Wedding dresses through the decades

Mary (nee Clarkson) and John McKirgan, 1949
Mary (nee Clarkson) and John McKirgan, 1949

Have you ever thought of how wedding dress fashions have changed, or not changed, over the years? asks Winnie Stevenson (Roslin Heritage Society).

While weddings today are hopefully a symbol of love and commitment between two people, back in history they were often a business arrangement by which two families could be joined for financial gain or status. Certainly, in the old “upstairs, downstairs” way of life, bride and groom could not be of a different social class.

Where a bride’s family wanted to show how wealthy they were, a dress was designed to “make a statement”. More often, brides just wore their best dress, the material, style and colour dependent on their social status, though green was considered to be very unlucky. This possibly harks back to a time when material and furnishings were dyed shades of green using arsenic. When they became damp, they gave off poisonous fumes! Nasty.

Mary Queen of Scots was one of the first brides recorded having a white dress in 1559. Queen Victoria’s stunning dress in 1840 set the trend for the future. She chose white apparently because she had some lovely lace she wanted to use. She “recycled” this lace over and over again, even using some for her Diamond Jubilee 56 years later.

This white-dress trend continued following the styles of the day but when times were hard during the Great Depression in the 1930s, most people could not contemplate spending money on a gown they would possibly never wear again and brides returned to the tradition of wearing their Sunday best.

During the Second World War, it was difficult enough to get normal clothes with the ration coupons allowed, make do and mend being the order of the day, so the luxury of a wedding dress was beyond most brides. Many in the forces wore their uniforms, their best outfit, or borrowed or hired a dress.

But there was one item available during the war which came to have real recycle appeal. A silk parachute. There are several stories of parachute canopies being made into wedding gowns but I think the best has to be when the engine of a plane caught fire and the pilot bailed out safely. He arrived home with the parachute that saved his life under his arm, proposed to his girlfriend, she accepted and he presented her with the beautiful white material. A lovely gown was made, even using the original strings to create a flounced look at the front, falling to a train at the back.

Into the swinging ’60s, many brides chose traditional dresses but others chose maxi coats over mini dresses, floral garlands, high white boots. Even grooms wore flowery flared trousers.

These couples are the grandparents of today and I wonder how they explain away their wedding outfits when granddaughter is trying to persuade her mother to allow her to wear a similar “unsuitable dress” to a party. You’re not going out wearing that!

Royal brides continued to set the trend. In 1923, Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon wore a pearl and silver thread-embellished silk gown in the style of a 1920s Flapper Girl.

In 1947, Princess Elizabeth chose an ivory satin dress with magnificent 13-foot train which sparkled with crystal and seed pearl embroidery in a floral design.

She had to use clothing ration coupons, although the government allowed her an extra 200. Many people sent her coupons but she had to return them with thanks as it would have been illegal for her to use them.

Princess Anne wore an embroidered Tudor-style dress in 1973 with high collar and medieval sleeves. Her train was only 7ft long. By contrast, Lady Diana Spencer’s dress in 1981 was decorated with embroidery, sequins and 10,000 pearls. The train was 25ft long.

One problem most of us don’t have to consider but royal brides have to cope with is the glass, horse-drawn carriage that takes them to the ceremony. It is not very spacious to accommodate a full-skirted dress with a long train. Kate Middleton’s satin dress in 2011was elegant, returning to a Victorian style with a train 9ft long but there were 58 buttons and rouleau loops. These must have taken some time to fasten!

This look at wedding dress fashions was inspired by an exhibition held last summer in a church in Orkney. I wondered if we could stage a similar event in our church in Roslin with our sister congregations of Bilston and Glencorse. I asked around and so many members, families and friends came forward with the offer of wedding dresses and christening gowns that the show is on.

Please come along to see our amazing collection of wedding dresses dating from 1909 to the present and christening gowns, the oldest dating from 1879. The exhibition of more than 30 dresses will be held in Roslin Parish Church from June 1 to 4, 10.30am to 4pm, and on Sunday, June 5, noon to 4pm.