Hitting the Sales

As January now seems forever associated with the sales, this month’s post will explore the history of purchasing wedding dresses from the late eighteenth century to the present day.

An 18th century bride would be expected to marry prepared with a trousseau appropriate for her new life as a wife. Depending on her familial circumstances and the kind of life she was entering, several outfits might be purchased to this end for events surrounding her wedding. The most costly of these was bought not for the church service but for the bride’s first social ‘appearance’ as a married woman – be that a private party or, in the aristocracy, presentation at court.

Silk sack-back gown, thought to have been worn by a new bride for her presentation at court, 1775-1780

Silk sack-back gown, thought to have been worn by a new bride for her presentation at court, 1775-1780

Clothes were not available ‘ready to wear’ – a woman had to make them herself, or have them made by a dressmaker. As clothing styles changed relatively slowly, until the 1760s the fashionableness of a garment lay in the fabrics and colours used in it. As a result, the cost of a dress lay in its material, not in its design and construction. The silk for a dress would be bought, and then taken to a mantuamaker or dressmaker. To demonstrate the disparity of price between material and craftsmanship, when Lady Jemima Grey married Lord Ashburnham in 1724 she spent £45 on eighteenth yards of silk, with which Elizabeth Akers then made a dress for only 16 shillings.

While the majority of British towns would hold dressmakers and shops stocking sewing materials, it was necessary to go to larger towns and cities for the latest fashions, technologies and the most skilful workmanship. If such a trip was not possible, a bride’s family or friends who lived in the likes of London or Bath would be delegated to report back on or even buy the best and most up to date pieces.

Fashion plate from  Le Moniteur de la Mode, mid 1840s

Fashion plate from Le Moniteur de la Mode, mid 1840s

In the 19th century, while reports on fashion continued to pass by letter between friends, they were also spread in the print media. This meant that clear trends could be spread quickly – and, as a result, be more subject to change. It also made celebrities of stylish women who would be regularly reported on – and perhaps copied by the readers of such publications. Dressmakers often held house styles and designs which a customer could commission or have altered to her personal taste. Not only dressmakers took advantage of this commercialisation and possible publicity held in the commodification of weddings. Stationers, photographers, florists, jewellers and confectioners, among others, would also place adverts promoting associated goods.

Debenham & Freebody dress worn by Erica Ferguson for her wedding in 1926 © V&A Collection

Debenham & Freebody dress worn by Erica Ferguson for her wedding in 1926 © V&A Collection

With the wide introduction of ready to wear clothing and chain and department stores in the 20th century, this promotion and dissemination of trends became all the easier. Such stores could easily replicate trends, creating ‘off the rail’ interpretations of their own. Such developments have also been viewed as a democratisation of style, as it made the latest fashions available to those unable to keep up to date through pricey personal commissions. An example in our exhibition is the Debenham and Freebody wedding dress worn by Erica Ferguson for her wedding to Herbert Barker at St Mary’s Church, Wimbledon, in 1926. While a comparatively affordable choice due to its department store origins, the dress was the choice of a very stylish bride, as the colour and fabric, and its semi-transparent train, were very in fashion.

Debenhan & Freebody wedding dress, 1926 © V&A Collection

Debenhan & Freebody wedding dress, 1926 © V&A Collection

In our age of disposable fashion – and, hopefully, while entering a stage of resistance of it – this ‘off the rail’ phenomena is considered everyday. The majority of fashion brands, from couture lines to the high street, produce a bridal line, with the higher end houses, such as Temperley London, also accepting commissions. In an age of abundant choice, and a surge of interest in and respect for fashion history, choosing a vintage dress for your wedding is becoming increasingly popular. As a move away from the modern idea of a dress for a day, you must admit there is something rather charming about being the second beaming bride to wear a wedding dress.

2 thoughts on “Hitting the Sales


I had a vintage dress. In fact I had two; both bought at the now defunct “Steinberg and Tolkien” on the Kings Road. One was a sixties evening gown with matching coat which I had shortened and the other was a Travilla for Neiman Marcus pleated grecian style dress. I’ve worn both since and the craftsmanship is extraordinary in both.

linda pierce:

Fashion goes round full circle. If you want a design that is different it is a good idea to look in the V/A.

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