Brides in the New World

Brides in the New World
This is the second 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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Long before the first white man set foot on the shores of the "New World," Native American cultures performed their own wedding rituals. But traditions varied widely from tribe to tribe. For some, such as the Delaware or Lenni-Lenape, there was no formal ceremony or vows. Instead a man and woman simply decided to live together as man and wife.

Many tribes did have a festival when a young woman reached the age of puberty, and news spread that she was now old enough to marry. If a marriage did take place, sometimes it was simply an exchange of gifts.

Among tribes who did have an actual ceremony, Native American brides would most likely have worn a new knee length skirt and nothing else from the waist up. Remember, her culture did not know cloth -- they wore only animal skins, which they learned to process into fine textures.

She would probably wear wampum beads around her forehead. Again, Native Americans did not have gold, silver, or glass. She would have worn her hair long and sleek, dressed with bear grease.

When the first European settlers came to North America in the 17th and 18th centuries, they were understandably preoccupied with their own survival. While wedding celebrations continued to be an important part of colonial life, the character of the event was quite different from what settlers remembered in the Old World. Wedding attire and feasts were far simpler affairs.

A woman making the long journey across the ocean may have brought some bits of fine fabric with her to use for a future wedding dress. But usually a young couple would have married in their home country before sailing to America.

If a couple did marry here, the colonial bride wore the best dress she already owned. Styles would have followed the fashion of the times, but would have been much simpler versions.

Fashions traveled slowly to the New World, so those who could afford "the latest styles" were still behind the times. According to Maria McBride-Mellinger, author of The Wedding Dress, "Colonial women anxiously awaited the arrival of miniature dolls known as fashion babies, tiny, perfect ladies dressed in the best fabrics according to the latest fashions." For centuries, the latest styles came from France, considered the center of fashion.

As time went on, trade, transportation, and communication improved, creating a new group known as the "middle class." The fashion industry blossomed as consumers aspiring to emulate the wealthy had more money to spend.

In the aftermath of the American and French Revolutions in the late 18th century, a new democratic political era took shape. Fashion followed suit with a return to Greek classical lines. The new high waisted dresses, resembling Ionic columns of Greek architecture, were known as "empire," and contrasted sharply with styles in the years before. No corsets!


The Marietta Museum of History in Marietta, Georgia will be opening an exhibition on weddings called “Something Old, Something New: The Beauty and Grace of Bridal Ensembles” in February 2007. It will be on view for one year.

According to Registrar Christa McCay, the exhibit will focus on “the history of bridal gowns from the Regency period up until the present, along with the customs behind weddings. We will also be featuring a section on the honeymoon trousseau and lingerie items from wedding nights.”

A highlight of the exhibit are some gowns from the Civil War era, including one that includes all of its original underclothing -- even the hoop!

The museum will be displaying a dress that is badly deteriorated to educate visitors about what bad storage can do to textiles. The exhibit will also feature a section where little girls can play dress up in gowns and veils the museum staff purchased at local thrift shops.

This book was helpful while working on this series of articles:

The next article in this series will focus on Queen Victoria’s wedding in 1840.

You Should Also Read:
Marietta Museum of History
Early Brides
Bridal Gown Preservation 101

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