The Fabric of Marriage: Wedding Dresses
"For every married woman across the nineteenth-century America, her wedding was the most significant event of here life. In those few moments, no matter how elegant or humble the surroundings ..... she permanently committed herself to the man standing there at her side clasping her hand." 1
When 20 year old Queen Victoria made her wedding plans the ideal of what a brides dress should look like was changed for all future brides and even today a lovely white dress is the dream of every bride.
Weddings Before Queen Victoria's
Before this famous wedding a royal bride wore heavy state robes of materials such as brocade and velvet. Not so with the everyday bride. American weddings were simple things usually held in the bride's home.
A Massachusetts country wedding in 1827 was described in this way. Neighbors and relatives were crowded into a farmhouse parlor with the bride and groom in front of the minister. He joined the couple's hands together and led them through a short exchange of vows.
"Most American couples were wed by a clergyman at the home of the bride, in such informal ceremonies of republican simplicity." 2 The bride wore the best dress she had or could make whatever that might be.
Interestingly white had been worn for weddings earlier simply because during the late eighteenth century and early nineteenth white linen homespun dresses were the usual for best dresses. Many young women made such a dress for her wedding as it could be worn after her wedding for other occasions. If she had the means she could even purchase sheer cotton mull, cambric or dimity for a finer white dress. 3
A new trend developed in the second quarter of the nineteenth century. Wedding dresses were more often made of printed cotton or lightweight wools perhaps with some silk mixed with the wool. Florals and strips were popular. Such dresses could not only be used as a best dress but could also be a traveling dress.
Queen Victoria's Dress Sets a New Standard
Then came the wedding of the century. Queen Victoria's wedding wasn't just the talk of the town, it was the talk of the western world. "Thousands and thousands of newspapers and periodicals were shared, reaching women in remote new settlements hungering for fineries and romance. Queen Victoria's wedding was the talk." 3
As soon as this famous wedding occurred the ideal of a proper wedding changed. Women were advised to wear a white gown and veil with her head crowned with artificial white orange blossoms. One difference from the custom today was that the bridesmaids were to wear white dresses as well, though in a simpler style.
The truly elegant wedding was to be a held in a church but this did not mean that all brides suddenly wore white and got married in a church. Most weddings would still be at home and the bride would wear the best dress she could afford. She may have dreamed of something more elegant but would not mind too much as simpler weddings were quite acceptable. Even some brides who could afford a white wedding gown sensibly chose a nice dress or two piece suit that she could continue to wear after her wedding.
The Wedding Bonnet
One small token she might be able to afford was a white wedding bonnet. She would wear a dress that could be worn again and again for special occasions but her wedding bonnet could be kept as a special memento in remembrance of her wedding day. The picture on the left is an example of this.
By the last decades of the nineteenth century it was more possible for young women to wear a white dress simply because the fabric needed was affordable and readily available. Even in remote areas could be ordered through a catalog. In addition Buttrick and later McCall's patterns were available so anyone with sewing skills could make their own dress or someone in the family could make it for them. As the twentieth century proceeded the wearing of a white bridal gown became more and more common.
Quilts have long been made either for a wedding gift or actually made by the bride herself in anticipation of marriage. Although the patterns used varied greatly one that was popular in the mid 19th century was the appliqued Rose of Sharon Quilt pattern. "The name of the block comes from the song of Solomon: "I am the rose of Sharon, and the lily of the valleys.' The verses are generally recognized as celebrating the passion and love between a man and a woman and honoring the sacrament of marriage." 4
1 P17, 3 P57, To Love and to Cherish: Brides Remembered, by Linda Otto Lipsett
3 P63, The Reshaping of Everyday Life: 1790 - 1840, by Jack Larkin
4 P56, Pioneer Quiltmaker: The Story of Dorinda Moody Slade, by Carolyn O'Baggy Davis
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