In honor of today, my second anniversary (for which, appropriately enough, the traditional gift is something cotton), I wanted to explore the history and evolution of wedding gowns in America. Thankfully, as an employee at the Museum, I am just steps away from a large collection of resources in the Osborne Library. Jane, the Assistant Librarian, pulled some books for me, and I spent the weekend learning about lace, crinoline, and what came before the traditional white gown.
According to Catherine Zimmerman, brides in the New World did not have preservation or extravagance in mind when they dressed for their weddings. The dresses were designed to be practical and immediately became part of the bride’s daily wardrobe. It wasn’t until the 18th century that brides began to incorporate higher-end, fashionable elements, with brides from wealthier families wearing more stately gowns (15). During this time, brides, regardless of their level of prosperity, started using the best materials available to them to make their wedding gowns (Zimmerman 27).
In the early 19th century, new machinery brought about the ability to more quickly and cheaply produce luxurious fabrics such as lace. This development allowed brides, who could previously only dream of owning lace-embellished gowns, the opportunity to own a dress like the type seen on society women or royalty, who had a large influence on fashion trends (Zimmerman 47). Arguably, no one had a greater impact on wedding gown fashion than Queen Victoria, whose dress is the one that launched a thousand dresses (and more!).
“The white gown represented the all-important virginal status of the bride, and dates back to the nineteenth century when, in 1840, Queen Victoria, dressed in a white wedding gown, married Prince Albert. As queen, Victoria set the fashion standard at court and the popularity of the white wedding dress soon came to the United States” (Bradley Foster & Clay Johnson 208).
Since Queen Victoria’s wedding, whenever we think of weddings, we picture a bride in her beautiful white gown. When looking through family photos, every wedding album has a bride in white (and the stylistic trends of the time) beaming back (including my grandmother, my mom, and me!).
I learned more from researching this blog post than I originally thought I would, and I had a wonderful time doing it. There are great books in the Osborne Library, and I spent a majority of my time looking at the terrific array of illustrations and photographs in them. I highly recommend taking a look at The Chace Catalogue for a sample of ATHM’s wedding-related collection.
Bradley Foster, Helen, and Donald Clay Johnson, eds. Wedding Dress Across Cultures. Oxford: Berg, 2003.
Zimmerman, Catherine S. The Bride’s Book: A Pictorial History of American Bridal Gowns. New York: Arbor House, 1985.
Coordinator of Membership and Development