Wedding Dresses of the 1870s

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.

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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. 🙂

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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).

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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.

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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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Stepping Back To 1878…

And for a change of pace, we step back a few decades to circa 1878 with this wonderful Mid-Bustle Era/Natural Form day dress that’s identified as a wedding dress1This dress is part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s collection and on their web site, the dress as identified as a “Wedding Ensemble”, https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/156665. 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)

Below is a nice close-up showing details of the fashion fabric and some of the details.

Side Profile

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 Mid-Bustle Era and has no train. The bodice is a cuirass style, falling over the hips. The decorate 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.

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 Nineteenth 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 Nineteenth Century but only by the very rich.2For 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. 🙂

A Maid Of Honor Dress, 1896 Style…

Recently we came across some of the earliest use of color pictures in a fashion publication with a set of fashion plates dated 1896 from the French fashion publication La Mode Pratique. They are a fascinating cross between a traditional colored fashion plate and a photograph. While we are not experts on early color photography, we can say that we find it fascinating. Unfortunately, there’s not a lot of information out there on the publication but the dress styles depicted in the fashion plates are fascinating. In this post and future posts we’ll be presenting a few of these for your viewing pleasure so enjoy!


Spring is coming and that means weddings…featured in an 1896 issue of the French fashion publication La Mode Pratique, this dress was billed as a Maid of Honor dress although it would have been just as suitable for plain daytime wear:

From the above copy, this dress is described as being made from a “lettuce” green-striped silk pekin with a darker green velvet belt. The bertha and the pleated inner front bodice are a white silk muslin.1Note- This is a very loose translation; our French is not the best so we apologize if something got left out. One interesting thing to note is that pekin fabric is defined as a warp-striped fabric made of various fibers (in this case silk) with different colors and/or weaves form the stripes which are all the same width and evenly spaced. Often pekin would have stripes that would alternate in velvet or gauze and satin.2The Dictionary of textiles, 8th Edition by Phyllis G. Tortora and Ingrid Johnson. As applied to the above illustration, silk pekin is definitely a good choice, giving a wide scope for various effects with colors, textures, and luster. Finally, the hat makes a perfect accompaniment for the dress and the colors harmonize nicely. In contrast with a lot of today’s bridal wear, this dress was clearly meant to carry on long after the wedding was through. 🙂

The 1890s Violet Dress Restoration Project, Part 1

In the course of building up our reference collection here at Lily Absinthe, one sometimes makes some amazing discoveries. Recently, we acquired a violet-colored day dress that we’ve dated to the late 1890s. Our attention was immediately drawn to the intricate decorative design on the bodice and we simply found it fascinating. Unfortunately, like many period dresses made of silk, this one has extensive silk shattering and we realized that it wouldn’t survive for many more years so we decided to replicate the dress by drafting a pattern from the original skirt and bodice. Interestingly enough though, the decorative design applique on the bodice was relatively well preserved and showed no evidence of shattering so we decided to incorporate it into the new dress. Below is a description of the process of bringing this dress back to life along with an accompanying hat…


One of my recent projects has been the restoration (perhaps “recreation” is a more proper term) of the a circa late 1890s violet day dress. What was most striking about the original was the style of the bodice and skirt and I was able to determine the provenance of this dress.  I got this bodice and skirt from an auction and upon receipt, I found a pinned note of provenance. It belonged to ‘Grace Jennings’ who apparently wore it to the wedding of a one Luisa Downing sometime in the late 1890s. This dress is not repairable, so I’m slowly patterning and re-making it. Thank you, Grace! Your dress has a loving home.

The label…Eliza M. Jermyn was a dressmaker in New York during the late 19th Century and on into the Early 20th Century.

So, to begin, let’s take a look at the original. I have also included an original hat that I also plan to restore for wear with the dress. First, here’s some views of the hat and the bodice:

The hat is pictured backwards just to show how perfectly the flowers harmonize! How sweet to think that two ladies’ Sunday Best will be re-used to make a new ensemble.
Yes, I’m a sentimental sap. And now for a closer view:

Soutache and Chenille Embroidery closeup. The lace false front will be lightened, it’s obvious it was white when it was made.

I’m inspired by all this handwork. The borders blend into the garment with a random series of french knots. For some reason, the embroidered part isn’t shattering. Maybe it’s because it’s backed with linen and a cotton batiste. The chenille ‘stamens’ are a mauve silk plush. So 3-D!

I still can’t believe that hat matches so well, I’ve had it for two years and never wear it. It needs a gentle steaming and cleaning.

Collar closes at center back.

The first place I started was with disassembling the bodice. Here’s a view of the interior before I got to work:

Time to remove the boning today, 36 stays in all. There are 31 bones present in the underbodice and bodice alone and another five in the collar. Each one is hand stitched into a silk tube, all seam allowances are finished with bias silk by hand. Saying a little prayer of appreciation to the designer’s details before I remake this bodice!

We’ll get back to the bodice later, in the meantime here’s what I did with the lace:

I removed all the lace from the front plastron so it can be cleaned. Look at her collar and how it dips in the center front…she had a short neck just like me but was still a slave to fashion!

After removing the lace from the bodice, the underwent an intense three-hour soak to lift out the rust without compromising the lace; basically, I took it from “toffee” to “oyster.” As for the skirt, unfortunately it wasn’t in as good condition as the bodice. Like many period garments, there was a lot of shattered silk:

Here’s the sad shattered skirt. I get one chance to draft a pattern from this and every time it’s moved, it throws old fabric dust particles in the air. Yes, I’m wearing a mask! Basically, the skirt was disintegrating as I measured it and began to draft the pattern.

This is an atypical hem for this era, it’s all self – fabric and completely hand-sewn. It’s also the only part of the skirt that has remained intact.

Turning to the hat, I proceeded to completely disassemble it…

I always cross my fingers and say a little prayer when I have to take apart an original chapeau to restore it. Going to give that lace a little soak before I sew it back on.

Sigh. See that tiny understiching? They hold a tiny wire and I get to undo each one individually. Too late to turn back.

I always cross my fingers and say a little prayer when I have to take apart an original chapeau to restore it. Going to give that lace a little soak before I sew it back on.

After a complete cleaning and basic overhaul, the lace is restored to oyster white, the shade it was in 1900. Turns out there were lace appliques that the milliner layered to create “pockets” that perfectly fit over the undulating wire curves. That’s the original label next to it.