White wedding dresses were popular in fashionable circles by the mid-19th century, even though many brides still chose other colours. The idea of a once-in-a-lifetime wedding dress was more flexible than today, and wearing white was quite a new fashion. Victorian dresses that look very “bridal” to us now were almost the same as evening dresses worn with a veil. Styles and trimmings were no different, except that low necklines were not suitable for the church ceremony. A fichu (triangular piece of lace) could be worn over a low-cut bodice, fastened with a nice piece of jewellery, but a high neck was part of most wedding designs.
There are some great pictures from 19th century fashion magazines online, but the written descriptions of Victorian dress aren’t always easy to follow. Fashion writers used special “chic” expressions including French dressmaking terms to suggest Parisian design.
So if you want help…
Flounces were everywhere when big, full skirts were in fashion – especially from the 1840s to 1880s. Flounce could mean almost any kind of frill or ruffle. The words for flounces, frills etc. were not clearly defined and overlapped quite a bit, but here’s a rough guide to mid-Victorian fashion writing:
Pleated, also spelled plaited, edgings were neatly folded with flat pleats. Fluted edging was more rounded – tidily-stitched gathers, arranged like a series of small tubes. Goffers (gauffering) were similar. When these trims were used on washable dresses they needed special pressing with a crimping or goffering iron.
Ruches were light flounces, lacy or frothy, maybe more loosely arranged than neatly goffered trims. Gathered vertical stitching lifted ruching to make a scalloped raise. You could have a single raise, a pair, or raises at regular intervals, sometimes called feathering.
Bouillonés were big or small puffs going horizontally round a dress, and were made by gathering long strips of fabric at top and bottom, then fixing them with bands or seams. (Visualising a modern puffed sleeve may help.) Sometimes they made huge swelling circles round a skirt – odd-looking to the modern eye compared with smaller puffs. Could be overlaid with ribbon or braid. (Also called bouillons)
Other trimmings fashionable in this era included:
Passementerie – a wide range of pre-made embellishments- threads worked into decorative edgings and motifs – often corded and/or using silver, gold, beads. Silk passementerie for fine dresses – with a lacy look, or imitating embroidery.
Lace – fine lace was extremely valuable. Point d’Alençon, Guipure, Maltese and Brussels laces were all prized.
Tulle – fine silk net – could be used in strips for ruched flouncing, or made into a veil.
A purse-shape aumonière hanging from the waistline – like medieval alms purses on a girdle to carry money for the poor. (Also written aulmonière, almoniere etc.)
Epaulette – not the kind on an officer’s shoulder – could be various trimmings at top of a lady’s sleeve – for example, ribbon highlighting a shoulder-seam.
Some magazines printed lots of text-only descriptions and only a few illustrations. You had to know your vocabulary and use your imagination. Here’s an 1860s description of a wedding outfit:
A marriage toilette: robe of white poult de soie [fine corded silk], with a train skirt, trimmed with three narrow flounces edged with a light cord of passementerie, and a fringe of white beads falling over the under-flounce; the cord on the upper-flounce is arranged as to form a trimming up to the top of it. The body [bodice] is plain and high, and has a ceinture [belt], with aumoniere and postilion basque [brief coat-tails or “flaps”], entirely formed of passementerie. Passementerie also forms epaulettes and cuffs; and a cord is put up the seam of the sleeve.
See also: Joanne Olian’s Wedding Fashions, 1862-1912: 380 Costume Designs from “La Mode Illustree”
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