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A century of Gilded Age weddings ...

A century of Gilded Age weddings ...

Famed cake decorator Ceil Burbridge creates a wedding cake at Ventfort Hall with the help of her husband, John Burbridge.

Thursday, June 04

Something old, in pleated silk and lace, is displayed at Arrowhead in Pittsfield; something new will appear at the Colonial Theatre, and something borrowed represents nearly 200 years of Berkshire wedding gowns at Ventfort Hall in Lenox. Coming out of the closets at the Berkshire Historical Society, some of the county's most extravagant wedding gowns of the past — 29 of them — are being shown in newly restored second floor rooms at Ventfort Hall until January 15, 2010. The oldest gown dates back to 1815, but the oldest item in the exhibition is a single wedding slipper worn in 1776. Many of the gowns, however, were worn by Berkshire brides in the Gilded Age that Ventfort Hall represents. It's a proper marriage of fashion and architecture.

Curated by historian Maureen Hennessy, the exhibit branches out to a special wedding breakfast setup in the dining room at Naumkeag. The Arrowhead collection has loaned two wedding dresses and a footman's uniform to the Trustees of Reservations for the historic summer home of Ambassador Joseph Hodges Choate. The exhibit is based on a photo of an 1895 wedding breakfast at Naumkeag.

"Part of our mission," says Betsy Sherman, executive director of the Berkshire Historical Society at Arrowhead, "is to share history with the populace. Clothing is by far the biggest part of our collection, and clothing tells stories."

One of the loveliest dresses in the exhibit was worn by Josephine Boardman when she married U.S. Senator Winthrop Murray Crane of Dalton in 1906. Boardman, well-known in Washington, D.C., society, perhaps caught the senator's eye during one of her many visits to the Senate gallery. Twenty years younger than the senator, Boardman came to Washington with her parents from Cleveland and made her debut there.

In any case, after 25 years as a widower Crane married her, and her off-white dress, lavishly decorated with lace and with an eight-foot train, is among the many gowns that the Crane family has donated to the Berkshire Historical Society over the years. The Boardmans had what The New York Times called "a magnificent home" on Dupont Circle, and the wedding took place at their country home in Manchester-by-the-Sea.

Senator Crane certainly made his mark in the nation's capital and in Dalton, but his bride had many achievements also, especially in education and art. She brought an innovative educator named Helen Parkhurst to Dalton to teach the couple's three children. When Parkhurst returned to New York, she founded the famous Dalton School, using educational methods that evolved during her stint in Berkshire County's Dalton.

After the senator's death in 1920, Mrs. Crane returned to New York, became one of the founders of the Museum of Modern Art and hosted a weekly literary salon at her apartment.

Other notable gowns in the "Something Old, Something New: 200 Years of Berkshire Brides" exhibit include the oldest in the historical society's collection, a dress from 1815 that a young bride brought from Germany after her wedding, and a gown created by famed designer Charles Frederick Worth. Some of the dresses, Hennessy pointed out, were two-piece, which made it easier to wear either of the parts later on, and some of them are colorful rather than white, ivory or ecru.

Men were apparently less likely to save wedding attire, but the Berkshire Historical Society has a vest worn by Zenas Crane when he married in 1839 and a tie worn by Senator Crane at his first wedding in 1880. Veils, gloves and invitations round out the exhibit at Ventfort Hall.

But those whose interest is piqued need not stop there. Downstairs is the continuing exhibition of John Burbidge's "Les Petite Dames de Mode," miniatures dressed to perfection in various eras and including eight wedding gowns.

As part of this year's Ventfort Hall/Arrowhead collaboration, visitors will be able to purchase a combination ticket that gives them half-price admission to Arrowhead.

Here comes the bride ...

Four different Berkshire venues have come together to create this year's bridal extravaganza. Three linked historical displays have opened, two in Bershire Cottages and one at Herman Melville's home in the 1850s:

  • "Something Old, Something New: 200 Years of Berkshire Brides" at Ventfort Hall Mansion and Gilded Age Museum, 104 Walker St., Lenox., through January 15, 2010. First floor includes "Les Petites Dames de Mode" by John Burbidge, retired senior designer for Priscilla of Boston and designer of wedding gowns for Tricia Nixon and Lucy Johnson. www.gildedage.org.
  • Arrowhead, 780 Holmes Road, Pittsfield. Beside Melville's famous chimney and the room where he wrote "Moby-Dick," the Berkshire Historical Society is showing one bridal gown, possibly worn by one of the author's sisters and worn a second time in 1944 by a Melville descendant. Admission half price with Ventfort Hall ticket. More information: www.mobydick.org.
  • Naumkeag, Prospect Hill Road, Stockbridge. A 1895 photo has inspired a special set-up for a wedding breakfast with two gowns and a footman's outfit loaned by the Berkshire Historical Society. www.thetrustees.org.
  • The Colonial Theatre wil host a contemporary show of gowns and all things bridal, "I Do! Berkshire Bridal Fashion Show," with Deidre's bridal shop from 4 to 7 p.m. on Sunday, June 14, at 111 South Street, Pittsfield. Proceeds will benefit the Colonial Theatre and Berkshire Historical Society. For tickets, call (413) 997-4444. More information at www.thecolonialtheatre.org.
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