Washington, D.C. - Fifteen vintage wedding dresses, as well as groom's attire, will be on view at the DAR Museum from April 16 through September 4, 2004. Something Old, Something New: Inventing the American Wedding will trace the evolution of the American wedding from its simplest beginnings in the 18th century to the lavish etiquette-laden affair it is today. The exhibition will showcase the DAR Museum's collection of wedding dresses, as well as dresses from The Valentine Richmond History Center.
Something Old, Something New: Inventing the American Wedding provides a thorough examination of the customs and traditions associated with the wedding ceremony as it evolved during the past 200 years. "If you ever wondered why brides wore white, then the DAR Museum's exhibition of wedding dresses and wedding finery is not to be missed," says DAR President General Linda Tinker Watkins. Since most people consider their wedding day one of the most important days in their lives, the objects associated with this day are often cherished and saved for generations. The DAR Museum collection of early American decorative arts included many items commemorating weddings. For the first time in the DAR's 114-year history, these objects have been brought together to show the changing traditions surrounding the American wedding.
A rare collection of wedding dresses worn by three generations of one family will be on display. The oldest, made in 1885 for Mary Radcliffe of Philadelphia, as well as the dress made in 1914 for her daughter, and another made in1942 for her granddaughter, are ideal examples of what was fashionable for brides in those years. Recycling of dresses and veils was common then and is still common today. The lace on the bodice of the 1914 dress was used as part of the headpiece for the 1942 attire.
Romanticism infused weddings with new cultural traditions. Wearing white for your wedding was not a common practice in America until the second half of the nineteenth century when it became established as a common cultural ideal and was within reach of a wide spectrum of Americans. Queen Victoria of England was credited with setting the style for white, but white had already become the custom for bridal attire among the English aristocracy in the 18th century.
Another tradition re-introduced into society was the wearing of the bridal veil. Although Jewish brides were often veiled, veils were re-introduced to European Christian weddings in the early nineteenth century. They symbolized modesty and purity. Brides did not carry the traditional wedding bouquet until the 1860s. Prior to that time, they sometimes wore flowers in their hair, such as roses, to symbolize love. Small nosegays, like those carried by women at dances, became popular in the 1860s.
According to Alden O'Brien, curator of the exhibition, "In the years following the Civil War, America's so-called Gilded Age, members of the aristocracy created elaborate rules of behavior and manners to set them apart from the middle classes. Weddings became the focus of increasing amounts of ritual and etiquette. New wedding inventions introduced in this period included the wedding procession, the reception, cutting the cake, and holding the ceremony in a church, a public location that was subject to a more obvious display of expense." Victorian traditions, such as those cited above are still common to today's American bride, but during the 20th century brides began to take wedding traditions in new directions. Couples today sometimes put their own stamp on the wedding ceremony. Some pick unusual locations, write their own vows, and incorporate ethnic heritage traditions into dress or activities.