This is the first in a series of articles about the evolution of bridal fashion. We will begin with early brides and go up through the modern age. Each article will feature a museum that currently has wedding gowns on display to visit. Keep coming back to learn more!
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From the beginning of human history, couples have been forming unions in one way or another. Our prehistoric ancestors lived in groups or tribes for safety, and most likely paired off for procreation. There was probably not a ceremony or prescribed set of rituals in those early days, but the couple was recognized as such by the other members of the group.
Our earliest evidence of marriage as we know it today comes from the Egyptian, Greek, and Roman cultures. The Egyptians were the first to use a type of wedding ring, and the custom of wedding veils can be traced to Greek and Roman brides. In fact, the veil pre-dates the wedding dress by at least 1000 years.
But those ancient veils are not exactly what you would expect. Greek brides wore scarlet red veils, the color associated with Hymen, the god of marriage. Roman brides wore veils of bright yellow, which cloaked the bride from head to foot, and was also used as her burial shroud.
While white is associated with modern bridal dress, this has not always been the case. Although early Greek and Roman brides did wear white, the veil was far more important than the dress. Even so, the custom of wearing white did not descend directly to us in the 21st century. In the Medieval Era, wedding dresses were often rich jewel tones, magnificently embellished. Grooms were often as "decked out" as the brides. The Elizabethans (1550-1600) preferred subdued colors like sage, pale gold, and dusty rose.
Royal weddings have always set a high standard for "commoners" to live up to. To protect traditions for their exclusive use, royalty and the nobility often used expensive materials, like fur, that was well beyond the reach of most of their subjects. But even the poorest families in the Middle Ages would host some kind of party, because weddings were a time to celebrate!
An early tradition that may seem a bit odd to us today is the concept of "bedding." While it originated as a way to confirm the bride's virginity, it evolved into a more good-humored tradition. After the wedding feast, the couple was ushered into the bridal chamber, decorated with candles and flowers to ward off evil spirits. According to Susan Waggoner, author of I Do! I Do!, "The bride and groom were divested of their shoes, stockings, laces, and outer garments, tucked into bed together, and presented with a ceremonial cup of spiced wine. As many people as possible crammed into the room and cheered loudly while they drank. Eventually the guests left."
Thankfully this custom faded away during the 18th century!
WEDDING GOWNS ON DISPLAY
The Indianapolis Museum of Art is featuring an exhibit of wedding gowns called “I Do: The Marriage of Fashion and Art” through February 25, 2007.
The exhibition includes 15 gowns – 12 from America and 3 from Europe – along with 30 wedding related pieces from Asia and Africa.
A silk georgette and net 1920s gown features a short hemline and cathedral length veil, according to the fashion of the decade. Other gowns include one from the 1890s with those signature leg-o-mutton sleeves, a simple gown from the Edwardian era, and an 1870s bustled brown taffeta gown.
If you are near Indianapolis, check out this exhibit before February 25!
This book was helpful while working on this series of articles:
The next article in this series will focus on early American brides.