RACINE — “When we think of weddings, we think of creamy satin and lace, a bouquet of white flowers,” said Kim Magnuson as she began her presentation of “Something old, something new.”
Magnuson was guest speaker at a recent meeting of the Return Jonathan Meigs Daughters of the American Revolution, where she spoke on the wedding outfit’s evolution from the 17th century to today.
“But that wasn’t the case,” she stated. “What we think of as the traditional wedding outfit, as well as the customs surrounding the wedding, were established only within the last 200 years, and some barely 100 years ago.”
Magnuson said many of the modern wedding traditions developed during the Victorian era are quite different from what was customary in the 18th century.
White was not considered the only color for a wedding dress before 1800, and she illustrated that fact by showing a dark green silk damask dress worn at a ceremony in 1760.
Magnuson said colonial brides wore their best gown or purchased the finest they could afford. Fine textiles were expensive and out of reach for many people. Women didn’t wear their gown only once and it was often altered and worn for years after the wedding to other important events.
“Eighteenth century couples usually married in a home and did not expect presents for their wedding from people outside their immediate family,” she said. “And men generally did not wear special clothing for their wedding, but would sometimes have an embroidered waistcoat made for the occasion.”
During the turn of the century, white became a popular color for young girl’s dresses due to white’s neo-classical connotations and its associations with youth. With white now in fashion, brides began to choose white dresses to be married in, Magnuson said.
By 1837, she said white silk wedding dresses with lace or embroidered gauze veil was established as “the fashionable convention for bridal attire.”
Low-necked evening styles were favored, and brides continued to wear their wedding dresses after the wedding day. Brides could still choose from a variety of colors for their wedding dresses during the late 1800s, but the traditional white was a cultural ideal.
The Industrial Revolution further strengthened the idea of white wedding dresses by making it possible for brides to purchase white gowns of machine made white silks in prices to suit most budgets, Magnuson said. Weddings and dresses, she added, continued becoming more lavish until World War II “put a stop” to elaborate dresses due to wartime rationing.
“After the war, brides could once again revel in lush, romantic wedding dresses,” Magnuson said.
Traditions have long been a part of weddings: the idea of keeping something special as a wedding remembrance has been a tradition since at least the mid-1800s. Fans of ivory and silk, prayer books and wedding rings were common.
Brides carried prayer books before bouquets became popular. Prior to its discovery in South Africa in the late 1800s, diamonds were rare and expensive, and most diamond rings were imitations.
Shoes, stockings and garters were associated with weddings; shoes were thrown after the couple as they departed, stockings were thrown to determine who would be married next, and the bride’s garters were a sought-after prize in some early traditions.
“As wedding dresses became more specific to the day, as opposed to a dress a bride could wear later in life, the result was that dresses began to be passed down as mementos as well,” Magnuson said. “A colonial bride would hardly recognize her contemporaries with their old etiquette, new twists and borrowed traditions.
“Today’s bride’s marital status no longer defines her as completely as it did the colonial bride, and weddings have become a reflection of her tastes. Will weddings get more elaborate, or will the pendulum swing back toward simpler weddings? Where will the American wedding go from here?”