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Brides in the Civil War Era

This is the fourth 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!

* * * * *

Traditionally, bridal fashion echoes the prevailing fashion of the time, and in the 1860s high style meant the hoop skirt. At first, the hoops were circular, but gradually evolved into an elliptical shape that could measure as much as 6 feet across!

"The Victorian standards of morality dictated that the ideal woman should be modest, feminine, charming, respectable, acquiescent, and completely dependent on the male," writes Maria McBride-Mellinger in The Wedding Dress. "A woman's dress clearly reflected her subscription to these values. The modest woman was always hidden under her clothes, which camouflaged her physical form, covering as much skin as possible."

An early Victorian woman navigated her entire life encircled in hoops of steel or whalebone, and her wedding day was no exception. Bridal fashion dictated multiple layers of fabrics, so the bride looked like a confection herself.

Of course, the Civil War interrupted industries of all kinds, and material was simply not available during those years. But after the war, brides continued on a path of Victorian excess.

The Victorians loved ornamentation in everything from architecture to interior design to clothing. After Queen Victoria popularized the Mediterranean custom of wearing orange blossoms, symbolic of fertility, everyone began doing it. Sometimes brides would even fasten garlands of orange blossoms to their dresses. Brides in the northern states often used wax copies, since orange blossoms could not survive transport to cooler climates.

Fine fabrics were still quite expensive, and not everyone could afford "the best." In 1868, a Harper's Bazar article said, "The price of satin varies from seven to fifteen dollars a yard, the popular quality, 27 inches wide, is sold at eight dollars.... Very handsome corded silk at four to six dollars a yard and plain taffetas as low as three dollars, but these require an over skirt of illusion that adds considerably to the outlay."

Women in the mid 19th century either purchased fabric to make a dress themselves, or brought it to a seamstress to create a dress for them. Buying "off the rack" was not yet known. Most women could not afford a dressmaker, so they made their own wedding gowns. Dresses required yards and yards of fabric to achieve the wide, bell-like skirt.


The Columbus Museum in Columbus, GA is currently featuring an exhibition called “Wedding Gowns of a Golden Age, 1885-1930” through May 13, 2007.

According to Associate Curator of History Mike Bunn, the exhibit features “five dresses spanning from the mid-1880s to the late 1920s. Utilizing the dresses, period artifacts, and images, it discusses the changes that occurred in American wedding traditions during this time and how they impact what we do today. It contrasts weddings of the early Victorian period with the full-blown tradition-heavy affairs at the end of the period. These events were of course influenced by Queen Victoria's wedding.”

Mike also said the exhibition included “wedding invitations, bouquets, wedding gifts, underclothes, a veil, a wedding ring, images of wedding parties, a sewing machine, ads for materials used to produce dresses, and selected "sayings" illustrating changing traditions. The symbolism and importance of each item is explained in context.”

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

The next article in this series will focus on late Victorian brides.
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The Columbus Museum
Brides in the New World
Queen Victoria’s Wedding
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Content copyright © 2018 by Kim Kenney. All rights reserved.
This content was written by Kim Kenney. If you wish to use this content in any manner, you need written permission. Contact Kim Kenney for details.


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