Wedding dresses since the 1850s

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The costume collection at the Ulster Folk Museum includes objects relating to important rites of passage in daily life. This blog is the first in a series, looking at costume for marriage, birth and death.

Wedding Dresses in museum collections are little potted histories in themselves – they generally come with good documentation (for obvious reasons) and since most have only been worn once, and are usually stored carefully by the owner, they tend to survive in good condition. Here are a few highlights from the wedding dress collection at the Ulster Folk Museum, each with a tale to tell.

Rathlin Island bride, 1859

Around 1859 the daughter of the keeper of the East Light on Rathlin Island married one of the island’s blacksmiths. The bride wore a simple outfit consisting of a purple silk skirt, a black silk mantle (cape) and a straw bonnet trimmed with black net lace and purple silk ribbon. The mantle shows signs of having been pieced from small sections of fabric, suggesting a thrifty ‘make do and mend’ attitude to making this outfit. In keeping with the custom of the time, for those with a modest income, the newly married Mrs McFaul would have worn this outfit on a regular basis thereafter, for ‘Sunday Best’.

Image: Mantle HOYFM.1206.1987A and Skirt HOYFM.1206.1987B
Mantle HOYFM.1206.1987A and Skirt HOYFM.1206.1987B
Image: Bonnet HOYFM.1205.1987
Bonnet HOYFM.1205.1987

Bridesmaid’s dress, 1863

This two- piece bridesmaid’s outfit is made of finely striped white muslin. It consists of a boned and laced bodice with short puff sleeves, trimmed with Leavers lace, worn with a very full skirt, over a crinoline. The hem of the skirt measures almost six metres around.

The dress has a very special connection to the Ulster Folk Museum at Cultra as it was worn in 1863 by Kate Stevenson, at the wedding of her sister Ellen. The wedding took place in St. Anne’s Church, Dungannon. The girls’ father was John Stevenson, founder of the company which owned the spade mill now re –erected, and working, in the museum’s grounds today.

Image: Dress HOYFM.1152.1987 (A and B)
Dress HOYFM.1152.1987 (A and B)

In the early nineteenth century blue was often chosen for wedding dresses, to symbolize purity. At the time this dress was worn however, white had become a fashionable choice, both for brides and bridesmaids. This fashion for white was popularised by Queen Victoria, who wore a white dress when she married Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha on February 10th 1840.

Dressmaking skills, 1874

Orders for wedding dresses and ‘going away’ outfits often provided dressmakers with a good opportunity to show off their full range of needlework skills and their knowledge of the latest designs. This elegant ensemble is a two-piece dress of grey silk with trim of maroon silk. The piping around the sleeves and skirt hem is especially skilfully worked. The bodice features a fan tail and the apron skirt carries a train. This dress was part of the trousseau of Elizabeth Harden of Markethill, County Armagh, who married a Mr Glendinning in 1874. The dress is believed to have been made by the Misses McCullough of Markethill and that the bride wore it as her ‘going away’ dress.

Image: Dress HOYFM.354.1975
Dress HOYFM.354.1975

A bride in mourning, 1875

A two piece dress of purple corded silk, trimmed with purple velvet. The bodice features a watch pocket at waist level, the skirt has elaborate covered buttons. The hem is scalloped to show a lace and gauze pleated trim. The gown was made by M and M Simpson of 12 Donegall Place, Belfast, who were ‘Purveyors of robes, manteaux and modes’. It is believed that the bride chose this colour because she was in the later stages of mourning at the time of her marriage in 1875.  In the late nineteenth century it was common to mark the loss of a close relative by wearing black for a full year, and to wear purple for six months if the mourning was not recent or if it was for a more distant relative.

Image: Dress HOYFM.184.1974 (A and B)
Dress HOYFM.184.1974 (A and B)

A fashionable bride, 1912

This one piece dress of cream rayon was worn by Eliza Spratt of Portadown for her wedding to Samuel Smith Corbett on 18th January 1912. The groom’s family owned a drapery establishment in the town and, as such, would have been keen to promote the use of this newly fashionable fabric.

Rayon was developed in the USA in the mid-nineteenth century, as a cheaper alternative to silk. It was first produced in the UK by Courtaulds Fibres in 1905 and was marketed as ‘artificial silk’. It became very popular from 1911 onwards. Rayon is a man made, but not synthetic, fabric, as it is derived from natural substances such as wood pulp and resin.

Image: Dress HOYFM.1389.1989
Dress HOYFM.1389.1989

The 1930s bride

This dress, of white satin, from the late 1930s, was worn with a beaded veil headdress, and accessorised with a matching ‘Dorothy’ bag. As fabrics of all kinds were scarce during the war years many brides who wished to wear white at their wedding borrowed pre-war dresses such as this one, with some dresses being loaned among friends and worn up to 8 or 9 times. The style of this dress and the glamourous fabric used are a reflection of the influences of film idols at the time.

Image: Dress HOYFM.1388.1970 A
Dress HOYFM.1388.1970 A

Wedding dress, 1953

A one piece dress of white net and lace over satin, trimmed with applied motifs, pearl drops and diamante.  The dress was bought at Paige’s of Belfast and was worn by Doreen Henry at her marriage to George McBride in Osborne Park Methodist Church on 11th August 1959.

Wedding dresses of the 1950s and early 1960s were often worn in this ‘ballerina’ length. Correspondingly, the veils were usually short and worn with Juliet caps or pill box hats. By the 1970s some very fashionable brides chose mini length dresses for informal weddings, or civil ceremonies.

The elaborate wedding dress worn in 1981 by Lady Diana Spencer, designed by David and Elizabeth Emmanuel of London, ushered in a new age of elaborate and decorative wedding dresses that continues today.  The dress worn by Diana featured a bodice style and full crinoline skirt not unlike that of our very own Kate Stevenson of Dungannon in 1863!

Image: Dress HOYFM.1133.1988
Dress HOYFM.1133.1988