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 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:
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.