Wedding Dresses in the DAR Museum

Written by: Alden O'Brien, DAR Museum Curator of Costumes and Textiles
June 16, 2017

June is a favorite month for weddings,—but neither the June wedding nor the white wedding dress is as longstanding a tradition as you may think. Of our thirty-five wedding dresses and dress fragments that are identified as bridal wear in the DAR Museum Collection, just sixteen are white; and only six of this group dates before 1880. Brides wore their best dress—usually a new one—which would continue to be a part of her wardrobe for as long as they could adapt it to changing styles. One of our colorful 18th century wedding dresses, a bright green silk damask, was worn by Sarah Bradlee Fulton in the 1760s. It was remade, like many 18th century silk dresses, in the 1790s, perhaps for the wedding of one of her daughters. As dressed for our exhibit on American weddings back in 2004, Sarah’s dress reflects how it would likely be accessorized around 1796-99.

It’s often said that Queen Victoria set the style for the white wedding dress, but this is vastly overstated. Her wedding certainly popularized white wedding dresses, but royal and aristocratic English brides had been wearing white (or white with silver or gold) for centuries. White dresses were in fashion from the 1780s through the 1810s, especially for younger women. One of our sheer white muslin dresses, woven and pre-embroidered in India for the American and European markets, is said to have been a wedding dress, and surely many a fashionable American bride would have worn something similar for her wedding; many others would have worn a colored dress.

Many weddings took place at home. Ann Smith’s 1837 wedding  was probably one of these, as the low-cut evening style would probably not have been considered proper in a church (how times have changed!). By this time, gauze veils with floral designs woven along the lower edge, worn on the back of the head with artificial or real flowers, were in style—veils came into style for Anglo-American weddings at least, only in the early 1800s. Behind the 1837 dress you can see an 1853 bride from Vermont, who was married in her thirties. Her age was probably a factor in not choosing white, but in rural Vermont, a changeable blue and pink silk day dress would have been a much more practical addition to her wardrobe than a white dress would have been.

View Photos Here

It was not until after the Civil War that the white wedding dress was widely worn (but still not universal). The Industrial revolution had mechanized textile production, and even a luxurious silk dress was within the reach of a wide segment of society. Countless American brides went to the altar clad in satin and other silks in shades of pure white or warm cream tones (they knew that some complexions weren’t flattered by flat white!). The dresses were often embellished with trim of the same in the form of pleats, gathers, and piping, and sometimes with lace. Wax or cloth orange blossoms often decorated both dress and veil. An ancient symbol of female virtue and innocence, they were popularized by Queen Victoria who wore them in a wreath on her head. Because orange blossoms were hard to come by in northern European and American climates, wax and cloth ones substituted for most brides. Florence Hawkins’s 1881 wedding photo shows that orange blossoms were attached at several points in her skirt and bodice, which we recreated for this picture.

Country brides had long worn wreaths of flowers on their heads when marrying in spring and summer (although fall and winter weddings were more common, as rural life was busy in the warmer months). But carrying a bouquet of flowers doesn’t seem to have come into fashion until the mid-1800s. Both before and after that, carrying a prayer book, fan, handkerchief, or a combination of these was more common. The fan pictured, from about 1880, has painted cupids signaling its use as a wedding fan; the prayer book was carried by Mary Cutts at her 1889 wedding.

Folklore like “something old, something new” is very difficult to pin down. Our pair of stockings worn by five generations of brides starting in 1813 suggests it was a custom by the time of the second bride married in the 1840s. By the turn of the 20th century, the rhyme was a well-established tradition. The DAR Museum has three dresses worn by successive generations of brides in the Christie family of Philadelphia. The 1914 dress's lace trim was removed to form the Juliet cap for the 1942 bride, and may have formed part of her grandmother’s 1885 dress or veil.

Of all our turn of the century wedding dresses, perhaps the most elaborate is the 1904 dress of Helen Baily Blackford. Luxurious creamy satin is manipulated into pleats, shirring, and yard after yard of and intricate folded border, with touches of embroidered net lace.

But in 1925 when skirts rose suddenly to knee level, even wedding dresses were short. Long trains had to be attached at the shoulders or waist. Our 1926 wedding dress is as elaborately beaded as any flapper’s dancing frock, and has a sumptuous 10 ½ foot train which attaches at the shoulders. The bouquet at this time was enormous—making up for the simplicity of the silhouette perhaps? —and Marguerite Dotter Hogan’s photo shows how stylish she was carrying her huge bouquet with its white silk ribbons tied in “love knots,” another popular tradition which has since died out.

Let’s not forget the gentlemen! Grooms mostly wore clothes already in their wardrobe, day or evening wear depending on the time of day of the ceremony. But it seems that wearing a special waistcoat was a longtime trend. We have several wedding waistcoats, including a satin one embroidered with wheat sheaves from 1793, Worn by Thomas Rumrill of Massachusetts, and another with cream-colored embroidery on creamy silk satin, worn by Thomas Bowie of Maryland in 1830. 

Weddings today are generally a more elaborate event than they were in the period of our dresses—but from our earliest to our latest wedding dresses, you can trace the evolution of the elegant white (or off-white) dress as the starting point for a memorable day. 

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