Victorian Wedding Traditions

Figure 1.--The costumes worn by children at formal weddings harken back to styles worn at Victorian weddings, just one of the many wedding traditions inherited from the Victorians.

Attendants can add a nice touch to a wedding. They usually are close relatives or good friends of the couple. The ring bearer and the flower girls usually walk before the bride and her escort but behind the rest of the bridal party. Flower girls usually lay a bed of rose pedals for the bride to walk on. Trainbearers walk in pairs following the bride and her escort, holding the bride’s train. Like many aspects of American weddings, the tradition of flower girls and ring bearers became established in the early Victorian era. Victorian antecedents have affected virtually every aspect of the modern wedding, even suposedly non-traditional ones.

The Bride

The most important event in any Victorian girl's life was her wedding day. It is the day her mother has prepared her for from the moment she was born. The Victorian girl knew no other ambition. In part this was because there were few options available for women outside of marriage. She would marry, and she would marry well.

Figure 2.--Sailor suits continue to e a popular costume for boys at fomal weddings. Sometimes the boys and girls have coordinated outfits, but this is usually not the case with sailor suits.

The Month

The wedding itself and the events leading up to the ceremony are steeped in ancient traditions still evident in Victorian customs. One of the first to influence a young girl is choosing the month and day of her wedding. June has always been the most popular month, for it is named after Juno, Roman goddess of marriage. She would bring prosperity and happiness to all who wed in her month. Practicality played a part in this logic also. If married in June, the bride was likely to birth her first child in Spring, allowing her enough time to recover before the fall harvest. June also signified the end of Lent and the arrival of warmer weather. That meant it was time to remove winter clothing and partake in one's annual bath. April, November and December were favored also, so as not to conflict with peak farm work months. October was an auspicious month, signifying a bountiful harvest. May, however, was considered unlucky. "Marry in May and rue the day," an old proverb goes. But "Marry in September's shine, your living will be rich and fine." In the Southern United Sates, April was favored, as it was less hot, and a bride's favorite flowers were in bloom--jasmine and camellia.

Brides were just as superstitious about days of the week. A popular rhyme goes:

Marry on Monday for health,
Tuesday for wealth,
Wednesday the best day of all,
Tuesday for crosses,
Friday for losses, and
Saturday for no luck at all.
The Sabbath day was, of course out of the question.

The Wedding Ensemble

Once the bride chose her wedding day, a prerogative conferred upon her by the groom, she could begin planning her trousseau, the most important item of which was her wedding dress and that of her attendants.

Colors

Brides have not always worn white for the marriage ceremony. In the 16th and 17th centuries for example, girls in their teens married in pale green, a sign of fertility. A mature girl in her twenties wore a brown dress, and older women even wore black. From early Saxon times to the 18th century, only poorer brides came to their wedding dressed in white--a public statement that she brought nothing with her to the marriage. Other brides wore their Sunday best.

The color of the gown was thought to influence one's future life.

White--chosen right
Blue--love will be true
Yellow--ashamed of her fellow
Red--wish herself dead
Black--wish herself back
Grey--travel far away
Pink--of you he'll always think
Green-ashamed to be seen

Ever since Queen Victoria wed in 1840, however, white has remained the traditional color for wedding gowns and bouquets. A woman then used her dress for Court Presentation after marriage, usually with a different bodice.

Styles

The early Victorian wedding dress had a fitted bodice, small waist, and full skirt (over hoops and petticoats.) It was made of organdy, tulle, lace, gauze, silk, linen or cashmere. The veil was a fine gauze, sheer cotton or lace. The reasonable cost of a wedding gown in 1850 was $500, according to Godey's, with $125 for a veil. By 1861, more elaborate gowns cost as much as $1,500 if constructed with lace.

Figure 3.--Short pants suits in a wide variety of colors were a common choice for a boys' formal wedding costume, almost always worn with white kneesocks. This boy wears his velvet suit with a large lace collar.

Formal weddings during this period were all white, including the bridesmaid's dresses and veils. Veils were attached to a coronet of flowers, usually orange blossoms for the bride and roses or other in-season flowers for the attendants. The bride's accessories included: short white kid gloves, hanky embroidered with her maiden name initials, silk stockings embroidered up the front, and flat shoes decorated with bows or ribbons at the instep.

Historical eras

The American Frontier bride of the 1850s and 60s usually chose cambric, wool or linen dresses in a variety of colors. Few wore white, as the dress was used later for special events and church. Many had a warm, colorful shawl in paisley or plaid which draped her shoulders at the wedding. The shawl was then used for christenings, social events and an extra blanket in winter. A warm shawl was more cherished than a wedding dress.

For the mid-Victorian bride (1870s) there was an emergence of middle class wealth, and with it a display of their new riches. Wedding gowns fashioned by Worth in Paris were the ultimate status symbol. And if one couldn't afford an original, one copied them. Full court trains were now part of the wedding ensemble, as were long veils, a bustle, elegant details and two bodices--a modest one for the wedding and a low one for special occasions.

The late Victorians (1890s) saw the bustle disappear, a demi-train and large sleeves now in fashion. If the bride married in church, the dress must have a train, with a veil of the same length. The veil could be lace or silk tulle. From the mid-Victorian era to the 1890s, the veil covered the bride's face and was not lifted until after church. The veil was not used as a shawl after the wedding any more, however. White kid gloves were long enough to tuck under the sleeves, and had a slit in one finger to slip the ring on without removing the glove. Slippers were of white kid, satin or brocade and the heels rose to one inch.

For the widow who remarried in the early and mid-Victorian eras, she did not wear white, had no bridesmaids, no veil and no orange blossoms, (a sign of purity.) She usually wore a pearl or lavender satin gown trimmed with ostrich feathers. In the later decades, she was allowed attendants as well as pages, but no veil or orange blossoms. She could wear a shade or two away from white, preferring rose, salmon, ivory or violet.

Other

As for jewelry, diamonds have always been popular. When white dresses were in vogue, pearl and diamond combinations were fashionable. The mid-Victorians had a more extravagant display of wealth, often a diamond tiara for the ceremony. Combination pieces of diamond jewelry that could be separated later as individual pieces were popular. Traditionally, the jewelry worn by the bride was a gift from her husband. The earlier in the day the wedding, the less jewelry.

Finally, for the bride, you may recall the English rhyme: "Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue, and a lucky sixpence in your shoe." Something old was often a family heirloom and the bride's link with the past. Something new could be her dress or a gift from the groom. Something borrowed was of real value like a veil or headpiece, and returned to the owner. Something blue was often the garter or an embroidered handkerchief. The touch of blue symbolized faithfulness, while the sixpence ensured future wealth.

The Groom's Attire

The grooms, too, were concerned with fashion on their wedding day, and turned to magazines for advice on how best to be turned out. In the early Victorian era, the bridegroom wore a frock coat of blue, mulberry or claret, and a flower favor in his lapel. By 1865, men's coats were tailored with a special "flower-hole" for this purpose. His waistcoat was white, and his trousers of lavender doeskin. Black was out of the question. The best man and groomsmen wore frock coats also, but in a more subdued tone. The American frontier groom wore a flower on the lapel of his best suit, using whatever was in the bride's bouquet.

By the mid-Victorian era, frock coats were seldom worn, the morning coat being preferable because of its smarter appearance. Some grooms still wore frock coats, however, and did so with a vest of black cloth, dark gray trousers, a folded cravat of medium color, and lavender gloves stitched in black.

Fashions changed rapidly in the late Victorian years, from no need for gloves in 1885, to a must for gloves in 1886. By now, however, men wore pearl colored gloves with black embroidery. By 1899, the frock coat was back in style along with a double-breasted, light-colored waistcoat, dark tie, gray striped cashmere trousers, patent-leather button boots and pale tan kid gloves. Throughout the Victorian era, a black top hat was a necessity.

By the end of the Victorian era, boutonnieres were large--a bunch of lilies, a gardenia or stephanotis sprig. If the wedding was in the evening, as now allowed by English law, full dress tailcoats were in order, with white gloves and white waistcoat. The father of the bride dressed like the groom and groomsmen, and according to the time of day for the wedding.

Attendants, Children and Family

Bridesmaids

Gowns for the bridesmaids had to be both practical and beautiful, for they became a part of the girl's wardrobe after the ceremony. Some generous brides provided the dresses for their attendants. During the early Victorian years, skirts were full and bodices tiny. Tradition called for an all white wedding, but color could be added for an accent if the overall effect remained white. Bridesmaids covered their heads with short white veils falling from a coronet to just below the hip. Weddings at home did not require a veil, and often headpieces of flowers and ribbons were worn.

By the mid-Victorian era, bustles were the height of fashion. White was no longer the color, but was still worn at some weddings, often in combination with another color. By the 1890s, the Victorians were more willing to try innovative new fashions, closely following fashions from Paris. Large sleeves were in style, emphasizing the shoulders. Grey, violet and lilac were popular in England, while Americans preferred white, rose or green. By 1898, fashion dictated that the bridesmaids' dresses be in direct contrast to the bride's, so as not to distract from the beauty of her gown. That custom is still in practice today.

Children

Children were a symbolic part of the Victorian wedding and had their own dress etiquette. Outfits for formal weddings could be quite elaborate.

Little girls could be flower girls or ring bearers. If older, they could be junior bridesmaids or maids of honor. Regardless of their role, their dresses were of white muslin tied with a ribbon sash that matched their shoes and stockings. The dresses were either long or short depending upon the prevailing styles and ages of the girls.

Boys had the important role of holding the bride's train. They dressed as court pages in velvet jackets, short trousers and round linen collars fastened by large bows of white crepe de chine or surah. Their laced shoes were black, unless it was a formal wedding, in which case they wore white silk hose, and buckles on their shoes or strap shoes. Their velvet suits could be black, blue, green or red, with a matching hat, which was optional. The hat was removed for a church ceremony. I'm not sure about the stockings. Most stockings I have seen on 19th Century party clothes were dark stockings. I think it was not until after the turn of the 20th Cebntury that boys began wearing white stockings and white kneesocks with party clothes and fancy outfits. I have, however, seen white stockings advertized in the 19th Century and some boys wearing them--mostly with knickers.

I do not currently have any images of actual 19th Victorian weddings to show the costimes worn by boys. Many images, however, exist of 20th century images which show some clear fashion trends.
Styles: Many of the styles introduced for boys in the Victorian ra, especially kilts and sailor suits became staples for wedding costumes. British weddings also used miltary styles, but this was never popuar in America. More tradditinal styles, however, were veklvet suits of various colors are other fancy outfits trimmed in ruffles or lace. Sometimes the outfits of the boys and girls were coordinated. Collars: Collars varied greatly. They could be large, open ruffled collars or Fauntleroy lace collars worn with a large bow. Older boys might wear Eton collars.
Pants: Early Vctorian weddings might have the boys wearing long pants skelleton suits. After mid-century knickers or kneepants were more common. After the turn of the century the new short pants style became increasingly common, although knicker outfits were also worn. Sorts continued to be worn until the 1970s when knickers were increasingkly worn. Less formal weddings often had boys dress in white or blue Eton suits.
Stockings: White kneesocks have been commonly worn by boys at formal weddings in the 20th Century. I'm not sure whatkind of stocking worn at 19th Century weddings
Shoes: Boys at formal weddings usually wore buckle or strap shoes. The strap shes have become less common after the 1960s. Boys at less frmal weddings dressed in Eton suits would often wear saddle shoes.

Figure 4.--While knickers are now the most common pants for formal weddings, kneepants are also worn. The proper length is always just below the knee never baggy are drooping doen to the calf. Note the smocked collar.

Parents

Social customs dictated what the mothers and female guests wore, also, the difference subtle yet present. At a daytime wedding, guests wore walking or visiting costumes. The mothers, and other female family members, wore reception toilettes, being more elegant than daytime costumes, but less formal than evening dress. All women had to wear bonnets in church, but they were optional for at-home ceremonies. Bonnets were not worn for evening receptions. In the late Victorian era, black was suggested as an appropriate color for the mother of the bride. These were never made of black crepe, however, which signified mourning. If the mother was in mourning, she could put aside her crepe for the ceremony and wear purple velvet or silk in America, or cardinal red in England. Queen Victoria, the mother figure at many weddings, always wore black and white because she was in mourning for her "dearest Albert."

Source

Prima, Michelle. The Victorian Wedding (1997).






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Created: November 3, 1998
Last updated: September 6, 1998