Walking down the aisle seems to have been a form of exercise for Marjorie Merriweather Post, who got married four times. An index to changing fashion trends, her wedding dresses are at the heart of the exhibit "Wedding Belles: Bridal Fashions from the Marjorie Merriweather Post Family, 1874-1958."
This compact fashion show offers the perfect excuse to visit Hillwood Estate, Museum and Gardens, the northwest Washington estate that stands as a testament to the cereal heiress' taste.
A famous socialite and philanthropist, Post (1887-1973) has a name that is most familiar to people in Maryland owing to the concert pavilion that bears her name in downtown Columbia.
A walk through this exhibit and the rest of Hillwood makes one wonder what she would have made of the contemporary rock music that now predominates at the concert pavilion, because her own traditional collecting habits ranged from sumptuous imperial Russian art to fancy, fussy and frilly 18th-century French decorative art.
Her impressive mansion and its 25 acres of landscaped gardens and dense woods reinforce her reputation as a member of what amounted to American aristocracy.
It seems like her entire aristocratic family was blessed with a sense of style. Besides showcasing what Post wore for her weddings, the exhibit also includes wedding dresses worn by her mother and her own daughters. Incidentally, Post's youngest daughter is the actress Dina Merrill. These wealthy women cut quite a figure through decades of American history.
"This exhibit encapsulates her personal story, but also the evolution of American women," noted Kate Markert, executive director of Hillwood. "It's a family of strong women that we get to know."
Basically, we get to know them through their choices in bridal gowns. The exhibit's opening section includes the wedding dress worn by Marjorie's mother, Ella Merriweather, when she married Charles William Post in 1874. This gray taffeta dress has an extensively ruffled, very full design incorporating the tight corset favored in the Victorian era.
For Marjorie Merriweather Post's first wedding in 1905 to attorney Edward Bennett Close, she wore a white satin gown embroidered with an orange blossom design. This Edwardian-style dress emphasized the 18-year-old bride's hourglass figure.
When Post married her second husband, financial investor E.F. Hutton, in 1920, she opted for a lighter gauze dress that seems to anticipate the upcoming flapper era with its relatively higher hemline. By this time in her life, she was the toast of New York and Palm Beach society.
Husband number three was attorney Joseph E. Davies, whom she married in 1935. When Davies was appointed the American ambassador to the Soviet Union, Post began collecting the Russian art that now fills so much of Hillwood. The dress she wore for this third wedding was purchased at Bergdorf Goodman in New York. This peach velvet dress with white fox fur trim on its considerable train looks like something you'd see in a Hollywood movie of that era.
For her fourth and final wedding to businessman Herbert May in 1958, the veteran bride wore a relatively restrained pale blue, ballerina-length dress befitting the then-71-year-old socialite. The wedding reception, which was held right there at Hillwood, included an orchestra and a ballet performance.
Marjorie Merriweather Post knew how to express herself through her wardrobe choices, so looking at the displayed outfits really does give you a sense of her personality.
"She had a very gracious sense of self. She knew what was her style and she created her own style," says Howard Vincent Kurtz, assistant curator of costumes and textiles at Hillwood, who curated this exhibit.
Just as Post carefully preserved and archived the decorative art she collected, she kept her old dresses. Kurtz relates a story he heard from Dina Merrill attesting to how Post loved to take out these dresses and try them on again: "Dina Merrill says that she and her mother played dress up and then put everything away again for another day of play. Starting her theatrical career, Dina was drawn to the idea of dressing up and presenting yourself."
Post, who was proud of the fact that she retained her corset-enforced hourglass figure throughout her life, evidently never had difficulty fitting into her wedding gowns and other by-then antique dresses.
Dresses worn by Post, Merrill and other family members aren't the only wedding-related items in this exhibit. There are hats and veils, wedding invitations, newspaper accounts of these major social events, and even a Cartier wedding purse.
The wedding dresses and accessories brought out of storage for this small exhibit are but a tiny percentage of Post's overall wardrobe holdings. Hillwood possesses a total of 175 dresses and 400 fashion accessories. Consider those numbers the next time you look into your own closet. Some therapeutic shopping may be in order.
"Wedding Belles: Bridal Fashions from the Marjorie Merriweather Post Family, 1874-1958" remains through Jan. 1, 2012 at Hillwood Estate, Museum and Gardens, at 4155 Linnean Avenue in northwest Washington, D.C.. Call 202-686-5807 or go to http://www.HillwoodMuseum.org.