Here are the links to all FIVE parts of the series —
Presuming most of you reading this are women, we are naturally curious about the clothes! As I will present in this blog post, wedding gowns during the understated decades of the Regency (in terms of the ceremony) may not have inspired the massive search or months-ahead ordering as we see today; however, I submit that there have been few females born who did not fuss over looking their best on the day of their marriage!
With that in mind, what about the bride’s gown?
Exactly how “special” a bride’s gown directly paralleled her class and fortune. Ladies of the lower or middle classes often had no choice but to make do with the nicest garments already in their closets. Typically in possession of at least two or three finer dresses for Sunday church services, a bride would select one of those and, if time and money allotted, augment with new lace or trim. Hopefully she could purchase a new bonnet, shawl, or gloves to add an air of uniqueness.
Women of the gentry and aristocracy were usually more fortunate in their financial situation. They could, and would, have a new gown and accoutrements made/purchased. This, however, did not translate to meaning a gown ONLY for the wedding. In general an ensemble would be worn again, practicality not an unheard-of virtue even for the wealthy. A wedding gown being new was understandable, but with the expectation to wear it in the future, the dress design often followed the fashionable trends and nothing more. Finer materials might be used, such as rare silks or satins with embellishments of extravagant lace and embroidery, but this too depended on the bride’s taste and desire. Ostentation was uncommon, and frankly frowned upon.
Whether the gown was white or another color also depended on the bride’s taste and desire. A wedding gown was not necessarily white! Any color, with the possible exception of black, was acceptable. White gowns were popular during the first decades of the 1800s, primarily for the upper classes because the intense care required to keep the fabric clean was a sign of social status and income. Thus, having a wedding gown in white was common, but not universal. Nor would white have been chosen due to the color’s ancient association with purity since a Regency bride was assumed to be virginal and pure. Not until Queen Victoria donned a white gown for her marriage to Prince Albert in 1842 would white as the proper color for a wedding gown become a standard, although even then it was a gradual evolution as the century unfolded.
For visual examples galore, click over to this Pinterest board, which is one of the best for an incredible collection of preserved wedding gowns from the 1800s– http://www.pinterest.com/barbsmith/wedding-gowns-1800-1899/
The vast majority of paintings from past eras show aristocratic brides wearing gowns of silver, gold, or costly fabrics in rich colors. Fashion plates are surprisingly devoid of specific wedding gowns, and the ones seen are primarily French. As evident in the fashion plates below, the French are credited with introducing the concept of a “wedding gown” per se, as well as popularizing the veil and fancy accessories.
This images below are rare samples of designated wedding gowns from the Regency Era. When considering the wealth of preserved garments from the Georgian and Regency periods, it is fascinated to note how very, very few are labeled as a “wedding gown.” Why? I do not know for sure, but personally speculate it relates to the fact that the gown worn at one’s wedding was worn again and again. To the lady it may have a certain special memory attached — depending on her fondness for her husband! — but over time was merely one of her many elaborate gowns. After all, a woman in the Regency dressed every day much like the average modern bride does only once!
The bride’s accessories would match her gown and personal style, reflect the solemnity of the ceremony, and fit into the standard formality of the era. Tall gloves, white slippers, silk stockings, simplistic jewelry, and of course a head covering. Whether the latter was a full bonnet, turban, flowered and/or jeweled hairpiece, tiara, veil, etc. varied with nothing standard.
She may or may not add a veil. At one time wedding veils were essential. The purposes were to hide the bride from evil spirits, shield from her husband-to-be’s gaze in arranged marriages or to prevent the “bad luck” in seeing her before the vows, to symbolically declare her submission, and other superstitious beliefs. These ideas had died away by the rational 18th century. Instead, veils of all types and sizes had become common additions to the varied headgear donned at formal occasions. Therefore, wearing a veil at a Regency wedding, especially if the bride kept abreast of French fashion trends, might occur. If so, it appears uncommon to have the veil cover the face or for the ritual “lifting” of the veil to be a part of the ceremony. This practice seems to have come back into style later in the Victorian era. Most of the paintings from the past, well into and beyond the Victorian years, depict veils hanging behind the head and not covering the face.
Lastly, the bride would hold a bouquet, as well as often weaving flowers into her hair or attaching to her gown. Flowers, as I mentioned in the previous post, have an ancient history of meaningful significance. Along with sweet-smelling herbs, flowers added fragrance and freshness to the ceremony. The color from the flowers also added a touch of beauty. Instilling a measure of nature into the ceremony held deep significance, partially from pagan fertility beliefs, but also due to the elemental aspect of life and creation reflecting the sacred purpose of marriage. Unless in London, florists selling flowers were rare, so the bride would select from a garden or orangery within the community she lived.
What about the groom?
Good question without an exciting answer, I’m afraid. Formal wear for men was strictly established – thank you Beau Brummell – and a groom would not deviate much from this. Considering the vast majority of weddings were in the early morning hours, dressing in one’s finest evening ensemble was lifting the bar far enough!
The groom’s valet would begin with a white shirt of linen or muslin. Black or dark-colored breeches buckled just below the knee were the likely choice, although buff or lighter hues were allowable. Trousers were in style for day wear and very gradually creeping into style for formal evening wear. Whether he chose to don trousers or pantaloons rather than breeches is difficult to pin down precisely and probably greatly depended on the individual’s status. Natural silk stockings were set off by black pumps. Boots would be taboo as they were not considered formal attire. Lastly would be the jacket, a black cut-away or swallowtail with covered buttons left open to show off the chosen waistcoat. A white silk cravat and black top hat would complete the ensemble.
As with the bride, adornments would be minimal due to the seriousness of the marriage ceremony. A fancy pocket watch and fob, perhaps, and maybe a signet ring would be about it.
Attendants and guest would dress nicely, similar to how one would dress for church or a formal engagement. They may purchase new garments specific for the wedding, but if so it would be their desire for another gown rather than an expectation. No matching Pepto Bismol pink gowns with pouffy sleeves for the bridesmaids!
Next Monday I will finish this series with a brief discussion of the wedding vows followed by the marriage celebration and honeymoon. Be sure to check back then!