A Circa 1878 Wedding Gown

Today we present another interesting dress design from the Mid-Bustle/Natural Form Era with this circa 1878 wedding dress. Yes, you heard that right! This dress is part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s collection and on their web site, the dress as identified as a “Wedding Ensemble.” Unfortunately, they don’t provide any information on how they arrived at that conclusion so this has to be taken with a grain of salt…

Wedding dress, c. 1878; Metropolitan Museum of Art (2009.300.18a, b)

Wedding dress, c. 1878; Metropolitan Museum of Art (2009.300.18a, b)

This dress is constructed of an embroidered wine colored stripped silk satin for the overskirt and bodice combined with a purple silk satin for the underskirt, bodice front and cuffs. Finally around the cuffs, there’s a think band of the purple silk sating that’s been pleated and finished off with white lace. In terms of silhouette, this one is cylindrical, characteristic of the Natural Form/Mid-Bustle Era and has no train. The bodice is a cuirass style, falling over the hips. The decorative effect on the underskirt hem is interesting, employing a combination of pleating, ruching, and use of the stripped fashion fabric in the form of vertical tabs running along the upper hem.

Side Profile

Now, as for the dress being a wedding dress, this is a very possible. Unfortunately, there’s no documentation posted online at the Met Museum website and we can only assume that there is documentation but that it didn’t make it online for reasons unknown. But nevertheless, this dress could have been used as a wedding dress in that during the late 19th Century, the use of white as THE wedding dress color was not a rigid convention; a wedding dress was often a bride’s best dress and was meant for wear long after the wedding. Moreover, the idea that one would have a specific dress to be worn only on the wedding day and then put away was also not the norm and in fact, was simply not feasible for most people, not to mention that it was viewed as wasteful. The idea of the one-use wedding dress would start to develop towards the end of the 19th Century but only by the very rich. For a more complete discussion of wedding dresses, check these posts HERE, HERE, and HERE. Ultimately, this dress presents a classic late 1870s/early 1880s day look and works for a variety of social occasions.ūüėĀ


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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. ūüėĄ


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.ūüėĄ


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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… ūüôā 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:

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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…

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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…

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

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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… ūüôā 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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Wedding Dresses of the 1870s

Bridal fashions are a a constant source of interest amongst our readers and judging from the stats, this particular post has been a constant favorite. ūüėĄ We’ve updated it a little and cleaned up the formatting but it’s pretty much unchanged so enjoy!


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.

Wedding Dress1

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.

The Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine, November 1875.

Magasin Des Demoiselles, 1876

Turning to the dresses themselves, here is one example of a late 1870s wedding dress:

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

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

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:

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Wedding Dress, English, 1874; Victoria & Albert Museum ( T.68 to E-1962)

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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:

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Wedding Dress, 1874; Chicago History Museum (1946.31a-d)

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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 demonstrates that other colors were used, even while the trend towards white was gaining momentum.

Here is another example of a wedding dress from 1879:

Wedding Dress, 1879; from antiquedress.com

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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. ūüôā

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Wedding Dress, 1872; Metropolitan Museum of Art (35.78.1a, b)

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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.

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

Close-Up of the hem/guard.

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Wedding Dress, 1880; Metropolitan Museum of Art (34.95.1)

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Close-Up

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).

Wedding Dress_1875_1

Wedding Dress, 1875

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.

Wedding Dress_1871_1

Wedding Dress, 1871; The rug certainly adds an interesting ambience to the picture.

We hope you have enjoyed this brief overview and stay tuned for further installments taking wedding gowns into the the 1880s and 1890s.


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