Thursday, June 11, 2015

Here Comes the Bride

Not always dressed in White

by Martha Rogers

Since June is the month for brides, I decided to find out more about wedding gowns and how they’ve evolved through the ages because wedding gowns haven’t always been white or particularly elaborate.

Today, the color, style and ceremonial importance may depend entirely on the religion or culture of the bride. Financial considerations also play a big part as wedding gowns can run into thousands of dollars.

American weddings in the past included everything from simple home or garden ceremonies to elaborate affairs in cathedrals. In the early 19th century, country weddings were simple events held in the front parlor of the bride’s family. The couple held hands in front of the minister who led them through a short exchange of vows. The bride wore the best dress she had on hand or could be made for the day and used for church or special occasions later.

Later, around 1840 or so, wedding dresses were more often made of cotton or lightweight wool. Brides with a more elaborate ceremony or with a larger budget, often chose silk or satin for their gowns. The longer the train of her dress, the more affluent the family simply because the longer train needed more fabric at a higher cost. Floral prints as well as stripes were popular, but still many were chosen with future use in mind.

Although Mary Queen of Scots had worn white for her wedding in 1558, the color did not become popular until the 19th century. Queen Victoria’s wedding in February of 1840 changed the look of brides for all time. Up until Victoria’s wedding, reds, blues, greens and even dark colors were acceptable for wedding attire for the bride. After Victoria’s wedding, white became the fitting hue for a bride as symbol of her purity.

Queen Victoria’s gown was beautiful and elaborate, but being economy minded, she kept pieces of her dress to be used in her wardrobe for many years to come. For example, the lace from her dress was used again and again for her dresses and adorned the dress she had made for her Diamond Jubilee. Her dress, pictured here, is embellished 
with orange blossoms, so it was not completely white, but it set the precedent.

The truly elegant wedding was held in a church but this did not mean that all brides suddenly wore white and got married in a church. Most weddings would still be at home and the bride would wear the best dress she could afford. She may have dreamed of something more elegant but would not mind too much as simpler weddings were quite acceptable. Even some brides who could afford a white wedding gown sensibly chose a nice dress or two piece suit that they could continue to wear after the wedding.

For many of the working class, or for those living on farms and ranches, a lavish white gown was most impractical as an extravagance they could neither afford or justify. Cleaning such a dress was near impossible so they continued with the soft blues, greens and ivories in fabrics that could be cleaned easily. Most wore bonnets, and many were white as a token in place of the white dress. The bridal veil then was worn descending from the bonnet to whatever length the bride preferred. As seen here, the veil could sweep the floor much like the train of a dress as seen on the left. The veil worn over the face became popular in the late 1860’s.

From the latter part of the 19th century thru the 20th, brides began to select dresses of white more often than not simply because the fabric was more affordable and readily available from stores or catalogs. Linen homespun dresses were the usual for best dresses. Many young women made such a dress for her wedding as it could be worn after her wedding for otheroccasions. If she had the means she could even purchase sheer cotton mull, cambric or dimity for a finer white dress. The coming of patterns from Buttrick and McCall’s had made making one’s own dress much easier. Some were more elaborate, but most often the styles were such that could be worn on other special occasions. Some women even dyed their white dresses after the wedding to make the dress more practical. The white wedding gown was no longer the privilege of only the wealthy. Below are examples of one simple dress likely to be seen at less elaborate ceremonies and one chosen by a bride of wealthier means. Also pictured is a 19th century wedding party in a church setting. Notice the bride is wearing blue and the bonnet is white.

The Edwardian period brought a greater extravagance to bridal fashion. Wedding gowns were further embellished with lace and pearls. The Gibson Girl look became very popular. 

This continued until the outbreak of WWI, when styles became simpler and reflected the changing role of women in society. Hemlines rose and tightly laced corsets disappeared. Wedding gown styles continued to follow the fashion trends of the day, including the short flapper dress popular in the 1920's and the fashions of the early 1930's. Then came the depression when brides made do with their best dress or chose a simple white one they could later dye and wear again. As you can see in the pictures below, the depression era is not represented.

Movies and movie stars in the early 1940’s and 1950’s had a great deal of influence on wedding dresses. When Grace Kelly married Prince Ranier, copies of her gown became quite popular. Other stars like Elizabeth Taylor influenced fashion as well.

At right is Princess Diana whose dress was one of the most copied dresses worn by royalty.

Hoops made a comeback in the 1950’s and when I married in 1959, the hoop was worn under the silk taffeta skirt and the top was decorated with lace and pearls. My dad was a very proud man.

Weddings evoke many memories. What is your fondest, scariest, funniest or whatever wedding memory? 

Martha Rogers
Martha Rogers is a free-lance writer and 
was named Writer of the Year at the Texas Christian Writers Conference in 2009 and writes a weekly devotional for ACFW. Martha and her husband Rex live in Houston where they enjoy spending time with their grandchildren.  A former English and Home Economics teacher, Martha loves to cook and experimenting with recipes and loves scrapbooking when she has time. She has written three series, Winds Across the Prairie and Seasons of the Heart and The Homeward Journey. Book three in that series, Love Never Fails, released in November, 2014.

Find Martha at:


  1. I liked your post, Martha. It was interesting to read about the development of bridal gowns in recent centuries. My gown was inspired by Princess Diana's, but on a much smaller scale in every way. My favorite memory? Walking down the aisle and seeing my groom standing there waiting with a huge smile.

  2. Very interesting and informative, Martha. I made my simple wedding dress for our simple home wedding and loved every moment of it.

    1. That is such a neat thing to do, Davalyn. I made the veil for my wedding and then I made two of the dresses my Maid of Honor and one of my bridesmaids. My aunt made the others. I wanted to be sure they'd have a dress they could wear later. I loved every minute of it, too. Such a great memory.