June blog: The bride that is married in June….

Two wartime wedding dresses

Killerton has a large collection of bridal gowns, veils, head-dresses, shoes and accessories worn for that one special occasion.

These days we are used to reading about big society weddings, with the bride and her gown at the centre of it all.

In the 18th and early 19th centuries weddings were quiet affairs. Most women would not have been able to afford an expensive special dress. Colourful silk brocades were worn by well-off 18th century brides, while everyone else simply married in the best they had

Dress made in the 1780s from an earlier blue & silver brocade
Dress made in the 1780s from an earlier blue & silver brocade

Silver and White

Rich and costly fabrics were always an important element of aristocratic weddings. Robes were often made of velvet, cloth of gold or cloth of silver and trimmed with jewels and furs.

By the middle of the 18th century if a bride of noble birth was married in anything but white it was considered bad luck. Letters and memoirs are great sources of descriptions of grand weddings. Some reveal that white and silver were usually combined in extravagant textiles.

Mrs Delaney’s powerful description of Lady Dawson’s glittering appearance in 1778 paints a picture of a shining bride,

‘like the moon in a lympid stream:  white and silver, or rather all silver-the prettiest silk I ever saw-and richly trimm’d with silver, festooned and betassel’d.’

When Jane Austen's niece Anna married Benjamin Lefroy at Steventon on November 8, 1814, she was more simply dressed in

‘fine white muslin, and over it a soft silk shawl, white shot with primrose [yellow], with embossed white-satin flowers, and very handsome fringe, and on her head a small cap to match, trimmed with lace.’

Anna Maria Draycott Denys,soon to become Lady Francis Shuckburgh, was dressed in an oyster twilled silk pelisse robe in 1825. It is trimmed with extravagant satin rouleaux and ‘Van Dyck’ points in the new romantic mood which now dominated fashion. It survives with the original fine Brussels lace worn as a bonnet veil.  The lace was ordered from Haywards of London at a cost of £500 (nearly £21,000).

1814 silk pelisse dress worn by Mary Dunham of Chalfont St Giles
1814 silk pelisse dress worn by Mary Dunham of Chalfont St Giles

Satin and Lace

Royal brides continued to set the trends throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. Killerton looks after gowns made for simpler weddings, besides the elegant pearl and lace trimmed silks.

Queen Victoria’s marriage to Prince Albert in February 1840 is often reported as the inspiration for bridal white. The young Queen described her choice of dress in her journal,

‘I wore a white satin dress, with a deep flounce of Honiton lace, an imitation of an old design. My jewels were my Turkish diamond necklace & earrings & dear Albert's beautiful sapphire brooch.’

The gown was designed by Mrs. Bettans, one of the Queen’s dressmakers.

Many brides did aspire to white satin, but it did not become really well established as a bridal fabric until the late 19th century. Silk taffeta, cotton muslins, organdie and lightweight woollen cloths were all used to construct wedding gowns.

By the1880s elaborate gowns of white satin or damask, heavily trimmed with hand-made or machine lace were features of most fashionable weddings, as newspaper reports show. Both Brussels and Honiton lace were in demand. Brides were expected to wear their gowns for occasions throughout the first year of married life, so they were altered accordingly to be worn, 'as often as possible in the early days of married life, without the orange blossom.’

Wedding lace, 1825
Wedding lace, 1825

Cotton Print or London Smoke

Many brides wore home-made gowns. Country brides might marry in a pretty cheerful cotton print in summer, or a more formal dark wool ensemble in the colder months. Old dresses could be altered and lent to family members.

Brides in mourning could wear mauve, grey and black. Pale grey was a popular choice. Working brides- to- be were told to avoid white wedding gowns altogether and to choose something more practical. One bride was advised to ‘get a ‘nun’s cloth’ trimmed with satin in a light shade of a colour called ’London Smoke’. 

Bodices were cut with a high neck and long sleeves,‘for it must be remembered that she is not going to a dance or a reception, but to a religious ceremony that means the joy or misery of her future life’.

Grey wool bodice with lace trim, about 1900
Grey wool bodice with lace trim, about 1900

Leave Permitting

Perhaps the most poignant gowns are those made for wartime brides.

From 1941 rationing and restrictions meant that many brides could only dream of a white wedding. Pre-war hoarded fabric, borrowed gowns, and ration coupons saved by generous friends and family helped. Curtain lace and net was off ration, as were the highly prized but awkward to cut and sew parachutes which occasionally became available. Magazines such as Woman and Home suggested coupon free ways of fabricating bridal headgear from a gathering of net and artificial flowers.

Nurse Molly Casson volunteered in a Lancashire hospital during WWII.  There she met her husband to be.  Her tight fitting wedding dress of pre-war white wool crêpe trimmed with velvet was specially made for Molly by Madame Skelton, a Blackpool dressmaker, in 1943.

The groom was taken to Germany as a prisoner of war, so the planned wedding was postponed for two years, but was finally (and happily) celebrated at the end of the war in 1945.

Two wartime wedding dresses
Two wartime wedding dresses