Stitching in the ditch on a Friday or any other night…fun! 🙂
When we originally wrote this several years ago, we were more focused on the fashion plate as an accurate means of documenting how garments looked during the late 19th Century. However, as time went on, our opinion has shifted somewhat to the idea that fashions plates depicted what was possible and as such, served as inspiration more than anything else. This idea is further reinforced by the fact that most of the 19th Century fashion press got its start as a means of promoting the sales of printed paper patterns. For example, The Delineator was owned by Butterick, one of the leading pattern manufacturers and another major publication, Demorest’s Family Magazine for all intents and purposes is glorified pattern catalog. But what is more striking is that the fashion plates of the period go a long ways towards documenting evolutionary changes in fashion silhouettes which is extremely useful. Combined with original photographic images and extant examples, we can get a very good picture of how garments appeared and as such, fashion plates are just one more valuable tool but not the only tool.
Fashion plates are often criticized as fashion history documentation because their representations of period fashions that bear no relation to what those particular period fashions ACTUALLY looked like. At best, they’re fantastical distortions of reality, representing an ideal that could never be attained (of course, the same argument can be made about today’s fashions as depicted in the fashion press).
However, nothing could be further from the truth. The reality was that fashion plates, both colored and black and white, played a practical role in the transmission of fashion information during the 19th and early 20th Centuries; fashion photography would not come into its own until the 1910s. While the study of fashion plates as an art form in itself has become popular today, this was not what they were intended to be. Rather, it was a blueprint for individuals to be able to replicate a given design.
However, at the same time, fashion plates did present ideal views of their subject garments with their unnatural poses and the models were perfect physical representations. But never the less, fashion plates were first and foremost meant to be a practical means of transmitting fashion information. Ultimately, the fashion plate was a practical tool and used as such.
More specifically, the fashion plate was deliberately constructed to impart information to the viewer and specifically to enable the viewer to be able to make a garment based on the plate- in short, “how to do it” blueprints and as such they were often used as supplements to accompanying sewing patterns and were typically printed in magazines. Magazines such as The Delineator, Godey’s Lady’s Book, Harper’s Bazar, and Peterson’s Magazine were only a few of the many magazines that were available to the home sewer and professional dressmaker.
Above is a fairly typical fashion plate- it looks like a simple illustration of a group of dresses. Well, yes and no- the poses are somewhat stilted with the emphasis on showing as much of the dress as possible. Notice how the decorative treatments are given the best angle possible and especially on the train. This was deliberately done in order for the viewer to see the entire design in order to replicate it.
But it was not only fashion plates. Patterns and more detailed information were also supplied:
Fashion plates simply illustrated what was possible and were meant as a source of inspiration, not necessary something to be followed line-for-line. But more importantly, fashion plates showed the progression of styles through the late 19th Century and just by glancing at them, one can readily see differences and especially in the silhouette as it evolved from the 1870s through the 1890s. Here are some some examples from the 1870s and 1880s:
As we move into the 1890s, still more shifts in the what was considered to be the ideal silhouette can be seen:
What is interesting about this progression of plates is that by the 1890s, it’s all about the front of the dress. While there are frontal views in earlier plates and rear views in later plates, it is still obvious that the emphasis had shifted which is consistent with the movement away from the bustle. The 1880s provide some interesting ground in that the views seem to almost split 50-50, at least based on a very unscientific examination of fashion plates from various sources, both online and in books.
The above is only a small sample of the fashion illustration that was characteristic of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries but it does show that even then, the dissemination of fashion information was being done on a large-scale industrial basis, pushed along by technical advances in the printing trades. Moreover, with the rise of mass-circulation fashion magazines such as Godey’s, Petersons, and Harper’s Bazar, fashion’s reach extended to almost the entire world and most notably in America. The “pretty” and “fantastical” fashion plate served a very specific and practical role that today is easily overlooked. In the end, fashion plates were an art form in terms of their ability to impart information rather than existing as representations of fashion.
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…
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:
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:
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.
And at the same time, other colors were used for wedding dresses…
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…
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:
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:
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.
When we think of a wedding dress today, we usually envision a bright eggshell white dress trimmed with lace. However, this has not always been the case and this was especially true during the 19th Century; the concept of an all-white dress solely dedicated to being used on only the wedding day was relatively limited to the more wealthy women because of the expense. The reality was that wedding dresses came in a variety of colors and styles, often dictated by finances, availability of materials, and location. In many instances, the wedding dress was simply a woman’s “best dress” and was worn on formal occasions long after the wedding itself.
The color white has not always been associated with weddings per se in Western culture although is has been associated with purity. For example, during the Middle Ages, white was actually considered the color of mourning. During the 19th Century, the association of white with weddings (e.g., white weddings) is said to have begun with Queen Victoria’s marriage to Prince Albert on February 10, 1840 when Victoria wore a white (or more properly a cream-colored) wedding gown. In regard to the dress, Queen Victoria wrote in her diary:
I wore a white satin dress, with a deep flounce of Honiton lace, an imitation of an old design. My jewels were my Turkish diamond necklace & earrings & dear Albert’s beautiful sapphire brooch.
With Queen Victoria’s choice of a white wedding gown, a trend was started (at least among the more wealth) which slowly developed over the remainder of the 19th Century. In regard to this trend, the August 1849 edition (page 440) of Godey’s Lady’s Book stated that:
Custom has decided, from the earliest ages, that white is the most fitting hue, whatever may be the material. It is an emblem of the purity and innocence of girlhood, and the unsullied heart she now yields to the chosen one.
We have now come to that subject which is said to engross the thoughts of a young lady from the time she comes out until she is married. The choice of a wedding dress!
Custom has decided, from the earliest ages, that white is the most fitting hue, whatever may be the material. It is an emblem of the purity and innocence of girlhood, and the unsullied heart she now yields to the chosen one. Now and then a fashion of light silks or satins comes in vogue, but is not generally adopted. White, then, let it be, if it is the simple muslin of the pretty country girl, who needs no foreign ornament, or the satin and Brussels lace, or the silver brocade of a Parisian countess. This, be it understood, if one is married at home. Of late, it has been quite common to be married in a traveling dress, and have the same tears shed for the ceremony among the bride’s friends, answer for the parting. A bridal tour being considered, by some ladies, quite as indispensable as a wedding ring.
Below are some examples of wedding dresses as depicted in fashion plates. Although the plates coloring depicts the dresses in pure white, in reality, the color chosen was often more of a cream or ivory.
Turning to the dresses themselves, here is one example of a late 1870s wedding dress:
Allowing for age and museum lighting, the color of the dress is of a shade of off-white, especially when compared to the accompanying veil.
Below is an interesting wedding dress dated from 1874 that done in a polonaise style in a silk gauze:
The above dress belongs to the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum and according to the Museum website, the bride that originally wore this dress was Lucretia Crouch, who married Benjamin Seebohm at the Friend’s Meeting House in Clevedon, 10 September 1874. Both the bride and groom were Quakers who, as a rule, favored mainstream styles of clothing at this time.
The dress itself was made of a cream-colored silk gauze with narrow narrow opaque stripes and trimmed with cream silk embroidered net lace. A three-quarters length bodice with flared sleeves and attached draped polonaise overskirt bordered with lace. The bodice fastens with hooks and eyes in the centre front and with a ‘V’ neck. The underskirt is full-length and is constructed from the same silk gauze edged with three flounces of lace with edges of lace attachment to the bodice and skirt of silk satin rouleaux, and an additional row of rouleaux on the sleeve edges. The bodice front and polonaise overskirt are trimmed with silk satin ribbon bows. There is also a belt sash of silk satin lined with cream silk which has a fastener in the center front that is camouflaged with a satin bow. Finally, a large silk gauze and net lace bow supported with a stiff cotton gauze interlining and is attached to the back of the belt.
Now on the flip side, consider this:
This dress is constructed of a green silk taffeta and was worn by by Mrs. Robert S. Elder, née Harriet Newell Dewey, mother of the donors of the dress, to her wedding in 1874. What is nice about the above example is that the provenance of the dress is firm and as such, it does demonstrate that other colors were used, even while the trend towards white was gaining momentum.
Here is another example of a wedding dress from 1879:
This dress style is in a princess line constructed of silk featuring two contrasting colors, blue and white. If you look closely at the pictures, the white portions appear to be of a silk damask (the detail shows up best on the sleeve). This style is characteristic of the late 1870s with a minimal bustle although it still has a train.
The provenance of this dress is excellent (I double-checked it on Ancestry.com), it was worn by a Hattie Ray (nee Pagin) at her wedding to Hugh G. Ray on June 5, 1879 in Frankville Township , Winneshiek County, Iowa. There is no doubt that this dress was a more practical style of wedding dress that was suitable for wear as a “best dress.”
Here is a dress from 1872 that is interesting in that while it’s a wedding dress, it’s a relatively simple one with somewhat minimal trim. Yes, it’s still pretty busy by today’s standards but by the standards of the 1870s, not so much. 🙂
The above dress is relatively restrained compared to regular day dresses of the early 1870s and the train is fairly simple. Probably the greatest extravagance is the fringe running along the mid-front of the dress and flowers.
Below are two more examples, one from 1878 – 1879 and the other from 1880. Both of them are interesting in the use of asymmetrical trim and especially the 1880 dress.
While an all-white wedding dress was considered to be the ideal, it’s evident that wedding dresses of other colors were used, either by themselves or combined with white. However, it as a trend, the all-white wedding dress was gaining ground and especially since it was a status symbol. Weddings have traditionally been more than just a ceremony to mark the start of a formal relationship, it was also an occasion for families to display their status and respectability, concepts which were of the utmost importance to Victorians. The wedding ceremony, and the wedding dress by extension, were essential to the family and the bride demonstrating that they were respectable elements of society. Granted, this was the ideal but it was a major driver of social behaviors.
Finally, the development of the wedding dress is a prime example of how fashions have been traditionally transmitted, starting with those of higher social stature (such as Queen Victoria) and then slow spreading downward in society. In the case of America, while it often stated that it was a less structured society with much social mobility, when it came to fashion the same situation applied only with industrialists and businessmen taking the places of aristocrats (ok, that’s a broad oversimplification but it works here).
So, on a more practical level, if one is searching for recreating a wedding dress from the late 19th Century, there are a wide variety of choices that are available and one does not have to settle for some shade of white. Also, in terms of style, one has choices in that a day dress, evening dress, or even ball gown style can be adapted for use.
We hope you have enjoyed this brief overview and stay tuned for further installments taking wedding gowns into the the 1880s and 1890s.