This is the third 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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In the early 19th century, the Greek classical "empire" waist fell out of favor. A more "picturesque" look replaced it. This meant a return to full skirts and tight bodices. While white had been a favored color in revisited Greek fashion, it was Queen Victoria who introduced the concept of a "white wedding" to the world.
In 1837, young Princess Victoria awoke to the news that her uncle, King William IV, had died, and at the age of 18 she was now Queen. A few years into her reign, she was introduced to Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg, who happened to also be her first cousin. She fell in love with him immediately.
The young Queen's choice to marry in a simple white gown shook the fashion world. Previous monarchs had married in all the finery bestowed upon them as royalty -- jewel encrusted robes trimmed in furs were the norm. But Queen Victoria married for love, a concept almost unheard of among royalty. In fact, she had even proposed to him!
Queen Victoria chose a shoulder-bearing dress of heavy white satin, with a flounce of Honiton lace. Her long lace veil was fixed to her head with a wreath of orange blossoms. She wore no tiara.
"As a public relations move, it could not have been bettered," writes Carol McD. Wallace in her book All Dressed in White. "This was an occasion -- one of the few in a monarch's life, in fact -- that many of her subjects had also experienced, or would experience." Rather than a queen, she seemed more like a bride.
Engravings of her wedding portrait quickly circled the globe, and every bride who could, copied her dress. It is important to note that 19th century "white" was more like a modern day "ivory" or "cream." The chemicals needed to bleach satin to a vibrant blue-white hue were not invented until well into the 20th century.
Although white may have been the ideal Victorian wedding color, it was still far from practical for most brides. White was difficult to keep clean, and extremely difficult to make, as every crooked hem or puckered seam is glaringly obvious on white fabrics. Instead, women often chose a dress that could be worn again, and that usually meant something other than white.
Technology often drives fashion, and by the mid-19th century dyes had been invented to produce brilliant shades of fuschia, magenta, green, and turquoise. Since it was the custom for young girls to dress in soft pastels, many brides relished the chance to wear a dress of a gorgeous, vivid color. "Darker colors would wear better," writes Wallace, "and, five years after the wedding, would not scream 'bride' to every dinner guest."
Even black dresses were often chosen for their practicality. Death was a very real part of 19th century life, and a black dress would be appropriate to wear to the many funerals in the bride's future. Sometimes black dresses would be trimmed in orange blossoms to make it "special" for the wedding, and veils were often worn too.
WEDDING GOWNS ON DISPLAY
Now through April 29, 2007, the Wm. McKinley Presidential Library & Museum in Canton, Ohio will be featuring an exhibit called “I Thee Wed: The History of Bridal Fashion & Traditions.”
The exhibit features 18 bridal gowns, ranging from an 1866 sapphire blue hoop skirt with black trim to a 1950 ivory brocade gown will full length train – and everything in between! A special section explores White House weddings, McKinley’s wedding, and weddings that have taken place at the McKinley National Memorial.
Cake tops, invitations, shoes, and typical wedding gifts are also on display. Text panels explore wedding superstitions, the best time to marry, and the histories of bouquets, bridal parties, wedding cake, and much more.
This book was helpful while writing this series of articles:
The next article in this series will focus on the Civil War era.