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Queen Victoria's wedding dress, RCIN 71975.Queen Victoria's wedding dress, RCIN 71975.A recent TRC blog on a wedding dress (3 May 2020) made me look closer at the fascinating history of wedding clothes. Wedding dresses are seen as very traditional garments, but they can also reflect surprisingly contemporary history and social issues.

Two of the wedding dresses in the TRC collection, one Dutch (TRC 2019.2154), the other American (TRC 2020.2126), reflect both the scarcity of materials and the make-do attitudes of the Second World War.

A burgundy coloured bow tie (TRC 2019.1614) in the TRC’s LGBTQ+ collection, which I wore at my own wedding, reflects a groundbreaking December 2000 law that made the Netherlands the first country in the world to legalise same-sex marriages.

The traditional Western wedding dress, which has been increasingly adopted in other parts of the world, actually has a relatively recent history. On 10 February 1840, Queen Victoria (1837‒1901) of the United Kingdom married Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha (1819‒1861). The choices she made for her wedding have had a lasting influence on wedding fashions.

Portrait of Queen Victoria wearing her wedding dress, head wreath and veil made of Honiton lace, painted by Franz Xaver Winterhalter, 1847. RCIN 400885.Portrait of Queen Victoria wearing her wedding dress, head wreath and veil made of Honiton lace, painted by Franz Xaver Winterhalter, 1847. RCIN 400885.Before this, there was no set colour or fashion for wedding dresses. People wore their best clothes. Wealthier people often wore impractical silver, silver and white or white garments. This colour choice demonstrated that the wearer could afford servants to keep their clothes clean and well cared for.

Princess Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz (1744‒1818) wore a gown of silver tissue, woven with silk threads wrapped with strips of silver gilt and embroidered with silver thread, when she married George III (1760‒1820) in 1761.

By comparison, Queen Victoria wore a fashionable dress of silk satin trimmed with lace. The dress was ivory coloured, rather than pure white, and made by Mrs Bettans, the Royal Dressmaker. The silk was made in Spitalfields, London, and emphasized the Queen’s support for British-made goods.

A white satin train was attached at the waist and decorated with orange blossoms. Artificial orange blossoms were also made into a head wreath, and attached to the hair was a long, Honiton lace veil. Over 200 people worked on this lace, under the supervision of a Miss Jane Bidney, Lacemaker in Ordinary to the Queen.

Brides across Europe began following the Queen’s fashion of a light-coloured wedding dress, with a lace veil and orange blossoms. Choices that are still popular today.

By Shelley Anderson, 6th June 2020.

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