The wedding was very much like other weddings, where the parties have no taste for finery or parade; and Mrs Elton, from the particulars detailed by her husband, thought it all extremely shabby, and very inferior to her own. —
“Very little white satin, very few lace veils; a most pitiful business! — Selina would stare when she heard of it.” — But, in spite of these deficiencies, the wishes, the hopes, the confidence, the predictions of the small band of true friends who witnessed the ceremony, were fully answered in the perfect happiness of the union.
Wedding dresses weren’t always white. Until Queen Victoria wore a white gown for her wedding in 1840, brides chose gowns with a variety of colors.
During the British Regency era, it was the custom for most middle-class and lower-class brides to wear their best gowns to their weddings and to wear them frequently afterwards, either to church or on special occasions. Long before the early 19th century, brides traditionally wore gowns in a variety of colors. Jane Austen’s mother, Cassandra Leigh, wore her red riding habit when she married Rev. George Austen in Bath in 1764.
This practical decision allowed the young couple to leave immediately for the parsonage at Deane, their new home. Like so many brides, Leigh wore her gown on many subsequent occasions. Later she turned the outfit into a gardening gown, and eventually recycled the fabric, creating a hunting jacket for her nine-year-old son Francis. This tradition of wearing wedding gowns after the ceremony and recycling them continued well into the Regency era (1811-1820).
Popular Wedding Colors in the Late 18th and Early 19th Centuries
As it turned out, red was a popular color for a wedding dress at the time that the Austens were married in the 18th century. Preferences for colors changed with the fashion of the day. For a while, yellow was popular in the early 19th century. Colors that were popular during the Regency included blue, pink, and green. Darker colors like black, dark brown and burgundy were practical for a bride from the middle and lower classes, for these colors were useful in every day settings as a woman went about her duties. Like Mrs. Austen in a previous generation, these Regency brides would wear their wedding dresses for many years to come, and dark dresses did not show dirt at the hems as readily as lighter colored fabrics.
Fads for choosing a wedding dress color changed as industrial-made fabrics became cheaper, dyes became brighter, and laundering became less arduous. A Victorian poem, written some time after the Regency period, showed how color influenced the course of the marriage (or so people thought).
Married in white, you will have chosen right.
Married in grey, you will go far away.
Married in black, you will wish yourself back.
Married in red, you wish yourself dead.
Married in green, ashamed to be seen.
Married in blue, you will always be true.
Married in pearl, you will live in a whirl.
Married in yellow, ashamed of your fellow.
Married in brown, you will live out of town.
Married in pink, your fortune will sink.
Wedding Colors for Affluent Regency Brides
The very wealthy were different. They could afford expensive handmade lace veils that were beyond the budget of a lower class bride, and order seamstresses to add lush detailing to gowns that were custom made with rich fabrics. In the popular fashion magazines, such as Ackermann’s Repository, which was founded in 1809, fancy white wedding gowns were shown as a matter of course. One must keep in mind that white was the color of choice for most gowns at the time and the prevailing fashion.
Royal Brides in the British Regency Era
“Her dress was silver lama [lamé] on net, over a silver tissue slip, embroidered at the bottom with silver lama in shells and flowers. Body and sleeves to correspond, elegantly trimmed with point Brussels lace. The manteau was of silver tissue lined with white satin, with a border of embroidery to answer that on the dress, and fastened in front with a splendid diamond ornament.” Royal brides tended to wear silver gowns, a custom that would soon change.
Queen Victoria’s Influence on Wedding Gowns
While white gowns were already frequently worn by the upper crust, Queen Victoria forever changed the course of wedding fashions with her choice of gown in 1840: She wanted it made out of white fabric because of a particular lace she had chosen as a trim. After her wedding to Prince Albert, her photographic image as a bride was widely circulated, and from that point on wedding dresses, regardless of class, began to be associated with the color white.
Vic Sanborn oversees two blogs: Jane Austen’s World and Jane Austen Today. Before 2006 she merely adored Jane Austen and read Pride and Prejudice faithfully every year. These days, she is immersed in reading and writing about the author’s life and the Regency era. Co-founder of her local (and very small) book group, Janeites on the James, she began her blogs as a way to share her research on the Regency era for her novel, which sits unpublished on a dusty shelf. In her working life, Vic provides resources and professional development for teachers and administrators of Virginia’s adult education and literacy programs.
Reprinted with permission from Suite 101: escape to the world of Jane Austen for costume, stationery and more for your own Regency wedding.