"Brides and grooms always give some remembrance to their ushers and bridesmaids", Vogue magazine stated firmly in 1924. The interesting problem of finding a suitable gift for bridesmaids attracted a good deal of printed advice in the 19th and 20th century, some of which may still be of use to the modern bride.
The nineteenth century, where our notions of wedding customs began to solidify, often saw groups of eight or twelve girls or women accompanying and supporting the bride. Bridesmaids were often the young sisters and cousins of the bride and groom, as well as female friends. The sheet music for the Bridesmaid’s Song shows a group of young girls carrying baskets of flowers facing slightly older women in more formal dresses.
Traditionally, bridesmaids supplied their own dresses, but were offered a piece of jewellery as a gift or souvenir of the wedding. Brooches and lockets were popular options and provided the opportunity to commission attractive jewels, often with symbolism which was meaningful to the happy couple. Brooches, pendants and lockets offered the advantages of being wearable by anyone – irrespective of age, of being available in materials suitable to any budget, and gave the chance to use fun, whimsical or romantic motifs. The Ladies’ Home Journal, for instance, described "a dainty little brooch ...in the form of a gold slipper, decorated with a wee bow of blue enamel", given to a bridesmaid at a fashionable wedding in 1891. Amongst the "charming novelties ...so much in demand for bridesmaids" during the wedding season of 1897, Vogue magazine listed brooches in the shape of pearl-set fish, peacocks with brilliant enamels, a grasshopper featuring "pearl body, with head, wings and legs either in emerald or diamonds".
As the groom customarily gave gifts to the bridesmaids, the jewels chosen would often reflect his interests or family devices. For the wedding of Miss Borthwich to the Earl of Bathurst in 1893, the lucky bridesmaids received a diamond double heart brooch surmounted by a bee made of rubies – the bee representing the initial 'B' from the names of the couple. Bees were also used in romantic jewellery as they symbolised the attraction to the sweetness of honey (or love). Lord Terence Blackwood gave Flora Davis’ bridesmaids a "brooch consisting of a ruby heart inside the horns of a diamond crescent. The design was the badge of the Blackwoods and was therefore as appropriate as it was costly".
Vogue magazine recorded that rich Englishmen who married in America sometimes gave a brooch which combined the monograms of the young couple in jewels. Something similar was given at the 1884 wedding of Val Prinsep to Florence Leyland, a ceremony in which the "artistic world were strongly represented". The bridesmaids were smartly dressed in canary yellow and wore brooches engraved ‘Val and Flo’, a gift of the groom.
One point of etiquette, according to Vogue, was that 19th century American women would give gifts to their own bridesmaids, whereas this was the duty of the groom in the United Kingdom. So, at the Minneapolis wedding of Mary Oliphant Wilson to Captain Henry Fitzherbert in 1895, the bride wore a diamond dragon brooch given by the Captain (the Chinese dragon being the adopted crest of her new husband’s regiment, the Royal Berkshires) and gave her bridesmaids jewelled dragon pins to match.
When the architect John Paul Seddon married Margaret Barber in 1864, they probably charged their friend – fellow architect and designer, William Burges – to provide brooches for their bridesmaids. A design survives in the V&A archives on a sheet of 15 brooch designs, marked up as requiring carbuncle (garnet) and turquoise and labelled ‘Seddon’. On the same page there are two designs for the Gibson wedding. The first is annotated ‘bridesmaids’, with a design marked ‘No. 1’, specifying that six brooches were required in silver. The second is a slightly different design marked ‘No. 2’ with a comment that reads '3 of these in gold' – possibly for closer family members or older bridesmaids.
Two brooches based on the Seddon design were rediscovered in 2011, after an appeal by the jewellery specialist Geoffrey Munn on the BBC's Antiques Roadshow – one of which was acquired by the V&A. The brooch is very medieval in inspiration, reflecting the renewed interest in Gothic design during the 19th century, and shown in Seddon’s work on church design and restoration. The back bears the couple’s initials JPS and M.
Another of William Burges’ clients, John Crichton-Stuart, 3rd Marquess of Bute, designed the bridesmaids jewellery for his wedding himself. When he married Gwendolin Fitzalan-Howard in April 1872, he designed jewels in the shape of a heraldic shield bearing his family arms quartered with Gwendolin’s, surmounted by a coronet and backed with a locket. The Glasgow Herald described "each youthful lady" as wearing "a valuable gold locket, the centre being in the centre of a shield...on which were enamelled in colours proper the heraldic arms of the Bute and Norfolk families impaled….The ornament was surmounted with a Marquis’ coronet, the leaves being formed in diamonds alternating with pearls".
Perhaps the most notable bridegroom of the 19th century, Prince Albert, designed an eagle shaped turquoise brooch as a gift to Queen Victoria’s twelve train bearers at their wedding. The design is taken from the heraldic German eagle. Although the turquoise and pearls don’t have an enormous financial value, the blue of the stones suggests forget-me-nots, whilst the pearls represent true love. Albert had a keen eye for jewellery and spent the early days of his married life helping Victoria sort through her jewels and decide how they should be reset.
Brooches were not the only option for bridesmaids – lockets were also widely used. Adverts for jewellers in the Illustrated London News in the 1870s offered discounts for multiple purchases. Lockets often included the initials of the couple – as seen on the design by the London firm of John Brogden.
Choosing and designing brooches for bridesmaids’ gifts led to the creation of many delightful, personal jewels which were often kept fondly and passed down through the families of the recipients. What a lovely custom to rekindle for any modern wedding!
Find out more about brooches and badges in the V&A collections.