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Artifact Analysis: Walking Down the Aisle in Wayne

By: Tessa Payer, Museum Specialist at the Wayne Museum and Passaic County Department of Cultural & Historic Affairs


If you open Box 87, currently tucked on one of our storage shelves behind-the-scenes at the Wayne Museum, you’ll come face to face with a pop of color. This archival box houses a very special garment from our clothing collection: a matching bodice and skirt made of purple silk. The bodice fastens with a series of rhinestone buttons, decoratively placed off-center. The pleating at the front of the neckline and the short ‘coattails’ behind add touches of style, but the most distinctive features of the bodice are the ballooning sleeves, a hallmark of the 1890s. The skirt is constructed of the same eggplant-purple silk, with the addition of a black and purple floral-patterned panel.



Figure 1- The purple silk bodice and skirt in question! From the Wayne Museum.


What if I were to tell you that this may have been a wedding dress?


Paperwork associated with the outfit describes it as a wedding dress, donated to the museum by the family of Carolyn Jackson. Purple might not be the first color that comes to mind for a wedding, but a brief dive into the history of wedding gowns shows that white hasn’t always been the first choice.


In the 18th century, when Wayne Township was still Saddle River Township in Bergen County, local brides could be seen wearing a variety of colors and fabrics. Wedding dresses were rarely worn only once. They were often chosen from a woman’s existing wardrobe. If made specifically for the wedding, it was expected that they would be re-worn or the fabric repurposed. Fabric was where 18th century people put their money, so they were used to unpicking stitches to make the most of the textile over the years. Eighteen years after her wedding, Elizabeth Phelps (nee Porter) wrote that “Miss Molly Wright [was] here to alter my Weding Gown.”[1]



Bridal dress colors varied. Besides more practical solid colors, prints and patterns were common in the 18th century. Last year, artisans at Colonial Williamsburg sewed an 18th century wedding gown, made of an eye-catching gold-striped silk.[2] Evidence of floral print wedding dresses can be found at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the National Museum of American History.[3]










While white, cream, ivory, and silver wedding dresses could be found in the 18th century, it wasn’t until the 19th century that they became a ‘tradition’. Queen Victoria’s wedding outfit, a white satin silk gown trimmed with lace, is typically cited as the beginning of the white wedding dress trend as we know it today. The introduction of magazines specifically targeting women- and featuring color illustrations- meant that even women in Wayne could see what the royal bride was wearing, and model their own clothes after hers. Newly published etiquette books and domestic guides soon caught on, post-dating the white wedding fashion. In 1849, only nine years after the royal wedding, Godey's Lady's Book declared,


“Custom has decided, from the earliest ages, that white is the most fitting hue [for brides], whatever may be the material. It is an emblem of the purity and innocence of girlhood, and the unsullied heart she now yields to the chosen one.”[4]

19th century industrialization meant increased access to a variety of goods, and- combined with new popular literature about marriage- the wedding industry took off. Stores specifically catering to wedding needs were opened; Fabian’s on Main Street in Paterson advertised in May 1907 that “Milady’s Wedding Dress Is Here!”[5] Newspapers like Paterson’s The Morning Call and the Passaic Daily News offered Passaic County’s brides advice about their wedding day garments in regular columns like “What Shall We Wear?” Newspapers of the late 19th century turned from Queen Victoria to other celebrity figures for wedding inspo. Frances Folsom’s 1886 wedding to President Grover Cleveland was all the rage that June. The Morning Call's June 17th, 1886 issue had several columns (and several illustrations) dedicated to the wedding, specifically the dress. The detailed description of the gown’s fit and construction almost reads like a how-to guide for making your own wedding gown;


Figure 3- Frances Folsom's wedding dress for her 1886 marriage to President Grover Cleveland. From the National Museum of American History.

"Our picture is a copy of the very last photograph of her, in her beautiful wedding gown. If that wedding dress is a further index of her character, then once more Grover and the country are to be congratulated. It was in exquisite taste, simple and dignified. It was a very rich corded ivory white satin with a plain rounded train five yards long.







Figure 4- Frances Folsom photographed in her wedding dress- featuring the orange bud trim noted in the article. From the Library of Congress.

The train flowed plain in two organ plaits from the waist and had no trimming around the edge of the splendid satin. Before, there is a short apron-front draping of India silk of the same color. A narrow band of orange buds borders this apron. The bodice is cut V-shaped, and has a satin lappel crossing it from left to right, and fastened upon the right hip. At the shoulder seams two exquisitely fine scarfs of India muslin begin. They cross upon the breast, and are tucked under the satin lappet. The scarfs are bordered with orange buds. The sleeves reach just below the elbow, and are trimmed with bands of the muslin. A tiny bouquet of orange buds is fastened on the inner side of the arm at the elbow.”[6]



Several families from the Preakness area attended Fannie Berdan and John Trimble’s wedding at the new North Reformed Church in Passaic, where the bride “was clad in the traditional white silk wedding dress and carried an orange blossom bouquet.”[7] Susie Garside wore “white chantilly lace over taffeta” when she married Harry Decker at her parents’ home in Wayne in November 1903, while Lizzie Wood “was attired in a beautiful white lace robe and carried a shower bouquet of bridal roses” at her 1909 wedding.[8]


Figure 5- Another wedding ensemble from the Wayne Museum, though in a more ‘traditional’ cream. This bodice and skirt date ca. 1880.

Newspaper descriptions of weddings add another twist on the white wedding. While many people couldn’t be caught dead in white at a wedding today, bridesmaids were often advised to wear white. Florence Hartley's The Ladies Book of Etiquette advised 1860s brides that “a very pretty effect is produced in the wedding group, if the bride wears pure white, and the bridesmaids white, with flowers and trimmings of a different color.”[9] Susie Garside’s bridesmaids, for example, wore white etamine and “white Swiss mull over taffeta”.[10]


However, the one-time-only white wedding dress wasn’t set in stone. Reuse was still common. “The common sense girl of moderate income now prepares the gowns for her wedding outfit with an eye to the future,” The Morning Call reported in September 1903. “The wedding dress itself is so made that it may be worn afterward on evening state occasions.”[11] Wedding gowns were often made with different evening and daytime bodices, adjusting the style for the type of occasion. In 1896, Mrs. Irving Swan Brown re-wore her ivory satin wedding dress to a reception she hosted to kick off the social season in Passaic.[12] Presidential daughter Alice Roosevelt made the papers in October 1902, when it was reported that “Miss Roosevelt’s most attractive ball gown for the coming season is now being constructed in Washington from Mrs. Roosevelt’s wedding gown.”[13]


When brides wore colored gowns, it was often in the form of travelling dress. Sadie Hesketh wore a “blue etamine travelling suit and a picture hat of white beaver” when she was married at St. Paul’s Church in Paterson on December 1st, 1903; she and her new husband, Arthur Bradshaw, then left for their honeymoon down south.[14] When Agnes Stapleton married Peter Merselis at the Merselis homestead in Wayne in 1909, she was already looking ahead to their “extended wedding tour” and wore a “traveling suit of green broadcloth” at the ceremony.[15] Forgoing white wasn’t always a popular choice. The Morning Call complained in 1888 that “the brides of June have some of them determined to be married in their traveling dresses and to start off immediately, but this is a pity. As a woman will presumably never be married but once, she could be allowed the conventional wedding dress and veil which is very certain to become a treasured memory.”[16] However, wearing a colored wedding dress wasn’t completely unheard of.


So, what can we say about our purple 1890s gown? While the provenance isn’t very detailed, the concept of a colored wedding dress isn’t completely out of the norm. In fact, the ‘tradition’ of wearing a white dress on one special occasion is much younger than the etiquette books would have you believe.


Footnotes


  1. Baumgarten, Linda. What Clothes Reveal. (Williamsburg: Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 2002): 142.

  2. “A Wedding Dress for a Colonial Bride,” Colonial Williamsburg. March 24th, 2023, https://www.colonialwilliamsburg.org/learn/living-history/a-wedding-dress-for-a-colonial-bride/

  3. For surviving 18th century wedding gowns in museum collections, see “dress, 1-piece,” National Museum of American History, https://americanhistory.si.edu/collections/nmah_360459 and “wedding dress”, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/19725

  4. Lee, Summer. “1840- Queen Victoria’s Wedding Dress.” Fashion History Timeline. January 28th, 2020. https://fashionhistory.fitnyc.edu/1840-queen-victorias-wedding-dress/.

  5. “The Paris Fabian’s.” Passaic Daily Herald (Passaic, NJ), May 13th, 1907, https://www.newspapers.com/image/526807194/?terms=%22wedding%20dress%22&match=1.

  6. “Cleveland’s Wedding.” The Morning Call (Paterson, NJ), June 17th, 1886, https://www.newspapers.com/image/554343174/?terms=%22wedding%20dress%22&match=1

  7. “Wedded in the New Church.” Passaic Daily News (Passaic, NJ), February 17th, 1892, https://www.newspapers.com/article/passaic-daily-news-fannie-berdan-wedding/126655298/.

  8. “Personals.” The Morning Call (Paterson, NJ), November 30th, 1903, https://www.newspapers.com/image/552439467/?terms=%22bride%22%20%22preakness%22&match=1.; “Benson-Wood.” The Morning Call (Paterson, NJ), November 25th, 1909, https://www.newspapers.com/image/552521654/?terms=%22bride%22%20%22preakness%22&match=1

  9. Hartley, Florence. The Ladies’ Book of Etiquette and Manual of Politeness. (Boston: G.W. Cottrell, 1860): 262.

  10. “Personals.” The Morning Call (Paterson, NJ), November 30th, 1903, https://www.newspapers.com/image/552439467/?terms=%22bride%22%20%22preakness%22&match=1.

  11. “Favorite Feminine Fashions and Fancies.” The Morning Call (Paterson, NJ), September 16th, 1903, https://www.newspapers.com/image/552423130/?terms=%22wedding%20dress%22&match=1.

  12. “Society’s Brilliant Opening.” Passaic Daily News (Passaic, NJ), September 25th, 1896, https://www.newspapers.com/image/555989724/?terms=%22wedding%20dress%22&match=1.

  13. “Miss Alice Will Wear Mother’s Gown.” The Morning Call (Paterson, NJ), October 6th, 1902, https://www.newspapers.com/image/552424966/?terms=%22wedding%20dress%22&match=1.

  14. “A St. Paul’s Wedding.” The Paterson Evening News (Paterson, NJ), December 2nd, 1903, https://www.newspapers.com/image/524373335/?terms=%22bride%22%20%22preakness%22&match=1.

  15. “Personal Notes of Interest.” The Morning Call (Paterson, NJ), October 8th, 1909, https://www.newspapers.com/image/552521468/?terms=%22bride%22%20%22preakness%22&match=1.

  16. “Social Etiquette.” The Morning Call (Paterson, NJ), July 6th, 1888, https://www.newspapers.com/image/552622639/?terms=%22wedding%20dress%22&match=1.














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