The History of the Wedding Gown: A Guest Post by Lucy Hayes
I restored this Victorian Gown so that it could be worn by the original owners great great granddaughter on her wedding day. She wore the strapless more comtemporary version to her evening celebrations. Note the intricate and rather beautiful Victorian shell –pleating which was a labor of love for me to copy.
(Image courtesy of Lucy Hayes)
Thomas Hardy’s ‘Tess of the Durbervilles’ introduces the concept of a white wedding dress as Tess ponders her wedding attire.
“She wondered whether he would like her to be married in her present best white frock, or if she ought to buy a new one. The question was set at rest by his forethought, disclosed by the arrival of some large packages addressed to her. In side them she found a whole stock of clothing, from bonnet to shoes, including a perfect morning costume, such as would well suit the simple wedding they planned.”
The white bridal gown is perceived as deep seated tradition of British culture; however it is not based in antiquity but rather a tradition established by Queen Victoria. Historically, bridal gowns actually assumed various different colours.
The wedding ceremony, in all its many forms, may be the oldest of human traditions, and the wedding dress can be traced back through the Romans to ancient Greece and even as far back as the Egypt of the Pharoes.
During Medieval times, a wedding was more than just a union between two people; it was also a union between two families, two businesses and even two countries, and a matter more of politics than love. Brides were therefore required to dress in a manner which cast their families in the most favorable light, befitting their social standing. Those from an elevated social standing wore rich colors and expensive fabrics, often portrayed by the use of furs, velvets and silk. Only the very wealthy could afford the expensive red, purple and true black dyes, and in the days when the fabrics were hand spun, woven and dyed, this extravagant display of bridal attire would have made a bold social and political statement, confirming the wealth and high social standing of the family. In addition, the gown may have been encrusted with precious stones, often so thickly appliquéd that the underlying fabric was hidden.
By the 14th century, the cotehardie, or “bold coat”, a close fitting dress-like garment with a train, had become the traditional wedding gown for the wealthy. The length of the train indicated the bride’s rank in court, the longer the train meaning the closer she was to the King and Queen. Laced up the back or front, the cotehardie had long, tight sleeves, and a full slit up the front to show the under dress, which also carried a train. The cotehardie was made from precious fabrics such as silk brocade, and for the wedding it was worn with a belt of gold, encrusted with jewels.
By contrast, the poorer bride would wear the best that she could afford, often wearing her best church dress for her marriage, made not of the noblewoman’s fine velvet, silk or fur, but of linen or fine wool. She would, however, use as much fabric as possible, the greater the amount denoting her increased expenditure for the occasion.
The peasant brides of the 13th and 14th centuries wore gowns dyed with woad, an herb of the mustard family which produced a vibrant blue dye, however, virtually any colour gown was acceptable. Blue was traditionally associated with purity and the Virgin Mary, and remained a popular choice for hundreds of years. It was also associated with fidelity and eternal love, and brides who wore blue believed that their husbands would always be true to them. This reference to blue is still carried on today with many brides wearing ‘something blue’.
Throughout the 16th and 17th centuries bridal gowns were seen in a variety of colours, from greens, browns, blues, yellows, these colours symbolizing fertility and maturity, and even black, if the bridegroom was a widower.
It was Queen Victoria who popularized the wearing of white. For her own marriage to Albert of Saxe-Coburg in 1840, she broke with the tradition of royal brides wearing silver, and instead wore a simple gown of white satin trimmed with Honiton lace, a long Honiton lace veil, and a wreath of orange blossom, all symbolizing purity and maidenhood. Brides thereafter chose to follow their Queen, and thus the tradition of the white wedding gown was established.
The 1920s saw Coco Chanel introduce a stunning new design; a knee length white wedding dress with a long train. This absolutely cemented the white bridal gown in the 20th century and was to continue unchallenged, despite the Depression of 1928, until the outbreak of war and clothes rationing in 1941, whereupon the white gown virtually disappeared, many brides considering it their duty to forego the traditional white dress. Simple day suits and dresses, and even uniforms, were worn instead.
Immediately after the war, wedding gowns were made from coarse ivory parachute silk, traditional bridal silks being in short supply. With a surplus of parachute material and strict limitations on the amount of cloth that could be used by clothing manufacturers, the War Production Board encouraged brides to purchase the surplus silk and made bundles of it available with a pattern for the gown.
The choice of fabrics and designs for the modern bride are almost limitless, each gown being chosen to enhance and compliment the individuality of the bride. White remains the most popular colour, established not only by Queen Victoria but also further enhanced by ‘Godey’s Lady’s Book’ of 1849, which stated, “Custom has decided, from the earliest ages, that white is the most fitting hue, whatever may be the material. It is an emblem of the purity and innocence of girlhood, and the unsullied heart she now yields to the chosen one.”
About the Author
Lucy Hayes works in Sherborne, Dorset, specialising in creating custom made bridal veils using silk tulle and the finest French and English lace, both contemporary and antique. Each veil is exclusively designed with the specific requirements of each individual bride in mind and Lucy guarantees that each one will be absolutely unique, an Heirloom to be passed down to future generations. The veils may be embellished with Swarovski crystal, pearls, and minute and intricate beading. The laces used range from the finest ‘Chantilly’ to heavier corded laces; from delicate antique panels to the meticulous appliqué or repair of a much loved family piece.
The styles may range from Classic, Vintage, Decade or Retro; the choice is yours!
Upon completion each veil is presented in a beautiful archival quality box and packed in layers of acid free tissue for safe long term storage. Coordinating boxes for the bridal gown are also available.
If you are interested in discussing your requirements, please call Lucy on 01935 389400 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.She deals strictly on a personal call basis only and is happy to receive swatches of your bridal fabric in order to coordinate the veil design to that of the bridal gown. Alternatively she may travel to the chosen bridal salon during the early stages of fittings in order to accurately assess the overall design.
A minimum of four months notice prior to the wedding date is requested.