Double Brides: narratives of desire in the ‘wedding dresses’ of lesbian couples after the Civil Partnership Act UK, 2004.

Catherine Harper

Research output: Chapter in Book/Conference proceeding with ISSN or ISBNConference contribution with ISSN or ISBNpeer-review


This paper seeks to activate a particular fashioned garment (a bronze lamé cocktail dress from 1952), with its own set of fictions (constructed as recounted memories), narratives (related through a photographic record of its original wearer) and mythologies (as conjured through the particular symbolic meaning of specific contexts), to bring new critical-creative understanding to a contemporary story. The Partnership Act 2004 (UK) permitted same-sex ‘marriages’, and in September 2006 my partner and I enacted our ‘special day’. With two ‘brides’, the ‘wedding dress(es)’ became material sites of self-identification and mediated contestation. My partner, at the last moment, refused her shop-bought frock for a cocktail dress owned by her mother and worn to her mother’s sister’s wedding in 1952. The layers of significance captured in this dress were considerable – it had been created specially for this woman’s sister’s wedding, and its use as a means by which a working class woman from London became regal and filmic just for a day are captured in a black and white photograph from the wedding reception. This image in turn finds numerous reflections in the imaging and construction of post-War womanhood through fashion, film and popular cultural references in the late 1940s and early 1950s. These tell a broader tale of fashion culture’s reconfiguration of women as elegant, glamorous, ‘womanly’ after the confusion of gender roles, and their silhouettes, during the war years. My role in September 2006 became that of a seamstress, charged with making good a dress falling apart at the seams. These acts of repair took place before and during the celebrations, and the dress took on a key significance in marking, documenting, investigating and explaining the significance and meaning of our day with its own constructed fictions, narratives and mythologies. As a ‘text’, the dress documented the slippages of gender role, glamour, and ‘womanliness’ our story enacted Using material cultural concepts and ideologies variously mobilised via Burman’s The Culture of Sewing (1999), my maternal grandmother’s whitework embroidery, and Gober’s Untitled (Bridal Photo) (1996), this paper examines how the sewing of a garment – previously used in my family to enact the discipline, frugality and virtue of Northern Irish Presbyterianism – was used here to (re)construct (queer) femininity. The dress, already invested with the perceived decadence of 1950s London, tempered with the respectability of my partner’s mother’s successful role as wife and mother, is relocated on a lesbian body, thereby reconfiguring its constructed meanings of the feminine. Yet, by being configured as a bridal gown, this garment re-entered the feminine normative, only to quick skip away as the ‘groom’ gets revealed as a ‘second bride’. The tendency of the dress to fall apart throughout the ‘marriage’ day, and to require repeated mending, set up a dynamic of fixity and slippage, with sewing being the act of temporary anchorage in a field of uncertainty. The tight, white stitching, taught by my puritanical grandmother (a keen homophobe within her generation and context), was re-activated in the subversive construction of a ‘lesbian bride’. But, and to continue to trouble the normative, just as most grooms work hard to eagerly unlace the body, this female ‘groom’ laboured to sew up the gaps where flesh threatened to emerge…
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationFashion in Fiction conference
Publication statusPublished - 27 May 2007
EventFashion in Fiction conference - UTS, Sydney, Australia
Duration: 27 May 2007 → …


ConferenceFashion in Fiction conference
Period27/05/07 → …

Bibliographical note

Versions of this paper have also been presented at the Association of Art Historians conference (Belfast, 2007), the Design Research Society conference (Dublin, 2008), the Design History Research Centre (University of Brighton, 2008), and at London College of Fashion’s Public Lecture series (2008).

The paper forms the basis for a commissioned chapter titled Double Brides: Double Dresses: lesbian wedding dresses after the Civil Partnership Act UK, 2004, in McNeil, P., Karaminas, V., Cole, C. Fashion in Fiction: Text and Clothing in Literature, Film and Television. UTS/Berg: 2009.


  • civil partnerships
  • UK
  • wedding dress
  • lesbian brides


Dive into the research topics of 'Double Brides: narratives of desire in the ‘wedding dresses’ of lesbian couples after the Civil Partnership Act UK, 2004.'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this