The Lace Seminar is quickly approaching on June 6th and 7th and, as a special feature, BNHV will be displaying some of our wedding gowns for the Saturday morning lecture, “Lace in Wedding Fashion”. Attendees will learn about the popular fashions of weddings dresses throughout the decades and the use of lace as adornment, using the gowns from the collection as examples and study pieces. The earliest gown that was pulled for the purpose of this lecture was circa 1881 and the latest one was worn in 1985. However, the gowns in the collection date to well before 1881 as well.
The earliest wedding dress that is in BNHV’s collection dates to around 1815. It was documented as being worn by the bride in her 1844 wedding but was in the family well before that. In terms of the earliest worn wedding dress in the collection, that honor goes to a green and brown plaid silk dress worn by Fanny to her wedding to John Hirver in Williamsville in 1841. We also have a man’s wedding suit in the collection dating back to 1827, confirmed by Susan Greene, a well known authority in historic textiles and costumes.
Luckily, the majority of our wedding gowns also have corresponding information and photos that depict the bride on her wedding day wearing the wedding gown. At one time, BNHV had an even more extensive wedding gown collection. However, after careful consideration to condition, duplicates in the collection, and provenance, the dresses that were in the best condition and had the most information relating to them were chosen to remain in the collection. Therefore, we can proudly say that our wedding gown collection is one of the strongest sub-collections that we currently have.
A History of Weddings in America
Weddings in the early 1800s were generally simple, private affairs held at the home of either the parents of the bride or groom. This was often not due to choice but due to practicality since only a limited number of guests could be accommodated in the home. This practical need for simplicity also extended to wedding dresses in the early 1800s. Many 19th century brides had only one best dress and they were generally married in that dress. Thus, it was not uncommon for brides to be married in black or other dark colors, as this best dress could also double as suitable funeral attire (the photo to the right is from BNHV’s archives and illustrates this). We have a good number of wedding dresses in the collection that were worn by brides for their wedding and range in color from black to burgundy to green. Fanny’s 1841 wedding dress detailed above is also a good example of this tradition. We hope to highlight this subject more in the future with an exhibit showcasing these garments and what weddings were like before the “white wedding” that is popular today.
The new bride was normally recognized at Sunday church services following the nuptials but this was the extent of the publicity given. Most weddings were very intimate, family affairs but by the 1820s and 1830s, upper class weddings had begun to evolve into the more recognizable modern American wedding that we know of today with a reception and cakes, etc. The ceremonies themselves still remained small and private. However, with the coming of the Industrial Revolution and a more definite middle class, weddings in America were starting to become more elaborate.
The desire for a white wedding dress, as is common today, increased rapidly in 1840 when the newly crowned Queen Victoria of Great Britain wed Prince Albert. Unlike the monarch before her, Victoria chose to be married in a beautiful, white satin gown. Young women in England and America, enamored of the newly married queen’s style, immediately began clamoring for white wedding dresses of their own. Whereas the white wedding gown had previously been a luxury of only the richest (it was, after all, a very difficult color to clean and maintain with 19th century technologies), more and more middle class brides were beginning to select white as their color of choice in wedding dresses.
Ever wonder where some of the most common wedding traditions came from?
Bridesmaid’s dresses – The earliest tradition in bridesmaid fashion involved dressing the bridesmaids exactly the same as the bride. As with many older traditions, the idea was that by setting up lookalikes, any troublesome spirits in the area could not fixate on the bride.
Bridal veils – The veiling of the bride has origins in the idea that she’s vulnerable to enchantment, so she must be hidden from evil spirits. The Romans veiled brides in flame-colored veils to actually scare off those spirits. In an arranged marriage, there is the worry that the groom, who is perhaps seeing the bride for the first time, won’t like what he sees. The veil saves everyone some embarrassment in the short term. Also, in many religions, the veil is a sign of humility and respect during a religious ceremony. The Victorians turned that reverence into a status symbol. In the Victorian era, the weight, length and quality of the veil was a sign of the bride’s status. Royal brides had the longest veils and the longest trains.
Wedding flowers – Before the use of flowers in the bridal bouquet, women carried aromatic bunches of garlic, herbs, and grains to drive evil spirits away as they walked down the aisle. Over time, these were replaced with flowers, symbolizing fertility and everlasting love.
The garter – A popular ancient custom was for witnesses to enter the bridal chamber to make sure that the couple had consummated the marriage and would bring out the garter as evidence. It became such a violation of privacy that eventually the bride would have the groom throw it to prove consummation. This is one of the oldest customs surviving wedding rituals.
The wedding gowns and bodice above are the ones that will be featured in June 6th’s lecture during the Lace Seminar, based on the variety of lace on each. Just in time for wedding season!