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What did brides and grooms wear to their weddings? In most cases, not what we would think of as bridal wear, which actually is more like Victorian formal evening clothing -- clothing you would wear to a ball, for example. Instead, 19th-century couples wore their best day clothes, the clothing we would wear to church or a special daytime occasion.
This makes the historian's job harder. Since wedding clothes tended to be "best" day clothes, we often cannot determine if a photograph of the bride and groom was a wedding picture or one taken later -- especially since "on site" photography would have been impossible for most of the 19th century.
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"Best" would, of course, have varied greatly with individual circumstances. A housemaid, a merchant's daughter, a farmer's daughter and a schoolteacher would all want new dresses of the best quality they could afford, which could range from a cotton print dress to an elaborate silk costume. The groom's clothes would also have varied from plain to more elaborate, depending on his circumstances.
Bride and groom had a choice of four main fabrics: cotton, linen, silk and wool (perhaps cashmere or even alpaca). Silk would have been the first choice for brides, as the most luxurious and beautiful of fabrics. The groom would likely have worn wool, superfine merino (early in the century) or fine worsted (later), trimmed with silk or velvet. These fabrics draped well and had a soft sheen. The other two fabrics would be less common. Linen wrinkles badly and drapes stiffly, and cotton was too "everyday" for most brides, although we do have records of women getting married in cotton print dresses (Ward, 109).
The bride's dress would likely have been in the current fashion (determined by the American Godey's Lady's Magazine). In general, it would have been made with a high neck, long sleeves, a tightly fitted bodice and a skirt of the current mode -- full skirted and (for much of the century) draped over a hoop. How elaborate it was depended very much on the bride's status and her father's pocketbook. It might be made at home or by a dressmaker.
The bride might wear a veil draped over her hair, or she might wear a bonnet with or without a veil. She would want to wear fine kid gloves and slippers. She might carry flowers or be adorned with wax orange blossoms, imported from France. She might drape a prized cashmere shawl, made in India and imported from England, around her shoulders and over her arms. Her jewellery would have been modest, not showy: earrings and a brooch or a pendant and a pair of bracelets.
Would she wear white? Perhaps; perhaps not. White wedding dresses were by no means universal, largely because wedding dresses were not one-occasion wear. A bride would want a "best" new dress, but she would then wear it on other "best" day occasions -- to other weddings, for example. A traditional rhyme predicts:
Married in white, you have chosen aright;
Married in gray, you will go far away;
Married in black, you will wish yourself back;
Married in red, you will wish yourself dead;
Married in green, ashamed to be seen;
Married in blue, he (or you?) will always be true;
Married in pearl, you will live in a whirl;
Married in yellow, ashamed of your fellow;
Married in brown, you will live out of town;
Married in pink, your heart will sink.
(quoted in Ward, 109 - 110)
We do have photographs of brides in what we think of as full bridal costume: elaborate white dresses, lavishly trimmed with lace, with lace veils, bouquets and matching bridesmaids -- but these are "high society" urban weddings and not typical (Noël, 68).
The one authentic wedding dress in the Upper Canada Village collection, worn by Lucretia Crysler at her wedding in 1853, is a silk taffeta dress in rusty gold, with a high neck and long, full sleeves. She would have worn a short veil, perhaps draped over a bonnet, and kid gloves and slippers.
What of the groom? He, too, wore his "best" day clothes, generally wool -- worsted, superfine or perhaps cashmere. Over a linen, cotton or silk shirt, he wore a silk or brocade waistcoat (vest) and cravat (a high necktie), a frock coat and knit pantaloons (early in the century) or trousers (later). Men's clothes grew more sombre: the rich colours favoured early in the early 1800s -- deep blues, greens and claret-red -- gave way to black, grey and white. Waistcoats, which had been flamboyant in the early years, also became more restrained.
The bride and groom wore their best, whatever that was. But what mattered to our Victorian forebears was not the wedding, but the marriage. Good clothing was partly festive, but its real significance was what it symbolized: the seriousness and importance of the step the couple took as they made their vows.
(Sources: Ward, 109 - 110; Noël, 66 - 67; pers. comm., Jill Jonkman, Historic Costume Specialist, Upper Canada Village; and Elaine McKay, Costume Designer, Black Creek Pioneer Village; Beth Abbott, Kingston Handweavers and Spinners Guild/St. Lawrence College).
Noël, Françoise. Family Life and Sociability in Upper and Lower Canada, 1780 - 1870: A View from Diaries and Family Correspondence. Montréal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2003.
Ward, W. Peter. Courtship, Love and Marriage in Nineteenth-Century English Canada. Montréal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1990.