Updated: Dec 16, 2021
In the process of inventorying the museum’s collections, we’ve sorted through many fascinating artifacts. Right now, we’re going through the objects in our textile room. We have shelves filled with garments, quilts, samplers, and numerous other items. Though there are a lot of different types of clothing in our collections, some that we run across more frequently are wedding dresses.
Wedding dresses have a special significance in our society—they hold memories of a special day and carry symbolic connotations like purity, love, and commitment. Despite the traditional white dress that may come to mind when we envision a wedding, historically, the fashions of these dresses, and the contexts in which they were worn, have differed greatly.
In the 19th century most women could not afford a dress only to be worn once, and white dresses, apart from becoming symbolic of chastity, showcased the status of the wearer as someone able to afford a dress that stained easily and was impractical. Still, many were dyed and re-worn, and the average woman simply wore the best dress she owned (no matter the color) to her wedding.
Except for those hosted by the very rich, weddings frequently were much simpler affairs than ones today—particularly in times of turmoil, like the Civil War. Brides of the 1860s often wanted to marry as quickly as possible, in the event that their fiancés died in battle or did not return home.
In the post-war era, when many war brides had traded their wedding gowns for mourning garb, another wave of marriages occurred for the women who’d opted to wait for their sweethearts to return home. It was not until the next generation that the marriage patterns that were socially acceptable before the Civil War returned: engagements lengthened, and there were fewer uneven marriages with respect to age and social status.
It was during this time period, in 1871, that one of the most lavish weddings connected to our collections took place between Griffin Stedman Williams and Mary Pearce Harrison. Though they married in Buffalo, NY, the couple has a connection to Loudoun County. Their son, Harrison Williams, moved to Leesburg in the early 20th century and became one of its prominent citizens. Their grandson, Winslow Williams, became a renowned photographer in Loudoun County, and much of his work now resides in a collection at the Balch Library.
Mary Pearce Harrison’s wedding dress is probably one of the most elaborate garments we house at our collections storage facility. In addition to the full skirt adorned with fake flowers, the dress has two silk bodices—a long sleeved one for the ceremony and a short sleeved one for the party. Completing the ensemble is a tiara similar to the faux flower crowns you see at many modern weddings.
Note: Though we may think of fake flowers as a modern invention, they’ve been around for centuries and really rose to popularity in the 1870s. Made of silk, crepe, paper, wire, and other materials, these garlands of leaves and flower petals were painstakingly created, often by underpaid and underaged laborers in Europe.
More than 30 years after Queen Victoria’s wedding, this dress deliberately referenced her 1840 gown which inspired so many that came after it. It is fairly common knowledge that modern wedding dresses, in form and color, draw inspiration from Queen Victoria’s wedding gown in 1840. However, this dress was more intentionally similar. Mary Pearce Harrison ordered the ensemble from Parisian fashion house Mon. Vignon, with faux orange blossoms attached to the dress and tiara.
This emulated the floral crown and dress trimmed with real orange blossoms that the Queen originally wore to her wedding. In the Victorian “language of flowers,” these blossoms symbolized a woman’s chastity— combined with her white dress, the Queen’s wedding fashion influenced the meanings behind what coming generations (Including Mary Pearce Harrison Williams) wore.
Once Queen Victoria set this trend and Western wedding dresses took on this added fashion significance, bridal gowns became more than everyday garments. They were now things to be saved, heirlooms to be passed down. People take pride in wearing their mother or grandmother’s wedding dress, or in finding one uniquely their own. Historic clothing like wedding dresses, uniforms, and other textiles are frequently handed down through generations. If your family has any textiles they are looking to preserve, here are some tips to keep them in their best possible condition:
-Make sure your hands are clean and dry before touching historic textiles (we use nitrile gloves when handling textiles at the museum).
-If you fold historic garments, make sure this is done in such a way that avoids permanent creasing, minimizing the number of folds.
-If the textile is too fragile to handle frequently, avoid touching it in any way that further damages it once it is properly stored.
-If the textile is not too fragile, feel free to re-fold it every once in awhile to avoid serious creasing.
CLEANING: Unless you plan on wearing a garment, avoid washing any historic items. Washing or dry-cleaning historic textiles can cause further harm to them, rinsing small fibers away, making dyes run, and otherwise distorting or crushing the fabric. Likewise, modern detergents and cleaning agents may cause damage if used to wash or remove stains from fragile textiles. For especially dirty or deteriorated pieces, consider consulting a professional conservator for cleaning, repairs, etc. to avoid damaging the object.
-Keep out of direct sunlight to avoid fading.
-Keep out of humid areas or rooms vulnerable to fluctuations in temperature (basements, attics, e.g.)
-Depending on the age of the garment, you may not want to hang it up—particularly items made of delicate fabrics, or ones that are heavy (as wedding dresses often are) and would have to support their own weight. Hanging these can cause tearing around the sleeves and collar and wear down the fabric.
-At the museum, we store our textiles in acid-free boxes, first wrapping them in buffered tissue paper, which neutralizes acids that can damage objects over time. If you do not have these materials, storage in a flat container is often better than hanging historic textiles vertically. You can create an acid free surface by lining a box or drawer with aluminum foil, then cushioning the garment with acid free tissue paper or undyed cotton fabric.
Note: For larger textiles such as quilts and coverlets, it is common practice at some museums to roll these around acid free dowels rather than folding them. However, some more recent studies suggest that this can cause strain on the fabric and stitching. For more information, see the American Quilter blog.
Further resources for textile care:
"How do I store Antique Textiles at Home?" Smithsonian. https://www.si.edu/faqs/antique-textile-storage
Ritzenthaler, Mary Lynn. "Preserving Textiles." National Archives Prologue Magazine. Summer 2016, Vol. 48, No. 2. https://www.archives.gov/publications/prologue/2016/summer/preserve-textiles.html.
Brennan, Summer. "A Natural History of the Wedding Dress." JSTOR Daily. September 17, 2017. https://daily.jstor.org/a-natural-history-of-the-wedding-dress/
Hacker, J. David, et al. "The Effect of the Civil War on Southern Marriage Patterns." Journal of Southern History. 2010 Feb; 76(1): 39–70. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3002115/
Lee, Summer. "1840-Queen Victoria's Wedding Dress." Fashion History Timeline. January 28, 2020. https://fashionhistory.fitnyc.edu/1840-queen-victorias-wedding-dress/
"Wedding Flowers." The Royal Collection Trust. https://www.rct.uk/collection/themes/trails/royal-weddings/wedding-flowers