This may come as a surprise to romantic writers, but historically June brides did not wear white wedding gowns. Pioneer women probably wore their made-do calicos, and adventurous women who helped to settle the West chose whatever finery was available. Brides up to the 19th century merely regarded the wedding gown with practicality. Museum costume collections attest to the fact that many surviving wedding gowns, worn by women through the Victorian era, were not angelic white, but merely the owner’s Sunday best in colors like mauve, green and deep burgundy. These brides probably referred to Godey's LADY’S BOOK for the most fashionable advice at that time, and had a dressmaker reproduce the latest Parisian gown.
THE VICTORIAN ERA
During The romantic Victorian era “love” and “marriage” were the key words in the language of a young woman’s desire to succeed in a successful alliance and to become engaged. In her diary, Sarah Elizabeth Jewett, an American writer of the era wrote these sentiments, “Oh, will Heaven grant I may love and be loved someday. Then I shall be engaged.” The print makers Currier & Ives further abetted the romantic influence with framed scrolls featuring period themes such as “The Declaration” and “The Wedding Day.”
It was truly the Age of Innocence, and marriage was the ultimate solution and highly regarded as the pinnacle of a bride’s finest achievement. The focus on marriage and wedding attire was also a strong theme in women’s literature. In fact, in 1886 Godey’s LADY’S BOOK editor, Sarah Josepha Hale, insisted that blue and brown were still both popular and stylish for weddings. Perhaps taking a cue from Hale, America’s first fashion editor, Andrew Carnegie’s bride wore a gown in tones of gray and brown.
WHITE WEDDING BELLS
The incarnation of the white bridal gown with flowing veil, emerged as the quintessential wedding attire during Queen Victoria’s reign. In previous historical periods royal weddings favored velvet and ermine, but Queen Victoria quite outraged the Royals at the time when she changed the standard to a white wedding gown. Women obsessed with propriety chose white not only to emulate Victoria but also as a symbol of virginity. Her influence was so widespread that in an attempt to support England’s declining lace industry, when she married Prince Albert in 1840, her wedding dress was designed with Honiton lace. Always a sentimentalist and consummate journal writer, Queen Victoria commemorated her marriage with the following entry, “I wore a white satin gown with a deep flounce of Honiton lace, imitation of old. (Meaning an old lace design) I wore my Turkish diamond necklace and earrings, and Albert’s beautiful sapphire brooch.”
Countess Eugenie, the legendary devotee of the styles of France’s first couturier, Charles Frederick Worth, originated yet another tradition. On the occasion of her marriage to Napoleon III, she instructed her hairdresser to fashion her coiffure and the crown with a wreath of orange blossoms, a symbol associated with fertility. Brides quickly picked up the idea and orange blossoms became part of the headdress for many brides. By the 1870s the long and diaphanous wedding veil in clouds of tulle or sheer lace, created an aura of mystery and enchantment, and became a fixture of wedding dress etiquette.
In America headlines were made the first time a president was married in the White House. In 1886, Frances Folsom married Grover Cleveland in the Blue Room wearing a white gown with a 12-foot illusion lace train. The extravagant sweep of the train reflects the advent of the machine age as it was decorated with machine-embroidered cotton net lace.
The roaring 20’s saw the raciest of styles. The flapper bride liberated with short hair wore a shorter skirt and danced the Charleston at her wedding. The good times were gone with the advent of the Great Depression in 1929 and only the very rich could afford the traditional wedding gown, its contingent of bridesmaids and ushers. However, for the shop girl and secretary hand-me-down wedding gowns were popular again.
World WAR II brought an era of wartime austerity, and with the shortage of satin and lace fabrics, brides exhibited their patriotism by wearing a suit or their Sunday best, very much like the pioneer women.
In 1947, when war-forced restrictions were eliminated, Dior brought out the “New Look” featuring yards of fabric in a voluminous ankle-length skirt, nipped waist and a narrow-shoulder jacket. It was a fashion revolution of sorts, a throwback to Victorian crinoline silhouette, but women starved for something “New” embraced it for its return to femininity.
The whole business of a purchasing a wedding dress and the staging the wedding itself has reached to the height of monumental preparation. In January modern brides must have finalized their wedding gown choice because it requires lead time to create the made-to-order gown in time for a June wedding. Less expensive a proposition is to visit a bridal retailer where a sea of white ready-made, off the rack gowns awaits selection. This can be a somewhat intimidating task. One young woman I know, who was on a limited budget, was confronted by over 500 gowns only to find three that she actually considered. Fortunately bridal manufacturers today create both historically influenced styles and evening gown versions to suit the tastes of the modern woman, not only in white but in jewel tones and even black.
BIO: Alas today any bride-to-be can do as she pleases. When Polly Guerin was planning her wedding and shopped in a sea of white gowns, she was frustrated with the vast selection so she resurrected one of her garden party concert gowns (yes, she studied to be an opera singer). A portrait neckline creation in delicate seafoam green cotton chiffon it was embroidered with tiny white butterflies. She wore a wide-brimmed white organdie garden party hat and carried a white blossom bouquet. Her four bridesmaids wore pastel floral gowns as well. It turned out to be the perfect choice as it brightened a rainy, gloomy day.