charismatic appeal as a royal bride during her wedding to a prince in the summer of 1981. Therefore, for better or worse, helped along with a little Reaganomics as well as society’s need for order and tradition with a dash of “all that glitters” obsession, the “great white wedding” comes back from the brink in the 1980s even more opulent and universally appealing than ever. And the white bridal gown, as curator and author Eleanor Thompson shared, was its “ubiquitous standard-bearer.”

In this presentation, full of intriguing stories and beautiful images, Cornelia Powell shares stories and descriptions from her new book, The End of the Fairy-Tale Bride: {Volume One} For Better or Worse, How Princess Diana Rescued the Great White Wedding. The book explores the lasting influence of an archetypal princess on the world of weddings: the fashion and the fairy tale, the superficial and the divine. And this presentation expands the narrative into an entertaining pictorial history of “the great white wedding.”
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[Long Version]

For Better or Worse, How Princess Diana Rescued the Great White Wedding

Princess Diana did not invent our fascination with royalty; stories of nobility and their grand rituals have long captured our attention. However, “royalty acquired the status of stardom when she entered the royal enclosure,” British journalist Beatrix Campbell wrote, and after Diana’s glittering wedding in the summer of 1981, the wedding celebration, after nearly two decades of social upheaval, once again became society’s favorite “pomp and posh circumstance” dress-up ritual.

In this presentation, full of intriguing stories and beautiful images, Cornelia Powell shares stories and descriptions from her new book, The End of the Fairy-Tale Bride: {Volume One} For Better or Worse, How Princess Diana Rescued the Great White Wedding. The book explores the lasting influence of an archetypal princess on the world of weddings: the fashion and the fairy tale, the superficial and the divine.

In the middle of the nineteenth century, “the custom-made, white wedding, with all the frills we know so well,”explained British historian Ann Monsarrat, came together “to make the great tradition.”Launched by Queen Victoria’s all-white, orange-blossom nuptials with their sentimental ethos, brides and their wedding-planning mothers followed suit for over a hundred years, using “all the ingredients we now think of as virtually indispensable to a white wedding.”

But this “great white wedding”and its beloved traditions—as well as its “immense and highly organized industry”—could have all flamed out in the purple haze of the counterculture revolution of the late 1960s and ‘70s if not for Lady Diana Spencer’s charismatic appeal as a royal bride. Therefore, for better or worse, helped along with a little Reaganomics as well as society’s need for order and tradition with a dash of “all that glitters” obsession, the “great white wedding” comes back from the brink in the 1980s even more opulent and universally appealing than ever. And the white bridal gown, as curator and author Eleanor Thompson shared, was its “ubiquitous standard-bearer.”

Diana chose David and Elizabeth Emanuel to design her wedding gown. The young husband and wife team—known for, as described by costume curator and writer Kay Staniland, their “full blown romantic style”—was familiar to some of the younger royals and British Vogue alike. The designers’ intent, following Diana’s lead, was “to transform [her] into a fairy princess.” This included a poufy-sleeved, full crinoline silhouette reminiscent of Queen Victoria’s wedding dress (Diana’s gown was also made with silk threads spun by Britain’s only silk farm and custom woven by an English mill); a Spencer family heirloom diamond tiara (and no orange blossoms); lots of flowing silk tulle veils and, breaking with royal custom, her face covered upon entering the cathedral. (Diana’s veil was called a “shroud” by many feminists at the time and “ethereal” by as many others.) I will talk about details of the gown’s design that not only started fashion trends—and still evokes impassioned critiques—but, shaped by the concept of “time spirit,”also changed something fundamental in women’s relationship with themselves as a bride and as a woman.
Ms. Powell shares that although she did not know it at the time, Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer’s wedding would influence her own life by stimulating an outdated bridal industry, changing the nature of weddings. In the mid-80s, she opened a “bridal art-to-wear” store in Atlanta on the energetic groundswell that followed their royal wedding as well as, paradoxically, the third wave of feminism. As women’s roles were changing and expanding, their interest in marriage and how and when to be married, or whether to marry again, or if at all, was changing too. She designed her store in part for this “new woman”—a store for the “grown-up bride.”  And, as it was soon revealed, she opened the shop just in time for the approaching second-coming of the “great white wedding.” Through the years, Ms. Powell's experiences working with those thousands of brides formed a unique view into the psychology and mythology of a woman’s relationship with her wedding dress as well as the transformational nature of a bride’s rite-of-passage.

During the presentation, the audience will also get a look at the rather mystical allure of wearing white; the spectacle of post-Diana celebrity weddings; the public’s fascination with wedding gown designs from Kate Middleton to Downton Abbey; the lasting effect of the “princess myth”; how “history, often seen through art and literature, has shaped our perceptions of how the modern bride appears”; and how Diana—the world’s most famous celebrity and ultimate princess bride—has become part of these historical perceptions.
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