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Wedding Dresses – It Wasn’t Always A White Wedding

Having worked in and around the “bridal industry” for a number of years, we’re constantly amazed at some of the practices that are presented as being “traditional” when they’re really not- a lot of what we consider “traditional” really have their origins in marketing and when one takes a look at actual 19th Century wedding practices, one is struck by just how informal and “do-it-yourself” they could be and this is especially true when it comes to the “white wedding.” Come along with us as we take a close-up view of some wedding dresses of the period. 😄


In contrast to today, the term “wedding gown” was far more flexible in the late 19th Century than it is today. When we think of a wedding gown, we invariably think of some sort of dress that’s in some shade of white or ivory that’s only worn once on the wedding day and then stored away forever, unless a descendant chooses to wear the dress for their wedding. However, in recent scholarship, it’s been noted that the concept of the “white wedding” with its one-use wedding gown is a fairly recent development, as much a product of merchandising as social convention. During the late 19th Century, a wedding dress was typically a woman’s “best dress,” often enhanced by netting, lace, and flowers (especially orange blossoms). The dress was definitely meant to be worn long after the wedding and in fact, the idea of having a dress for that’s only worn once and then stored away forever was considered the height of wastefulness. With that said, here’s just one example of what a wedding dress could be, at least if we accept the Walsall Museums’ description:

Day Dress c. 1885

Day Dress, c. 1885; Walsall Museums (WASMG : 1976.0832)

Day Dress c. 1885

Side Profile

Unfortunately the photography is not the best…style-wise this is mid-1880s with a defined train/bustle and is constructed from a silver-gray silk satin for the overskirt and bodice combined with a silk brocade floral pattern for the underskirt, under bodice and sleeve cuffs. The bodice is constructed to create the effect of a jacket over a vest (although these were usually made as a single unit) and the red flowers on the silk brocade provide pops of red that add richness and variety to what would otherwise be a somewhat dull monochromatic silver-gray dress.

Day Dress c. 1885

Close-up of front bodice.

And here’s a nice close-up of the silk brocade fabric:

Day Dress c. 1885

Close-up of fashion fabric.

Here’s a couple of more pictures (although the color is a bit off):

Day Dress c. 1885

Three-Quarter rear view.

Day Dress c. 1885

The red flowers on the silk brocade panels definitely draws the eye up and fixes the viewer’s eyes (As should be the case with all bridal dresses!). Of course, as with much of fashion history, there’s rarely any absolutes and this was the case with using “regular” colors versus the more bridal colors of white and ivory during the 1880s. However, in the end, it’s important to realize that the dividing lines between “bridal” and non-bridal were not as rigid was we tend to view them today (although that’s changing). This was just a brief glimpse into the world of bridal dresses during the 1880s and that there are alternatives to the “traditional” when it comes to bridal dresses.😄


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Wedding Dresses of the 1880s

We now continue our journey through the world of wedding dresses with a look at the 1880s. By the 1880s, we can see the white wedding dress tend beginning to gain momentum as the epitome of fashion. Style-wise, wedding dresses in the 1880s followed the overall basic style of the 1880s characterized by the sharply-defined “shelf” bustle. To start, we just can’t seem to get away from the late 1870s/early 1880s…

Revue De La Mode, 1880

Now, we must admit that the dress that the bride’s companion is wearing steals the show with the elaborate embroidered design on the bodice but we digress… 🙂 Both dresses reflect the slender, upright silhouette characteristic of the Natural Form or Mid-Bustle Era.

Moving on into the 1880s, we see the bustle once again develop. Below is a fashion plate from the November 1883 issue of Peterson’s Magazine:

Peterson's Magazine, November 1883

Peterson’s Magazine, November 1883

The above wedding dress (second from the left) is described in Peterson’s as follows:

The wedding dress of white satin and white brocade; the underskirt is of white satin and has a full quilted trimming of the same around the bottom; the front is of brocaded satin and velvet; the train is long, slightly looped at the back under the panniers, and plain. The Princess corsage and panniers are of the satin, the later trimmed with lace and garlands of orange-blossoms, and looped with broad white satin ribbon. The plastron on the front of the orange is of white crepe-lisse edged with lace; orange-blossoms at the throat and on the head; long tulle veil (Peterson’s Magazine, November 1883, p. 440).

Orange blossoms were a common floral element for weddings, popularized by Queen Victoria when she married Prince Albert. In terms of style, the wedding dress draws from the prevailing styles of the early 1880s, in this case a day dress with bodice designed to give the effect of a jacket being worn over shirt or waistcoat.

Here are some more interesting fashion notes in regard to wedding dress styles of the early 1880s from page 2 of the November 11, 1883 edition of Truth, published in New York City:

truth-newspaper-1111-1883-fashion-notes

From the above article, it’s evident that there were a wide variety of choices for the bride in choosing wedding dresses with white satin, white brocade, and white velvet taking the lead. Lace shawls were often worn and there are the ubiquitous orange blossoms.

Florence Folger 1887

Florence Folger on her wedding day, December 14, 1887; Nantucket Historical Society ( P8740); Florence Folger married William A. Webster at Springfield, Massachusetts.

And at the same time, other colors were used for wedding dresses…

minneapolis-wedding

Wedding portrait, c. late 1880s – early 1890s.

This portrait was taken in Minneapolis sometime either in the late 1880s or early 1890s. The only thing that could be construed as being white is the bride’s long veil. Interestingly enough, the bridesmaid’s dress appears to be more properly “wedding” with the lighter color. But, nevertheless this is a good example of the common day dress being pressed into service.

Wedding dresses could also be recycled…

Emma-Johnson-dress

Wedding Dress, 1888; Missouri History Museum (1969-044-0000-(a-b)); Dress worn by Emma Johnson on her wedding day, October 17, 1888.

1969-044-0000-detail

The above wedding dress belonged to Emma Forbes (nee Johnson) who was married to Alexander Elias Forbes on October 17, 1888 in Des Moines, Iowa. As a side note, Emma Johnson lived from August 8, 1853 and died on December 2, 1905 at the age of 52. She was buried in St. Louis, Missouri and her grave can be found HERE.

Turning to the dress itself, the base fabric is an olive green satin trimmed with a brown/bronze colored silk running down the front of the bodice to create the effect of a robe. Running parallel on each side are strips of a patterned brocade that is also present on the sleeve cuffs. The most interesting thing is that dress was a re-worked dress from the 1850s that had been worn by Emma’s mother on her wedding day 38 years before on the same date. It’s a too bad that there are no better photographs available from the Missouri History Museum. Overall, it’s an amazing effort and definitely the 19th Century version of carrying on a family tradition.

Moving towards the later 1880s, we see the continuation of earlier styles. Here is an interesting example that was worn by Anna L. Stoner (nee McAfee) at her wedding on June 27, 1888:

Wedding Dress, 1888; Ohio State University, The Historic Fabrics and Textiles Collection (HCT.1999.19.1a-d)

Side Profile

Close-Up of painted flower panel.

This dress is constructed from an off-white novelty (a novelty weave is defined as any weave which varies or combines the basic weaves, plain, satin and twill). Running down the sides are silk satin panels with painted flowers. Below is a picture of Anna long with a wedding invitation:

7d2f9d2ec3db152a90b5324196d6b3d4 (1) Invitation

It’s amazing what one turns up when simply looking for dress examples… 🙂 Overall, this dress is interesting both for the use of wool woven in a novelty weave and painted flowers on silk satin panels. This would suggest that this was an economical version of the idealized wedding dress; usually some form of silk was the fabric of choice for the entire dress and the flowers would have either been embroidered as part of the fabric or attached as separate fabric flowers. The above has been just a brief survey of wedding dresses during the 1880s and as was the case in the 1870s, wedding dresses might have taken many forms but the silhouette essentially followed the main style of the decade.  We hope you have enjoyed this brief overview and stay tuned was we go into the 1890s.


Some Late 1870s Wedding Gown Style

The Natural Form/Mid-Bustle Era only lasted a short five years but it provided an interesting counterpoint to the heavily bustled/trained styles of the early 1870s and mid to late 1880s and especially as it applied to wedding dresses. As noted in a previous post, the typical wedding dress came in a variety of styles and could pretty  much be any better quality dress. However, at the same time, styles that were more specific to the occasion were coming into fashion and would later be associated with the “traditional white wedding.” Below are just a few examples of specific wedding dresses from the late 1870s, starting with this circa 1877 wedding dress:

Wedding Dress, c. 1877; Whitaker Auctions

This dress has a distinct princess line with no waistband and from the limited pictures, it appears that it opened down the front about half-way. The fashion fabric appears to be an ivory silk taffeta trimmed with gold silk satin along the edges of the train and large strips running along the front of the dress. Along with the silk satin strips along the front, there are rows of knife pleating. The area around the neckline is interesting in that there’s a yoke made up of built-up alternating strips of silk satin and taffeta topped off by a ruched neckline. Here’s a closer view of the upper part of the dress:

Below is a close-up of the yoke front and back:

And finally, a close-up of the sleeve with a double-row of knife pleating:

This dress is interesting but one can’t help but think that it’s incredibly ill-fitting. However, we believe that this is due to poor staging than to ay inherent flaw of the dress. No doubt it was supported by well-fitted petticoats and perhaps padding but unfortunately, there’s little information about the dress online. In any event, it’s an interesting wedding dress style.

Next is a wedding dress from circa 1878-1880 that combines what appears to be a gold silk jacquard floral patterned one-piece bodice and long trained overskirt with a separate gold silk satin underskirt:

Wedding Dress, c. 1878-1880; Metropolitan Museum of Art ( C.I.39.111.3)

This  dress is similar to the first in that it has no defined waist band. Although not a “pure” princess line dress, it achieves a similar effect by combining a unified bodice and long trained overskirt of a gold jacquard floral pattern with a gold silk satin underskirt trimmed with a knife-pleated hem. The bodice is front-opening with a square neckline trimmed with a ruched silk satin neckband. Further accentuating the neckline are three narrow bands of silk satin. The dress is relatively unadorned with no lace and has a simplicity to it. Finally,  we have this circa 1878 wedding dress:

Wedding Dress, c. 1878; Los Angeles County Museum of Art (M.83.231.20a-b)

Compared to the first two examples, this one is more conventional, consisting of a  separate cuirass bodice and skirt, all made of a gold/ivory silk satin.  The bodice covers the hips and emphasizes vertical lines, aided by the use of style lines that place emphasis on the vertical plane. The skirt, on the other hand, emphasizes horizontal lines with circular ruching and pleating and ribbon bows. The hem consists of one row of deep knife pleating and with a line of  ruching running along the top edge. Unfortunately, there aren’t any other photos that give views from the side or back so we can only speculate but it no doubt has a long train, standard for wedding dresses of the period.

Finally, here’s an exquisite example of of a circa 1878-1879 wedding dress from the Met:

Wedding Dress, c. 1878 – 1879; Metropolitan Museum of Art (1979.339.2)

In terms of silhouette, this dress follows the late 1870s style and like the previous examples, it emphasizes vertical lines and minimizes the waist; in this case there’s no defined waist band. This press isn’t a “princess line” strictly speaking, the bodice and skirt were most likely attached to each other and masked by the swagging.  The fashion fabric on the bodice and main skirt appears to be an ivory silk taffeta, covered by asymmetric strips of gold silk satin with a floral pattern. Running on top of the gold silk satin strips are more narrow strips of a bengaline fabric with fringed ends. Finally, running along the entire hem are two rows of pleated ivory bengaline-like fabric. Below is a side profile:

The train skirt is square-cut at the end and continues the two rows of bengaline trim along with an added layer of fringed trim. Below is a close-up of the decorative trim:

This dress an interesting combination of vertical and horizontal lines with the bodice being relatively unadorned while the skirt is the complete opposite. The trim is asymmetrical, following a natural vertical spiral while at the same time filling the horizontal plane with detail.

The above four dresses are all from the same era but display different design elements. The silhouettes are similar but the individual details vary. However, the colors are pretty much the same- a gold/ivory (depending on the lighting in the photography and one’s particular computer monitor). What’s interesting about all three dresses is that even for their similarity, they still avoid the “white wedding” aesthetic that was to later dominate wedding dresses during the 20th Century.


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