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Collections Corner: Wedding Dresses

It is June and that means wedding season. The Museum and Program Committees have been hard at work over the last few months planning the Indiana County Bridal Exhibit and Reception. Join us as we exhibit over twenty dresses from the 1880s through present day. The Exhibit will open on June 16 at 6:30 p.m. at the museum, and we ask that you please RSVP for the event. Interested parties can register the event online at hgsic.org/events.


The history of the wedding dress is quite short, in fact it is shorter than the history of weddings and even shorter than the history of marriage. One of the oldest known references to the garment comes from an ancient Chinese myth. In the myth, a princess was dressed in a phoenix dress and crown, which would bring her luck and fortitude in the marriage.

This dress was worn by Julia Minarich in 1952.

Today, whether we refer to the voluminous white dresses found in Western bridal magazines or the sleek red phoenix dresses with mythical roots that are still worn by brides in China today, the wedding dress has become a staple. We tend to focus on color - white is the preferred choice for brides in the West, while red is the choice in the East. Depending on the color, we ascribe a certain meaning - white for purity and new beginnings, and red for life, luck, and celebration. This has not always been the case, and the dresses which we call “traditional” are for the most part relatively modern.


The concept of marriage goes back to the ancient civilizations of Sumer, Babylon, and Assyria, however, the idea of weddings being romantic is more recent. During the Medieval Era, the ritual was not necessarily a union of two lovers, instead it was a business transaction. This meant that a dress during this time was meant to highlight social and financial status rather than beauty. During this time purple and red colors were commonplace as they symbolized wealth.


A bride’s dress was designed to become part of her dowry. Although, it was not looked down upon to wear the same outfit to other festivities. One portion of the wedding dress that has remained in fashion is the bridal veil. In Europe, this symbolized innocence and virginity. In ancient Russia, it was considered to be a powerful talisman to ward off evil spirits.


In Europe and European-dominant countries - white is usually the color by default. This likely came within the Victorian era, when white meant virginity and purity. It is important to note that white was also costlier and more difficult to keep clean, and therefore also showed status and wealth. One of the first brides to dress in white was Mary, Queen of Scots, in 1559. She wore a satin dress embroidered with pearls, but as was expected with her status, the veil was replaced with a golden crown decorated with diamonds, emeralds, and rubies. In 1572, the nineteen-year-old Queen of France Margaret of Valois also wore a light-colored dress. She stated in her Memoirs: “I wore a regal attire with a crown and an ermine cloak which covered my shoulders, sparkling all around with the reflections of my crown’s jewels.”


But it was Queen Victoria that set the trend of the white wedding dress when she married Prince Albert in 1840.

This dress was worn by Nola Edna Steele McIntire in 1916.

Until the mid-nineteenth century, women did not expect to wear a wedding dress only once - an idea that would have been absurd for even the rich before the industrial revolution. Queen Victoria repurposed her wedding dress and veil for later use. If non-royal women had a dress made for her wedding, it likely became her new Sunday best, and she would continue to wear it until it wore out or the fashions changed beyond being able to alter the dress. But more often, a woman got married in her best dress she already owned.


Of course, this practice changed after the wedding of Queen Victoria and the industrial revolution - this was due in large part to new technological advances - photography and the spread of illustrated magazines. Victoria’s dress became the standard, not just in color, but the wedding silhouette - a nipped-in waist, wide skirt, and layers of ivory lace.


The rise in popularity of photography, and wedding portraits, also helped to popularize the trend of the white wedding dress. The reasoning went beyond it being the choice of a popular queen, white dresses looked good and stood out in the new black-and-white or sepia-toned photographic portraits.


By 1849, women’s magazines were proclaiming not only that white was the best color for a wedding dress, but it had always been the best and most appropriate choice. The Victorian ideals of weddings, romantic love, and purity were often projected backward to rewrite the white dress as a symbol of innocence and virginity rather than wealth.


Into the 1900s and the Edwardian era, a more laid-back style of gowns was introduced. Gowns were looser and made from delicate fabrics. High necks, ruffles and long sleeves were a priority, along with the emergence of elaborate headpieces, veils, and bouquets. This ushered in a time when women began choosing shapes, they felt comfortable in, and no longer to that “standard” or “perfect” ideal.


It was during the 1910s when dancing at weddings became the custom, therefore women had to be able to move around in their dress, as such, brides began to wear floor-length floaty dresses. The 1920s ushered in a more sophisticated version of the flapper dress - a scoop neckline, slim fit, and low waist. The long, lace veil also made its appearance during this time.


During the 1940s and 1950s, wedding dresses again changed, because of the war effort, lavish gowns were not a priority for garment production and women returned to the pre-Victoria time of wearing their Sunday best. Occasionally, brides would don altered versions of their Husband’s suits, keeping with the “make do and mend” mentality.


When Queen Elizabeth married Prince Phillip in 1947, although the war was over, the country still felt the effects of rationing. Not wanting to appear too overwhelmingly decadent, Elizabeth’s dress was noticeably understated in comparison to those who came before.


The post-war boom of the 1950s, brought with it ball gowns with huge skirts. This decade was all about glamor and subverting expectations. Skirts were both floor-length and just below the knee and many dresses began to be strapless.