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The 18th century wedding dress: then, and now

The 18th century was the dawn of the modern wedding dress: it saw the first emergence of white dresses as a trend, the first dresses specifically for weddings, and it is the oldest century from which we have a reasonably large selection of extent dresses.

The 18th century is also a very popular era among this blog readers, and is a stunning, and unusual (at least at the moment) era to draw dress inspiration from.

So let’s look at some 18th century wedding gowns, and some more recent 18th century inspired wedding gowns.

First, a complete ensemble with excellent provenance, from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.  No, it’s not white.  And most modern brides aren’t into bonnets, but it still has so many elements I would instantly steal as a wedding dress designer.  That fabulous quilted petticoat…  The pinked fabric framing the face and bust…  The beautiful sleeve ruffles… Or you could just wear the dress exactly as it is, as it’s already a thing of beauty.

Wedding dress, 1742, Boston Museum of Fine Arts

Next, another coloured wedding dress.  The shape of this one isn’t quite so elegant, and the reproduction petticoat and front aren’t helping, but it’s still a charming design.  You can imagine  a woman wearing this to her wedding, and to many a gala afterwards.  Also, I want that fabric.  And a bride who wants a patterned floral dress.  Patterns are way too under-used in modern wedding dresses!

Wedding dress, 18th century, American, Museum of Fine Arts Boston

Now, how about a white dress?  The provenance of this stunning ivory frock as a wedding dress is not certain, as it is based on family history, but it’s certainly not hard to imagine a bride trailing down the aisle in it, feeling like the most beautiful women in the world.  Of course, I have to like this dress – I used it as a reference for Lady Anne Darcy’s wedding dress – my recreation of a 1780s wedding dress!

Robe a la francaise, probably a wedding gown, 1775-1780, V&A

Those poofs around the neckline, the puffs on the skirt, the hanging tassles…oh…it’s all so beautiful!

It’s not white, but we do have another example of a single coloured wedding dress, and I love it  It’s so elegant and simple, and that fabric is totally drool worthy!

Wedding dress, 1776, American, Metropolitan Museum of Art


Moving on, this isn’t an actual wedding dress, but the doll’s outfit was made by the bride using scraps from her actual dress, so probably represents a reasonable copy.  Alas, the image does not show us the colour of the dress, but we can deduce that it was a light fabric.

Doll in a wedding suit, Mrs Powell, 1761, Collection of the V&A

Once again we see the most common elements of 18th century wedding dresses: the open skirts, the delicately patterned fabrics, the sleeve ruffles.

With a pattern established, how has the 18th century influenced later wedding dresses?

A particularly gorgeous example is this wedding gown from the early 1880s, which combines 18th century inspiration with Victorian taste with masterful flair.  It’s definitely a case of the best of both worlds!

Wedding dress early 1880s Met

Borrowing elements from the 18th century must have been a popular trend in 1880s wedding dresses, as evinced by these two examples

Wedding dress, 1881, American, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Wedding dress, 1881, American, Metropolitan Museum of Art

I don’t like the first one so much, though the very early 18th century inspiration is intriguing – it looks more like a manuta than a robe.  Isn’t the second one fabulous though?  The colours, the tassles, the lace sleeves, the collar, the smooth bodice…I love them all!  It really reminds me of the white V&A 1775-1780s dress.  If I had been married in 1880, this would have been my dress, hands down!

The 18th century stayed a popular inspiration period for the next decade, even inspiring one royal wedding dress:

Mary of Teck's wedding gown, 1893

The inspiration is slight, but the open skirt, pointed bodice, and luxurious tone on tone fabric all evoke the styles of a century and a quarter before.

Moving into the 20th century, what about this 1963 wedding dress, from Victor Stiebel’s final collection?  In some ways, it is stark and modern, completely unlike the 18th century.  The influences are still obvious though: the pleated watteau back, the 3/4 length sleeves, the pleating on the skirt, and finally, the faint patterning of the moire fabric all evoke the Georgians.

Wedding dress, 1963, Victor Stiebel, V&A

And what about today?  Where to look if you want an 18th century inspired wedding gown?  Well, there isn’t a lot out there!  You can go with designers who do beautiful but literal and slightly costume-y reinterpretations, or you can get a dressmaker to custom make you something.  Alas, you aren’t going to get Watteau pleats, 3/4 sleeves, flat stomacher fronts, or pinked trim in the collections of mainstream wedding dress designers, and even classic looks such as open front skirts are few and far between.  I guess it just isn’t the trend right now.  I guess we’ll have to change that!

Rate the wedding dress: 1890s

Last week the first half dozen of you to rate Heather’s dress were madly in love with it.  I thought we might have a perfect score!  And then the dissenters arrived.  One of you even flat out hated the design, colour, and cut.  And a few more of you didn’t hate it, but thought it was blah, and that the bodice cut was frumpy.  So balancing out those who loved, loved, loved it, those of you who were blah about it, and the one who hated it, the lavender outfit rated a solid 8.  I guess most of you did like it!

This week, it’s wedding dress week, so what do I have for you to rate?  A wedding dress of course!

This dress dates to the 1890s, a period by which most of the traditions that we have about wedding dresses had already ingrained themselves in the cultural psyche.  Brides wore white, with veils, and carried roses for love, orange blossoms for purity, and myrtle for domestic bliss.

Some things were very different from today’s wedding dresses though: weddings usually took place in the day, and wedding dresses, rather than looking live evening gowns, looked like fashionable day dresses, only in white.

Which brings us to today’s dress.  The Bowes Museum says it dates to 1880, but we know better.

Wedding dress, 1890s, Bowes Museum

It’s white silk satin, it has a train, and lace, and pleating, and poofy sleeves, and a little bolero effect, and embroidery.  Which could describe a modern wedding dress.

But it doesn’t look much like most modern dresses – it’s so…prim.  That’s the 1890s showing through.

What do you think?  Better or worse than a modern dress?  Any chance you would wear it for your wedding?  How do you like it as an example of 1890s fashion?  As an example of a wedding dress?

Rate the dress on a scale of 1 to 10

Queen Victoria’s wedding dress: the one that started it all

When the question “Why do brides wear white” is asked, the most frequent answer is “Because Queen Victoria did”, or “to show that they are virgins.”

Queen Victoria in her wedding dress by Winterhalter, 1842

The first answer is more or less accurate, but glosses over centuries of white wedding dresses worn before Queen Victoria’s wedding, and decades of coloured wedding dresses after her wedding, and also doesn’t explain why Victoria wore a white wedding dress.  The 2nd answer is mostly rubbish and dates to the mid-20th century.

The wedding of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert

Long before Victoria, white was a popular choice for wedding dresses, at least among the wealthy nobility.

Weddings were usually more about political alliances and transfers of wealth than they were about romance, and so the wedding dress was just another excuse to show the wealth and culture of the brides family.  Wealth could be demonstrated with jewelry (brides in some parts of Renaissance Italy, for example, wore their dowry sewn onto their dress as jewels), but textiles were also an important means to display wealth, and the more elaborate the weave of the fabric, and the richer the fibres uses, and the rarer the colour, the better the demonstration of wealth.  Before the invention of effective bleaching techniques, white was a valued colour: it was both difficult to achieve, and hard to maintain.  Wealthy brides, then, often wore white to demonstrate their money, not their purity.

Robe a la francaise, British, 1775-1780 V&A. Said to have been a wedding dress

There also seems to have been some traditions involved with wearing white and luck in the late 18th century.  In The Good-Natur’d Man, a play by Oliver Goldsmith, first performed in 1768, a maid laments the lack of a white dress at her mistress elopement, saying “I wish you could take the white and silver to be married in. It’s the worst luck in the world, in anything but white.”  Unfortunately, we don’t have any further context to the tradition, and how widespread it was, and in what cultural context.

Detail of white and silver wedding dress petticoat worn by Miss Sarah Boddicott, 28 September 1779, V&A

Historical records though, do back up the frequency of gowns of white and silver.  Metallic fabric were also very common among the nobility, as nothing says wealth more than cloth woven with gold or silver.  Victoria’s tragic cousin Charlotte (who would have been queen had she not died in childbirth, and who was also her aunt because she married Victoria’s mother’s brother ) was married in a metallic cloth, as were most brides in the English royal family for centuries before her.

Princess Charlotte’s 1816 wedding dress (this dress has been altered, the ‘apron’ is not original)

So, if royal brides in England and other European countries wore cloth of gold and silver, why did Victoria break with tradition and wear a white dress?

Well, because Victoria was not an ordinary bride.  Unlike most royal brides, she did not enter the marriage as a princess, about to become the Queen Consort.  She was the Queen, the head of state.  She needed to make a statement as the leader of her country, not as an ornament to the throne and the future mother to the heir to the throne.  So Victoria chose a dress that made a political statement.  A dress that put her duty to her kingdom on display, rather than her wealth or beauty.

Queen Victoria and Prince Albert pose in their bridal and monarchial regalia

One of the main concerns in late 1830s England was the effect the Industrial Revolution was having on traditional textile industries.  In particular, the invention of machine laces was decimating handmade lace industries across England, and causing widespread poverty and unemployment among the skilled artisans.

In order to stimulate and support the lace industry, Victoria chose for her wedding dress a large piece of handmade Honiton lace (read more about it here, on my now defunct textile blog).  The rest of the dress then became a vehicle to showcase the lace, and white was chosen as the most suitable colour to do this.  In the case of Victoria’s dress, white symbolised practicality and patriotism, rather than purity.

Queen Victoria’s lace trimmed dress and veil

Alas for us, the skirt lace has since been removed from Victoria’s dress and recycled in other garments, and is now lost.

Queen Victoria’s wedding dress, now sans skirt lace

Victoria was so fond of her wedding attire, or so besotted with Albert and the whole romance of the wedding, that she posed for numerous paintings in her dress, and she and Prince Albert also dressed up in their wedding attire years later and recreated the wedding in photographs.  A close inspection of all the different depictions of Victoria’s dress reveals numerous minor differences, making it very likely that she had elements of the dress altered as the mood suited her, and to align with changing fashions.

A middle aged Victoria and Albert recreate their wedding day

Victoria’s wedding attire was not devoid of symbolism though: she wore a wreath of orange blossoms (symbolising purity) and myrtle (symbolising love and domestic happiness), and these became the most common flowers carried and worn in Victorian weddings.  A sprig of myrtle from Victoria’s bouquet was planted, and cuttings from the resulting bush have been carried by every royal bride in her family since then.  Kate will almost certainly have one in her bouquet come the 29th.

Queen Victoria in her wedding attire, Franz Xavier Winterhalter, 1847

Victoria’s wedding was widely publicised, and widely copied, sparking a huge increase in the number of brides who wore white (and the brides who wore lace, and the popularity of honiton lace, just as she had hoped).  However, it wasn’t enough to make white the mode for every bride.  In the 1840s white was still a very expensive fabric and colour, and only fairly wealthy women could afford a white dress.  Some with just enough money did manage it, and then re-dyed the dress successively darker colours to hide marks and make it last for further seasons, meaning that there are less extant white wedding dresses than we might expect.

In addition, in 1840 the US was still struggling to establish its national identity, and women in the US were less inclined to take up fashions started by a British queen.  This would change in the 1860s when the American Civil War encouraged women in both the South and the North to look to Britain as a cultural and fashion leader.

An engraving of the wedding of Victoria and Albert allowed wide distribution of images of her wedding dress

It was not until the 1850s and 1860s that the trends that Queen Victoria had initiated became widespread for brides.  The high profile marriages of other British royal brides, such as Victoria’s daughter, Victoria the Princess Royal, and her daughter in law, Alexandra of Denmark, who both followed the traditions set by Victoria, helped to further conventionalise white wedding dresses.  Other international royal brides, especially ones such as the Empress Eugenie, who were marrying into less stable monarchies, also followed Victoria’s lead to lend substance and respectability to their marriages.

Princess Alexandra and Edward VII on their wedding day

The biggest factor, however, in popularising the white dress, was changing socio-economic circumstances.  The 19th century saw the rise of a large middle class with expendable income for the first time in modern history.  This middle class strove to emulate the customs of the upper class, and had the means to do so.  And what family more epitomises the enviable aristocracy than the British royal family?  Between Queen Victoria in 1840, Empress Eugenie in 1853, Princess Victoria in 1857, and Alexandra in 1863 the die was cast.  White was the thing for brides to wear.  If they could afford it.

Alexandra of Denmark’s 1863 wedding dress (with lace removed)

Despite the rising middle class, many still couldn’t afford a dress only for their wedding day, and so ‘best’ dresses of any colour were worn by brides until the advent of very cheap and effective bleaches made white dresses for any occasion very common at the turn of the century.

Only in the 20th century would would all the meanings that we associate with white wedding dresses (virginity, for example), be retrospectively, and mostly incorrectly, applied to Victorian brides.

For an interesting visual tour of royal brides from the 19th century to today (and to see how many of them wore white!), check out this album.

And finally, for something both related and random, check out Victoria’s darling wedding shoes:

Queen Victoria’s wedding shoes

And a close up of the message inside:

Queen Victorias Wedding Shoes (detail)