Artifact: Blue Wedding dress / bridesmaid dress
Accession Numbers: Blue wedding dress – to follow tomorrow
Bridesmaid Dress, c.1957 #147100
Author: Andrea Melvin

Here Comes the Wedding Gown



Blue, plaid, maroon, yellow, beige and white….when walking down the aisles of wedding gowns housed in the Grand Rapids Public Museum’s historic clothing collection, one wouldn’t know it.

The aisles of over 140 gowns show the evolution of wedding traditions and fashions over the last 160 years. The rainbow of colors and variations in design from long trains to bustles, short hems to sleeveless styles show what West Michigan women chose to wear on one of the most important days of their life. Some of the Museum’s oldest gowns are simply a woman’s best dress. They are functional and easy to launder and were likely worn many times. This is not the case for the majority of American brides today.

 

The tradition of wearing white on one’s wedding day actually only goes back to Queen Victoria in the 1840s and became the social norm by the 1880s – 90s. Called the “white wedding” tradition, the rituals that evolved around the wedding event during this time period – such as the ceremony, cake, music and the reception – are still very common today. The white gown was a key component, originally used to impress the grooms family and exhibit wealth by wearing a dress that *what a shocker!* could easily get soiled and would only be worn once.

Among the collections of wedding dresses at the Grand Rapids Public Museum, there are only a handful linked to other members of the bridal party (groom, bridesmaid, flower girl and groomsman). The Museum’s tuxedos and mens suits have very little information associated with them. We often do not know who wore them or where they were worn. In more recent years, renting has become the norm for the wedding tux, making it even less likely to see the grooms’ attire in the Museum.

Bridesmaids likely do not approach the museum to donate their dresses because it was not THEIR big day. Wedding dresses in the Museum collection were often donated by the bride or her family wanting to document an important rite of passage. It is not surprising that the bridesmaid is less sentimental about the occasion than the bride. Some sources say that the history of the bridal party dates back to the Anglo-Saxon era and that early on bridesmaids dressed just like the bride (so evil demons wanting to lay a curse would not be able to identify the actual bride and groom). Others say that early bridesmaids were provided with inferior dresses because they were actual servants (or maids). Some bridesmaids just did not like the dress they had to wear – after all, they didn’t pick it out! It is for these reasons that it is also not surprising that there are only about 5 bridesmaids dresses that found their way into the Museum collection.

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Bridesmaid Dress, c.1957 #147100

The wedding gowns at the Grand Rapids Public Museum give us the biggest clues about changing traditions in wedding ritual and the culture surrounding the wedding. Today the wedding industry is booming and is said to be “recession proof”: http://www.mlive.com/business/index.ssf/2012/08/weddings_cost_michigan.html  with dresses averaging about $1000 each in Michigan. Other sources state that smaller weddings are on the rise though and that there is an increasing number of couples interested in having smaller weddings http://www.nytimes.com/2012/08/12/fashion/the-reinvented-wedding-smaller-and-cheaper.html?pagewanted=all  They are having less elaborate ceremonies, spending less on their attire, having a smaller bridal party, inviting fewer guests and choosing a small venue like a backyard or city hall. This can be for both economic reasons or the urge for a smaller and more intimate celebration. One wonders if we are indeed in another changing phase for wedding traditions…maybe my dress could represent this new era?

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My husband and I at our city hall wedding ceremony, March 8, 2010. I purchased my dress for $180 on my 1-hour lunch break from work the day before we eloped.