There are very few moments in my life that absolutely move me to my core and take my breath away.
This incredible concept, shoot and video by husband and wife duo Jo and Guille of Viva La Wedding is one of them.
Our visions of beauty and our desire to be ‘seen / reflected’ start from when we are children. Lupita confirms this in her speech at an Essence Magazine event in 2014.
I’ve said it before, Disney is a powerful influencer. I see it in my god-daughter, in my friends children, playing dress up and watching Disney cartoons on repeat. I experienced it. I lived it. So this collage of Lupita (in an exquisite Prada Nairobi blue dress) next to the ‘common’ ideal of a princess ‘Cinderella’, floating around the internet made an impression on my heart. Little girls (and boys) NEED to see diversity in beauty. Nova, Nu Bride, 2014
It was Jo of Manchester based photographer and cinematographers, Viva La Wedding, that became inspired to take on the mother of all concept shoots for Nu Bride, after really being touched by this article I wrote on the perception of beauty.
The perception and standards of beauty in a western society are often limited to one or two ideals. The impact this can have on self-worth and feeling de-humanised, can be enormous. But with Viva La Weddings’ deliciously diverse client base, Jo just couldn’t understand, nor accept why the mainstream wedding industry seemed to be failing so many couples by simply not representing them.
When Jo first contacted me to collaborate and explained her concept to re-define Disney Princesses using real women, with a bridal twist, I said – ‘WOAH you do you realise this is an almighty task don’t you Jo?’
Not phased at all (well, maybe a little bit!) with a tiny bit of guidance from me, a passionate Jo started to put together her ideas and a team who I am absolutely grateful for, and in awe of.
In just under 18 months and several emails, idea’s and perfect location hunts later, I am so floored to be able to share this incredible shoot with you. Put together so eloquently by Viva La Wedding, with exquisite styling by Pamella Dunn and beautiful and creative hair and make up by Aimee Akbar.
During my speech after winning Editors Pick at The Wedding Blog Awards I remember saying; to take on any change, you need to firstly be brave enough to stand on your own, experience resistance, and raise awareness, to get people to understand the message, for it to resonate with them, but ultimately for them to want to make a difference. I am just one person – I can’t do it on my own and to have amazing people like this in the industry who dedicated their time and their craft for no motivation other than to make a change, to contribute to making the wedding industry more inclusive and to shift the standard of bridal beauty by simply representing more women, is incredible.
When I first watched the making of the Real Princesses shoot by Viva la Wedding, I wept – quite cathartically actually. The feelings and the impact low self-esteem, racism, feeling inferior, undesirable, self hate, all came flooding back. My journey to Nu Bride and my journey as an adolescent with very little self-esteem has not always been smooth. Boy watching this was such a high point for me on a personal level. Because it matters to so many people. Just listen to our real princesse’s Wendy and Sabbi recount their own personal experiences. Jo and Guille just get it and more importantly, they care.
I won’t say anymore, but will hand over to the sensational Jo at Viva la Wedding and her incredible team for the low down! Be inspired!
Talk us through your inspiration behind the real princesses shoot for Nu Bride?
I read a post on Nu Bride about Lupita Nyongo’s Oscar acceptance speech. In her speech Lupita talked about how as a child she used to pray to God that if she was a good girl, he would make her skin lighter. I just thought how awful that anyone should feel like that. It is so unfair that there are so few black and Asian beauty icons. White is a small part of the beautiful rainbow of humanity, but if you look at the fashion industry and the mainstream wedding industry in particular, it often feels like white is the only acceptable form of beauty. I wanted to do something to challenge that skewed perspective.
What was it about the article on Nu Bride that really resonated?
It was reading about how Nova’s personal experiences reflected Lupita’s and learning how this happens to a lot of young girls, that they are made to feel un-beautiful because they are under-represented in the mainstream fashion and beauty industries. Most of all, it was seeing the photograph of Lupita in her beautiful gown at the Oscars juxtaposed with the Disney Cinderella image and reading Nova’s words:
Neither is more beautiful than the other. Neither is more desirable. BUT we all deserve to be princesses, we all deserve to represented don’t we? Nova Reid
That got the cogs whirring.
I had wanted to do a shoot using black models ever since an article about colourism left me feeling outraged. (Nu Bride: don’t get me started on colourism, I’ll save that for another post!) But now I had a concept to base it around; princesses.
I know not every woman wants to be a princess. You could argue that princesses aren’t especially empowering, what with all that hanging around and waiting to be saved. (Nu Bride: lol! That’s the feminist in you Jo !) But you know what? I badly wanted to look like a princess on my wedding day!
It’s nice to be able to opt in and out of the princess thing. But if you are excluded because the mainstream media doesn’t show you any ‘princesses’ who look like you, then perhaps opting in is not so easy.
I often think that Asian and Oriental women seem to be even less visible in the wedding industry, so I decided to feature a Chinese and an Indian model in addition to a black model and at Nova’s suggestion I also included a redhead with gorgeous freckles. Bridal fashion features are so often about blondes and brunettes, and ginger-bashing seems to be so culturally acceptable that even Prince William thinks it’s OK to insult Harry for being a redhead. So I wanted to put all of these women with different looks on a pedestal and portray them as beauty icons.
What made you decide to choose real women over models ?
I think we are all a bit tired of seeing models who conform to such a specific body type. It’s an ideal which is not realistic and causes anxiety and body issues for a lot of women. Of course, the big names of the catwalk are stunning, but there is more to beauty than just that long-limbed, pared down silhouette. The Real Princesses shoot was about showing that women with all different kinds of looks are beautiful.
I also wanted to prove a point. If I, as a layperson, could call upon four friends and acquaintances of different looks and ethnicities and ask them to participate in a shoot, then the bridal industry could try a bit harder to include women various ethnicities and with different shapes and silhouettes.
My point was, that it’s really not that difficult: no castings, no models, just real women that I knew. Finding the models was actually one of the easiest parts of the Real Princesses journey.
One other lovely thing that came out of choosing real women is that my “models” really enjoyed being princesses for a day. It was really nice to see them get excited about trying on dresses and seeing themselves with a completely different look and I know that Tammy (Sleeping beauty) and Sabbi (Rapunzel) in particular felt more confident after being part of the shoot. (Nu Bride: Excellent!)
What was your inspiration behind each look and location?
I took my inspiration from the original fairy-tales and I was clear from the beginning that each tale had an iconic moment that we should depict.
Once I knew which princesses and which moments to capture, I had to find locations. I had already met Pamella Dunn, the amazing venue stylist and she jumped at the chance to participate. I really admired Pam’s work and I knew that if I found the right venues, she would work her magic to bring the fairytale settings to life.
It was Pam who brought Aimee Akbar on board as hair and makeup artist, as Aimee specialises in Asian bridal makeup and she and Pam had worked together previously styling black models. Nova had said it was important for us to work with a MUA who was inclusive and confident working with a variety of skin tones and hair types.
Of course for Sleeping Beauty the iconic moment was, lying fast asleep on a sumptuously decorated four-poster bed at Ordsall Hall.
I had visited Ordsall Hall with my children, so I knew they had four-poster beds that would be ideal for Sleeping Beauty. They were keen to be part of the shoot because they loved the concept.
The Sleeping Beauty shoot was to look very sumptuous and ornate. We wanted to mix cultures and styles, combining Indian wedding make up and accessories with an original western fairy tale. (Nu Bride: LOVE IT)
We knew pretty much straight away that Amanda Wyatt’s Juliette dress would be perfect for Sleeping Beauty.
Pam used sari fabric for the bedspread and the colour palette of gold, green, white and pale pink was rich but also light enough to provide a lovely contrast to Tammy’s glorious red hair. We completely stripped the four-poster bed and replaced the heavy velvet drapes with gorgeous lace curtains and a wreath of ferns and roses. Then Pam artfully arranged dark green foliage around the bedposts and placed the gorgeous blush pink David Austin garden roses (Patience, Keira and Sweet Avalanche varieties) around Tammy’s “sleeping” form. Pam had bought a spinning wheel to represent the moment when Sleeping Beauty pricks her finger, and for me the piece de resistance was the barbed wire that Pam had sprayed gold, to represent the tangle of thorns surrounding the castle.
Aimee’s work on this shoot was no less spectacular! Tammy’s hair is quite short in real life, but we wanted long hair for the shoot so Aimee ordered hair extensions. She had to select the colour from looking at a photo of Tammy, and fortunately it was a perfect match! With clever styling, she blended the extensions seamlessly into Tammy’s hair and created a romantic look with loose curls. Again, we were taking our inspiration from Asian bridal looks.
I think redhead’s are often seen as Celtic roses and styled with very minimal makeup. I wanted to move away from that and give Tammy a very strong, sexy look with smokey eyes and red lips, but with a very light base so that her freckles were still visible.
Aimee styles a lot of Asian brides so she is an expert at achieving the strong eyes, lips and brows of Asian bridal makeup. She really captured Tammy’s inner Indian princess! Aimee also supplied the Indian hairpiece with green gems that completed the look.
The iconic capture for Snow White, was the moment she bites into the apple.
Finding a venue for Snow White was more difficult, we needed a place with an old-fashioned kitchen that could represent the interior of the seven dwarves’ cottage.
I didn’t have much luck finding somewhere until in desperation I put a shout out on Facebook and an old school friend reminded me about the fabulous kitchen at Towneley Hall in Burnley, Lancashire. I grew up in nearby Rossendale, so I had visited the hall many times as a child. We went there for a recce and it was just perfect. Towneley Hall is a very imposing building and a great wedding venue. As well as the kitchen, we loved the tiny chapel where couples can be photographed on their big day.
We were really lucky that Gifty’s Snow White dress, the exquisite “Peacocks and Roses” by Designer Lucy Tammam of Atelier Tammam was a perfect fit.
For the Snow White shoot, Pam took her inspiration from the deep red of the poisoned apple. She suspended a cascade of luscious red Grand Prix roses from the kitchen range and scattered red rose petals around Gifty as she posed in the chapel. I wanted to give Gifty a very soft, feminine look with pastel lips and eyes.
Her hair was to echo the shape of the Disney Snow White style, but keeping the texture of Afro locks. So Aimee brought dreadlock hair extensions, which she combed out and plaited into a wide, loose braid which we placed on Gifty’s head like a crown. Pink David Austin Keira roses in Gifty’s hair and on her corsage reflected the lovely fabric flowers of the Lucy Tammam gown, which was just the right folkloric touch for Snow White.
Rapunzel’s iconic moment just had to be in the window of her tower.
For the location for Rapunzel, I was barking up the wrong tree for ages, looking for a tower, when in reality towers tend to have very small windows which wouldn’t allow Rapunzel’s dress to be seen to its full advantage.
Guille and I went to Darwen Tower near Blackburn, Lancashire on an incredibly windy day, when we pretty much had to crawl up the steep hill on all fours, (Nu Bride: Oh my gosh! The things you do for art! lol!) only to realise that it wasn’t a suitable location. But it was a useful trip for helping me to understand Guille’s vision. He wanted to close crop Rapunzel, so that the tower wouldn’t really be part of the shot.
Now I knew I was looking for a window close to ground level rather than a tower. Even so, it took me ages to find the right location. All the windows I found were too modern or too small and I realised I needed a ruin, with no glass and no windowframe. I searched Google images relentlessly until I found Whalley Abbey, also in Lancashire, and thankfully the staff were really accommodating and more than happy to let us shoot there, as they offer a fantastic wedding service that they wanted to promote.
Sabbi is a more curvy size 12-14, and as sample dresses from designers are usually 8-10, I decided to borrow a dress from a wedding boutique. I had met Lottie of Lottie’s Bridal Boutique and she kindly let us have our pick of her collection. It was such fun trying on the dresses at Lottie’s gorgeous boutique in Lytham St Anne’s, Lancashire. We were looking for a dress with long sleeves and a train that would have a romantic trail of fabric when Sabbi was seated in Rapunzel’s window, so 11412 by Ellis Bridal was the perfect choice.
At Viva la Wedding we cover a lot of Asian weddings and we find that Asian brides often have a civil ceremony where they wear a white wedding dress followed by a religious ceremony where they wear traditional costume. We photograph a lot of Asian brides wearing white dresses but with traditional henna designs on their hands and feet. I think it’s a gorgeous combination so when it came to styling Sabbi as Rapunzel, I really wanted her to have some mehndi or henna patterns.
Sabah at Beyond Henna was recommended to me by a local Facebook group, and she was kind enough to invite us to her house so that she could do Sabbi’s mehndi. It was a fascinating experience for me and amazing to see the skill and accuracy of Sabah’s work. I hadn’t realised that your movements are so restricted once the henna is applied. You have to be careful not to smudge the design and once it dries you apply sugar and lemon to set the henna and help darken the colour. It takes 24-48 hours for the colour to completely develop, so we had to go two days before the shoot. We also needed shoes that would show Sabbi’s hennaed feet off to their full advantage, so we bought some jewelled sandals from an Indian shop in Manchester’s Rusholme.
I asked Aimee to give Sabbi a very clear-skinned dewy look. We kept her eye makeup fairly light, but we all agreed that strong red lips would look perfect.
Of course, Rapunzel is all about the hair, and being Sikh, Sabbi has lovely long hair, To make her hair look extra luscious, Aimee assembled a hairpiece by sewing three wigs together. The ingenious creation blended beautifully with Sabbi’s own hair and gave that extra fullness we were looking for.
Pam went for a deep, dramatic colour scheme with fat red Sarah Bernhardt peonies, mauve “memory lane” roses, cascading amaranthus, white hydrangea and exotic celosia. The first window setting was very sparse and there was nothing to hang anything from, but Pam wasn’t fazed!
She used a cut up hula hoop to make an arch from which to suspend the hydrangeas along with romantic trails of cascading amaranthus and placed the lush lilac roses around Sabbi’s feet. Having postponed our Rapunzel shoot due to rain, we were now plagued by super bright sunshine, which creates shadows and is far from ideal when shooting portraits. The first window was very exposed, but Whalley Abbey has a lot of windows to choose from so we found a more secluded area where the light was less harsh.
I think the barred window and the ivy in the second sequence of shots add a lot to the atmosphere. The tower really does become a prison for poor Rapunzel. In this setting Pam let the ivy become the decor, but she added peonies and exotic celosia to Sabbi’s hair. It was a spontaneous touch, but the deep red looks wonderfully dramatic against Sabbi’s dark curls.
The iconic moment for Cinderella, was the scene when she flees the castle, leaving her shoe behind on the stair.
Finding a gorgeous venue for Cinderella was more straightforward. Having learned how useful Google Images could be, (Nu Bride: LOL!) I googled staircases and came across Carlton Towers, a gorgeous wedding venue in North Yorkshire. We were so lucky that the staff there bought into the idea of our shoot and were so dedicated, even staying three hours beyond their usual finish time to allow us to shoot a night-time scene.
Wendy’s Cinderella gown, “Primrose” by Elizabeth Stuart looked absolutely stunning! We had decided to style it with plenty of sparkly accessories for that wow factor and of course the bracelet and tiara from Damselle Tiaras really completed the look.
I love that Wendy kept her Chinese jade bangle for the shoot. In Chinese culture, parents give jade bangles to their sons and daughters to symbolise love and protection. As Wendy’s bangle was pale pink it even matched her beautiful gown.
When it came to styling Cinderella, Pam and I had a bit of a shock. The night before the shoot Aimee was struck down with a terrible stomach bug (Nu Bride: Poor Aimee!) and couldn’t attend. We had waited months to get everything in place so we decided to forge ahead and do the hair and makeup ourselves. As it was a night-time shoot, we didn’t need to get to the venue until around 2.00pm to set up, so I had a little extra time to prepare. I literally went to my local chemist and bought some Rimmel eye shadow in pink and purple shades to match Cinderella’s dress. Wendy had already applied her own base and fortunately she has her lashes done every three weeks so I didn’t have to fiddle with glue and lashes. The makeup was a joint effort between Wendy and I.
I had a vision of her with bright coral lips, but when we tried it, it didn’t look right and we went for a more neutral shade. I spent ages putting Wendy’s hair in large rollers, but the curl didn’t take. Fortunately Pam came to the rescue. I’d brought a thing called a “bumpit” which sounds rude but it’s just a plastic piece that you put under your hair on your crown to give that beehive-style lift which looks so nice with a tiara. So with the bumpit in place and a lovely sweep of dark fringe, Pam rolled Wendy’s hair into a loose chignon at the back and with the stunning tiara from Damselle Tiaras, the look was complete! (Nu Bride: Wow ladies – congratulations on plan B! Wendy looks incredible!)
I was really proud of the Viva team at the Cinderella shoot. This was a really challenging shoot because the guys had to prepare in daylight for a night-time shoot. We had hired a lot of lighting equipment, but we couldn’t be completely sure that the positioning of the lights would work until night began to fall. It was a lot of preparation for around 45 minutes of actual shooting so there was a really short window in which to get that perfect shot.
Our assistant Seb was hidden on the staircase operating a smoke machine to create that misty look. (Nu Bride: SO brilliant) It was pretty funny seeing him run out and swish the smoke gun along the stair only to dart back to his hiding place! We had never worked with a smoke machine before and we had no idea how that would turn out, but in the end it really added an air of fairytale mystery to the shots.
In the meantime Pam had been working hard outside dressing the stairs.
The brief was to create an elegant look in keeping with a royal castle.
Carlton Towers has such a majestic staircase that Pam knew her styling had to make a statement or it would be lost in that vast sweeping context. So she dressed the staircase with no less than forty candles in stylish glass holders, decorated with delicate asparagus ferns, white hydrangea and luxury cymbidium orchids.
She also brought a tall mirrored pedestal and topped it with a vase of lush greenery.
Pam works in a very instinctive way and takes her cues from the location, I think she really excelled herself on this shoot as the flowers and candles look so elegant and romantic. (Nu Bride: I have to agree, everything about this shoot is sublime!)
What was your favourite aspect of each shoot you put together and why?
I think my favourite aspect was seeing the magic come to life as Pam and Aimee used their incredible talents to transform the venues and our lovely princesses. Their creativity was just astounding. I have never organised a styled shoot before, so it was a massive buzz to see my vision become reality. It was also great to see Guille, my husband immersed in his craft and enjoying the challenge of his first series of styled shoots. With each shoot, the team grew to understand and appreciate each other’s working methods a little better and we are so proud of what we achieved together.
Challenges and triumphs?
I really enjoyed the challenge of bringing together the different elements to make each shoot work: the venue, the dress, the model. Pam and Aimee were in charge of the styling, but I enjoyed shopping for accessories, such as Cinderella’s necklace and Snow White’s shoes, which I decorated myself.
The Sleeping Beauty shoot was the only one where we had a prince, the lovely Taku, who is a friend of mine. I styled him to look like a fairytale prince with brown breeches, a Jacobite shirt and some fabulous medieval-style boots which I had to have shipped in from America. It was touch and go whether they would arrive in time and I was following the tracking process with bated breath. In the end I had to dash to the postal depot on the morning of the shoot to pay the customs charges and claim my precious package! Amazingly, Ordsall Hall had a sword with a belt and scabbard that they were prepared to lend us, so that completed his princely look.
The designers I approached were all really keen to be involved. They all loved the concept of the shoot and allowed me to choose any dress from their collections, which was an incredible privilege.
One of the biggest challenges was finding dates when the venues and every member of the team plus the model were available, which is the main reason it took us over a year to complete the series of shoots!
What do you hope this shoot will provide for brides looking for inspiration of women who look like them?
I want this shoot to provide some hope for brides looking for inspiration of people who look like them. One shoot isn’t enough, but I hope it will feel good to have someone recognise the lack of representation and do something to change things. I also think there are some fantastic styling ideas, which I hope will inspire people.
How do you hope this shoot will influence the industry?
In my imagination this is a massive wakeup call for the industry. It’s David saying;
“Oi, Goliath! Come on, sort it out! It’s not rocket science! Beautiful people of a variety of ethnicities are all around us. Just put them in some shoots!”
I’m guessing it won’t work exactly like that, but I hope it will get people thinking. I think the changes need to happen at all levels, when agencies recruit models, when designers choose models for their campaigns, when magazines choose models for their front covers, and also when suppliers like us choose models for styled shoots. I think we can all look for opportunities to include more models of colour and more real women with a variety of looks and shapes. (Nu Bride: Couldn’t agree with you more Dear Jo)
Oh Jo – how lucky I am to have met you and to have inspired you. To team Real Princesses – thank you from the bottom of my heart. Absolutely sensational message and sensational work. Nova xx
Standing Ovation for The Talent
Sleeping Beauty: Tamsin MacDonald (Tammy) // Prince: Taku Kanaya // Snow White: Gifty Aku Adjei // Rapunzel: Sarbjit Kaur Khalsa (Sabbi) // Cinderella: Wendy Styles
Sleeping Beauty Credits:
Venue: Ordsall Hall in Salford, Lancashire // Bridal gown: “Juliette” by Amanda Wyatt // Jewellery provided by Aimee Akbar // Prince’s Shirt: Tom Sawyer Waistcoats // Prince’s trousers: YOOX // Prince’s boots: U Turn Utopia // Prince’s sword provided by Ordsall Hall
Snow White Credits:
Venue: Whalley Abbey, Whalley Lancashire // Dress: Lottie’s Bridal Boutique Of Lytham St Anne’s, Lancashire: Design 11412 by Ellis Bridals //Henna Artist: Saba at Beyond Henna // Shoes: Anand Fashions, Manchester
Venue: Carlton Towers, North Yorkshire // Bridal gown: Primrose by Elizabeth Stuart // Makeup by Jo Howard and Wendy Styles // Hair by Jo Howard and Pamella Dunn // Tiara and bracelet: Damselle TiarasNecklace and earrings: Much More Fashion Accessories // Shoes: Model’s own