State Historic Site

Trail End

Bridal Gowns


IN THE LATE 18th Century, the introduction of machine-made fabrics and relatively inexpensive Indian muslin made white wedding dresses more affordable. Even so, they didn't become the standard until the late 19th Century.

Until the late 1800s, most brides wore dresses in a variety of colors other than white. During the American Revolution, for example, some brides donned red gowns to show their patriotism; during and after the Civil War, many chose to wear purple in remembrance of the honored dead; during the late Victorian era, brown, gray and blue were popular colors for wedding dresses. When preacher’s daughter Ida Josephine Peeler married up-and-coming Texas cattleman Charles Wulfjen in 1869, she chose to wear a dark-colored dress in a fashionable style. Her daughter Eula made the same choice when she married John Kendrick.



THE WHITE WEDDING DRESS

Contrary to popular legend, white was not chosen as a favorite color for weddings because it represented virginity (all brides were assumed to be virginal). Instead, white was symbolic of:

  • Wealth  Very few women could afford to wear a dress only once or twice, so most chose dresses that could be used for future events. A bride with a white dress could easily be identified as coming from a well-to-do family.


  • Youth  As far back as the ancient Greeks, white was the color of youth; thus older brides – virginal or otherwise – were discouraged from wearing it.


  • Change in Status  Like baptisms, christenings, communions, debuts and graduations – all events in which white was traditionally worn – a wedding was a major life event, one in which the wearer’s status was dramatically changed.


Although it existed long before her 1840 marriage to Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg, England's Queen Victoria is often given credit for popularizing the white wedding dress. It wasn't every day that a reigning monarch married, so twenty-one year old Alexandrina Victoria's dress had to be impressive - and it was! It took two hundred seamstresses eight months to create the white silk gown, which included an 18-foot train and a white lace veil trimmed with orange blossoms. It was dripping with handmade Honiton lace made in Devonshire. After it was pictured and described in the popular press, the gown set the standard for wedding elegance for nearly 170 years.

Like other thrifty brides, Queen Victoria fully expected to wear this dress again. Indeed, she removed the lace overskirt and wore it several times after the wedding, decorating it with a royal sash.


A VARIETY OF STYLES & FABRICS


The white "leg-o-mutton"-sleeved wedding dress worn by Virginia resident Lucy Booth at her wedding to Hugh Smith Cumming in 1896 is typical of the elaborate Victorian era wedding dress. The local newspaper described Lucy as follows:

The bride wore a gown of brocaded oriental satin, en train, her veil caught with pearl ornaments, and carried in her hand only a prayer-book bound in white. Never did a handsomer, more queenly woman pass down the historic stairway of “Carter’s Grove.” [She] is a strikingly handsome brunette, not only a favorite in her own community, but well known in the society circles of Richmond, Norfolk, and other cities, North and South.

While radically different, the rust-colored traveling suit worn by Sheridan resident Annie Maye Loucks at her 1889 wedding to Cameron Garbutt is also a typical Victorian era wedding dress. It is very similar in style to the traveling suit worn by Eula Kendrick in Greeley, Colorado, two years later. In the Wild West, such a suit was more practical than white silk. Like Annie, Eula was married in the winter and left on her honeymoon right after the wedding, leaving little time to change from a fancy gown into an appropriate traveling outfit:

A brilliant wedding occurred at the Methodist Episcopal church in this city yesterday afternoon. … The bride was arrayed in a traveling costume of mauve Henrietta and velvet, trimmed with silver otter fur and hat and gloves of the same. With diamonds sparkling from throat and ears she was a perfect picture of loveliness and grace. From the time of her social debut [Eula’s] acknowledged charm of person and manner … won for her the proud social distinction of leader and favorite among the young society people of Greeley.

When Eula Kendrick’s older sister, Mattie Wulfjen, married engineer Francis Williams in Greeley, Colorado in 1899, she dressed in the height of fashion in a long-sleeved white dress with high collar, veil and train. In turn, Mattie’s daughter, Eula Severn Williams, wore a very stylish gown when she married Diana Kendrick’s cousin, Army officer Samuel Calvin Cumming, in Washington in 1923. Rosa-Maye's 1927 dress was exceptionally fashionable, and Diana Cumming maintained the family’s tradition of stylishness with her “strikingly effective costume” in 1929:

Fashioned of ivory white satin, the bodice is made with a “V” neckline and long fitted sleeves which go into points over the wrists, and the skirt is long and full with graceful circular fullness at the sides that extend several inches below the hemline proper. The gown is devoid of trimming and a court train of rare old Brussels lace, which belonged to the bride’s mother, falls over a satin foundation from the shoulders. The tulle veil will be arranged softly about her face and held by tiny clusters of orange blossoms. … Her bouquet will be a shower effect of gardenias and lilies of the valley.

During the first third of the 20th Century, wedding dress silhouettes changed dramatically between 1900 and 1933 – from long and fitted to short and loose, and back again. Throughout, most dresses were made from silk or satin, trimmed in lace, and topped off with the latest style of veil and plenty of flowers.

A Whole-House Exhibit at the Trail End State Historic Site
March 2009 - December 2009

Wedding Belles & Beaux

Sixty Years of Wedding Costumes & Customs, 1869-1929

Kooi-Reynolds wedding, circa 1926 (Moeller-Edwards Collection, TESHS)

(Kendrick, Hoff, Trail End, Laya & Private collections, TESHS)