Old, new, borrowed, blue

The history of wedding dress is one steeped in symbolism. The decoration of bridal and groom wear is often an act of tradition or superstition, communicating hopes for future married life.

While the origins of the rhyme

Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue

are uncertain, references to it are frequent from the late Victorian period onwards. As well as offering the opportunity for loved ones to contribute to the occasion, each item from the rhyme serves to bless the bride in a different way.

Something old

By including an old, probably inherited or cherished, item in the wedding outfit, the bride symbolically maintains a connection with her past as she enters married life. Often, the selected 'old' item holds a link to the bride's family and, in particular, her maternal figures. When April Olrich married in 1963, instead of holding a bouquet she chose to carry a small silver prayer book. The book belonged to her great grandmother and is dated 1905.

On the front page, the names of April's great grandmother, grandmother and mother, followed by her own, are written, in touchingly similar handwriting to the original inscription. By holding the prayer book on this important occasion, April incorporated her female forebears into her big day.

Prayer book

Something new

In the 18th and 19th centuries, it was common for brides to rewear and alter their wedding dresses. The concept of a 'dress for a day' didn't come into being until the early 20th century. Still, whether it was destined to be reworn or not, a wedding dress often had its first outing on the big day itself. So the token of 'something new' has tended to be a bride's dress – a garment designed and selected with the support of her family, marking the start of her new union and life.

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Wedding Dress and veil, Pam Hogg, 2012, UK. Museum no. T.5-2014. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Something borrowed

Traditionally, the borrowed item in a bride's outfit was loaned from a happily married female relative. This was done in the hope that the bride might also 'borrow' some of that marital happiness. When Queen Victoria's beloved daughter, Princess Beatrice, married Prince Henry of Battenberg in 1885, Victoria initially disapproved of the match, wishing instead that her daughter would remain at home. In the end, the Queen leant her daughter her own 'dear wedding lace' for the ceremony – lending with it, presumably, her love and support.

Fabric swatches
Textile cutting with artificial flower and manuscript note (front and back view), about 1885, possibly England. Museum no. T.35:1 to 35:1-2012. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

A fabric cutting of the material used to create Princess Beatrice's dress, complete with a small sprig of orange blossom, is in our collection. It was preserved by Mrs Caroline Augusta Gammack, a stock-keeper employed by the dressmakers responsible for Beatrice's gown. The borrowed elements of Beatrice's outfit were picked out by a reporter in The Graphic, "The magnificent Honiton lace with which the bridal dress was trimmed was designed and made for the Queen's wedding dress, and together with the veil was lent for the present occasion by Her Majesty". Beatrice was no doubt influenced by her mother, who had also favoured orange blossom to adorn her wedding outfit.

Something blue

The colour blue has long been associated with loyalty and faithfulness. Tucked inside the hem of the dress worn by former Vogue editor Pamela Talmey when she married William David Ormsby-Gore, 5th Baron Harlech, in 1969, are a little blue bow and a horseshoe. The dress was made by designer Jean Muir. Muir's inclusion of these charms, discreetly stitched out of sight, but serving as a joke or a comfort to the bride, is a credit to Muir's reputation for attention to detail.

Blue
Wedding dress (details), Jean Muir, 1969, United Kingdom. Museum no. T.268-1986. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London