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!
I’ve posted about Dagmar of Denmark, known after her marriage as Maria Feodorovna of Russia, before. While I was researching her I noticed something. Maybe it was because of her rather impoverished childhood, maybe it was a family weakness for completely OTT necklaces, maybe it was because she had already cried her share of brides tears well before the wedding, or maybe she just liked the things. Whatever it was, man, that girl had some pearl bling going in all her portraits!
From Dagmar’s diary:
6 June 1867: A man came today to take my portrait with the new camera technology. How fabulous! I knew exactly what I wanted to wear: my favourite bow headband and every single pearl necklace I own. Also the bracelets. I looked fabulous. One of my ladies in waiting suggested that it might be a bit much as I’m not even 20, but I told her to stuff it. The nerve!
Empress Marie Feodorovna (Dagmar of Denmark), coloured from black and white, 1867
25 September 1874: The happiest possible news! The doctor has just confirmed today that I will be confined for the next six months. After dearest Georgie perished I felt my heart was utterly broken and that Sasha and I should never be whole again, but life has come full circle. To celebrate, and while I still have my figure, I’m being painted. I’ve picked a powder blue dress with touches of lace, and am wearing a simple choker with just one pearl, to represent the pearl I have lost.
Portrait of Grand Duchess Maria Fiodorovna (1847-1928) by Heinrich von Angeli, 1874
6 September 1880: I’m absolutely furious! I’ve just seen the portrait that I spent so many hours sitting for, and it is horrid! Simply awful! All muddy and brown and messy, and worst of all you can’t even see my jewellery! My lovely, lovely necklace has just disappeared into the lace. Let me tell you, I’m never sitting for that man again!
Grand Duchess Maria Feoderovna, 1880
28 November 1880: Today we sat for a Christmas portrait as a family. I wore the most charming ensemble designed after the mode of the ancients, all in purple silk and white satin. Of course I also put on a pearl necklace, nothing too ostentatious, just a few bits and bobs to add a bit of sheen to liven the simple robes. It helps to make up for the dreadful portrait I had done earlier this year.
God's blessing on you. The family of Alexander III of Russia before Christ by Ivan Makarov, circa 1880
12 September 1882: My first portrait as Empress of all the Russians was finished today. As I sat for it, all I could think about was what happened to dear father Alex, and how I should feel if the same happened to my poor, darling Sasha. How would I ever go on? I had to reach up frequently to pat my necklaces to comfort and reassure myself, and Kramskoi was compelled to scold me quite severely as my fidgeting interrupted his painting.
Portrait of Maria Fyodorovna, born Princess Dagmar of Denmark , wife of Russian tsar Alexander III by I.N. Kramskoi (1837-1887), 1882
4 January 1883: Feeling a bit depressed today, so I decided to be painted again. My last portrait cheered me up so much that I decided another one simply must happen. To make this one even better, I’ve decided to add a pearl trimmed tiara. The only thing better than oodles of pearl necklaces is a pearl tiara.
Portrait of Empress Maria Fiodorovna in a Head-Dress Decorated with Pearls by Ivan Nikolaevich Kramskoi, 1880s
11 March 1883: All my happiness in entirely gone. Our life is consumed with preparations for the coronation, and I know that never again shall Sasha and I have the simple, carefree life that we enjoyed before. The only bright spot on the horizon is that I sat for my coronation portrait today, and my favourite necklace is looking particularly splendid in it.
Maria Feoderovna, 1883
18 August 1885: Bored today. Might buy another egg. Or, I could be painted in ermine robes and 11 pounds of pearls
Vladimir Makovsky: Portrait of Empress Maria Fyodorovna, 1885
12 November 1888: I had the most fabulous idea today! I’ve been photographed in my pearls, painted in my pearls, and worn them to every possible state function, but I haven’t been sculpted in them. The silly Frenchman who does the marble stuff said it was very hard to carve pearls, but I did a bit of sobbing about how dear Nixa had loved how I looked in pearls, and of course Sasha capitulated and promised me a sculpture portrait with all the pearls I could ever want.
Portrait of the Tsarina of Russia, Gautheron, 1890
26 November 1894: Today was the second worst day of my life. After the pain of Sacha’s death earlier this month, today I had to stand alone and bear the pain of watching my son marry that horrid Alix girl. Oh, if only Sacha was here, to support me, and to have ordered Nicky to pick someone, anyone, else! No amount of pearl necklaces, and pearl tiaras, no matter how fabulous, could relieve my sorrow.
The wedding of Tsar Nicholas II of Russia and the Princess Alix of Hesse-Darmstadt (detail) by Laurits Tuxen. The wedding which place at the Chapel of the Winter Palace, St. Petersburg, on 14/26 November 1894. Behind the bride is the Dowager Empress Maria Fyodorovna.
3 February 1896: Some days I can’t believe that dear Sacha has gone, but life must go on. The thing that surprises, and pleases, me most is that people still care. Just today the newspaper asked to publish and image and story on me. The print they have chosen is most charming, though they have coloured the dress wrongly, and you can hardly see the simple pearl cross I am wearing on a pearl chain.
Maria Fyodorovna (Dagmar of Denmark), 1896
If you thought that last week’s red boots were un-natural in shape, check out these shoes from the Powerhouse Museum in Australia:
Balmoral boot by Menhennitt, 1885, Powerhouse Museum
Look at those insteps! Now, I’m high unusually high in the instep and the arch, but that is ridiculous!
I do love the detailing on these shoes: the scrolls around the toe, the buttons, and most of all the tiny blue leather fleur-de-lys, or Chinese inspired patterns.
They were made as exhibition pieces to show off the shoe-makers skill, so perhaps actually fitting a real person wasn’t an important skill for a cobbler!