Currently on show at the V&A is an exhibition documenting the development of the ‘fashionable white wedding dress’ and its interpretation by fashion designers, from 1775 to today. Highlights include the nuptial garments worn by celebrities such as Kate Moss and Dita Von Teese, as well as intricately made lace veils and other accessories that have played, and continue to play an important part during weddings.
Despite the superstar appeal, the exhibition does not discuss the wedding ceremony itself, and how a number of elements, apart from the iconic white dress and its accessories, contribute to the overall experience and spectacle of it. More temporary items I believe, like the wedding cake, equally deserve to be taken into account. What I find the most fascinating about wedding cakes is how they are constructed to resemble architectural bodies.Wedding cakes and architecture may seem like a random coupling, but in fact, this unlikely pairing ‘can be traced back at least as far back as the Renaissance', according to historian Donald Bassett. This article will be the first of two, and will briefly discuss what has been written about the wedding cake and its main components: construction, height, ornamentation, colour, and its meaning. The second article (published in July), will draw together wedding cakes and the field of architecture, in the hopes of furthering what scholars like Donald Bassett have started.
With the recent surge of interest in food and its history, several historians have shifted their focus onto the way in which this iconic cake has been socially and culturally designed, but also how it has been physically constructed. After all, food, even though it is temporal, is always shaped in some way before it is consumed. Wedding cakes are really just one example of this phenomenon. They provide an intriguing case study however, because the ritual to which they are bound is familiar to us, and has punctuated our lives either through our direct involvement (by active participation), or passive experience of it (e.g. hearing about it from a friend). From an anthropological and sociological perspective, Simon Charsley argues that he has often chosen the wedding cake as a focus of his studies ‘because it is an epitome of the familiar and taken-for-granted features of culture which, without the exotic anthropologist’s stimulus of strangeness, find it so difficult to secure serious research attention’. This attitude, some may say, is not entirely limited to anthropologists. At the broadest level, a wedding cake can be defined as ‘a construction of three large cakes, “tiers”, arranged in declining size one above the other’. In fact, one of the most striking features about wedding cakes is how high they are. To me, they resemble miniature sky scrapers.
In the nineteenth century, royal wedding cakes often reached stupendous heights. Queen Victoria’s cake may have only been ‘a fairly unornamented “great beast of a plum cake”‘, but her daughter’s cake stretched to ‘six or seven feet high’. In 1893, the then Duke of York (the future King George V) even had a four-tiered cake.
Height was achieved by stacking ‘concentric drums of decreasing size’. More figuratively speaking, the cakes were placed one on top of the other, ‘rather like a succession of hatboxes’ as Carol Wilson comments. In constructing this multi-tiered cake, the baker or confectioner had to have sound knowledge of the materials used. As such it was important that the icing in between each cake layer had hardened ‘to prevent the upper tiers from sinking into the lower layers’.
Cake tiers were baked individually and separated by ‘pillars’, a trend that arose towards the end of the nineteenth century. Broom stick handles covered in icing were commonly recommended as adequate cake pillars and generally ‘rested on a board beneath each cake'; although how exactly this was done is unclear. The use of pillars in this fashion had the added benefit of elevating the cake even higher, further increasing the cake’s ‘architectural potential', as Bassett puts it.
Another general rule states that the cake tiers often matched, and were covered in a uniform layer of marzipan. Piped icing was also another popular form of decoration, which was painstakingly applied in a lacey pattern on the surfaces of the cakes. Introduced from ‘the continent’ in the mid-nineteenth century, this technique was adopted ‘first and foremost to wedding cakes’, and was hailed as a relatively affordable way of including the repetitive ornamentation that has become so characteristic of wedding cakes.
Inedible (or edible) ornaments were attached to the sides, with a final figure representing the bride and groom, placed on the last tier.
White was not just the colour of choice for wedding dresses, but equally for the cakes. ‘A pure white color was much sought after, as white icing on a wedding cake symbolizes purity and virginal attributes’, although this notion only became more established during the Victorian era. Complemented by the intricate piped white icing, the finished wedding cake was not just an example of spectacular craftsmanship, but equally reflected the bride’s moral values.White was also used to display a family’s wealth. As Wilson points out: ‘white icing meant that only the finest refined sugar had been used’, an expensive commodity at the time.
In the twentieth century, a slight parting from the traditional colour scheme became apparent. ‘Colours may diverge from “virginal white”‘, as Simon Charsley writes, ‘but in general though, the colours chosen represented no more than pale and modest divergences’. Cakes in stronger colours like pink or blue may have been commissioned occasionally, but lemon, lilac, peach, cream or mauve were popular colour options that were original and potentially reflected the character of the bride and groom, but that still linked back to the virginal white that became popular in Victorian times.
Of course, the ritualistic consumption of the wedding cake, demonstrated through the cutting of the cake and by sharing slices of it with one’s guests, is also worth mentioning. But for now, I hope that I have simply wet your appetite for the second part of this article, which will further examine the ‘architectural potential’ of the wedding cake.
__________________________ ‘Wedding Dresses 1775-2014: About the Exhibition’, http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/exhibitions/wedding-dress-1775-2014/wedding-dress-1775-2014-about-the-exhibition/ [accessed May 2014]  Donald Bassett, Victorian Cakes and Architecture, The British Art Journal, Vol. 11, No. 2 (2010), p.76  Simon Charsley, ‘Interpretation and Custom: The Case of the Wedding Cake’, Man, New Series, Vol. 22, No. 1 (Mar., 1987), p.95  Simon Charsley, ‘Interpretation and Custom: The Case of the Wedding Cake’, Man, New Series, Vol. 22, No. 1 (Mar., 1987), p.95  Donald Bassett, ‘Victorian Cakes and Architecture’, The British Art Journal, Vol. 11, No. 2 (2010), p.78  Donald Bassett, ‘Victorian Cakes and Architecture’, The British Art Journal, Vol. 11, No. 2 (2010), p.78; Carol Wilson, ‘Wedding Cake’, p.71  Carol Wilson, ‘Wedding Cake’, p.71  Donald Bassett, ‘Victorian Cakes and Architecture’, The British Art Journal, Vol. 11, No. 2 (2010), p.78; Carol Wilson, ‘Wedding Cake’, p.71  Donald Bassett, ‘Victorian Cakes and Architecture’, The British Art Journal, Vol. 11, No. 2 (2010), p.78  Simon Charsley, ‘Interpretation and Custom: The Case of the Wedding Cake’, Man, New Series, Vol. 22, No. 1 (Mar., 1987), p.95  Carol Wilson, ‘Wedding Cake’, p.70  Simon Charsley, ‘Interpretation and Custom’, p.96
Zenia Malmer –
Zenia graduated from Oxford Brookes University with a degree in English and Arts Management. She worked at the Ministry of Culture in Luxembourg as a project coordinator for three years before embarking on the History of Design course. Her current research interests lie at the intersection of food and design history: from the nineteenth-century tools and technologies designed to make smooth and creamy ice cream, to figuring out how Baumkuchen got its distinctive shape.
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© Zenia Malmer, 2014. All Rights Reserved.