The Edwardian era bride was expected to be the image of modesty. High necklines, long gloves, and ruffled petticoats were prominent to achieve head to toe coverage. While the fashionable silhouette shifted from the idealized S-shape of a Gibson Girl to a more A-line shape over time, satin, ruffles, and lace reigned supreme throughout the decade. Here’s a look at the women’s wedding fashions and trends in America at the beginning of the 20th century.
By the turn of the century, industrial growth had transformed American society and the country’s economy was booming from manufacturing. Many Americans considered this period to be the “age of optimism” with the rapid development of new technologies, like electricity, telephones, sewing machines, motorcars, and aeroplanes. The country had great pride and confidence in itself. During this period, American society, customs, and fashion were heavily influenced by the traditions of Europe. The Victorian era (approximately 1837-1901) ended with Queen Victoria’s death and she was succeeded by Edward VII, which led to the Edwardian era (approximately 1901-1914). Formality between the sexes permeated society and there were clear roles for men and women.
Fashions of the day favored a mature woman with a tiny waist, full bosom, and ample curves. At the start of the decade, the structured silhouette of the Gibson Girl was popular and it was the idealized look of Edwardian era style. This fashionable silhouette was achieved by the S-shaped corset which thrust the bosom forward and the hips back. Dresses were distinctively long with flowing skirts that draped smartly over the hips, with fullness in the back and a ruffle or small train at the bottom. Bodices typically had a high neckline, full and blousy in front (usually with ruffles or lace), and a waistline that dropped forward at the front. Sleeves tended to be full (puff sleeves) accented with lace ruffles and ending somewhere between the elbow and wrist.
Modesty was the theme for the Edwardian bride and the aim was to be covered entirely from the neck down. Bridal dresses were typically made from chiffon over satin, cotton, or silk. Sheer fabrics embellished with lace or embroidery were used for lighter, yet chaste, bodices. Despite their blousy look, bodices often had bone linings and skirts tended to have several petticoats with ruffles at the bottom to create the fashionable shape.
Brides, especially those in the upper classes, typically had a bridal trousseau—a collection of possessions, such as clothing, accessories, and linens, that a bride put together to prepare for her wedding day and for marriage. The trousseau was a symbol of status; a full and rich trousseau signified a family’s financial status, a woman’s skill in domestic arts, virginity, and leaving home. For the Edwardian bride, a trousseau may have consisted of new outfits to see her through her wedding, honeymoon, and newlywed days, such as the wedding dress, bridal shoes, a wedding morning robe, traveling gown and hat, and a negligee. Other traditional items could include handkerchiefs, jewelry, family heirlooms, and bedding.
At the start of the century, the ready-to-wear industry was in its early days. Most bridal dresses at the time were hand sewn, either by the woman herself, a female family member, or by a paid dressmaker. By mid-decade, department stores in major cities began advertising the ready-made “lingerie dress” made of thin, lightweight fabrics with high neck and full sleeves, decorated in embroidery and lace.
The lingerie dress in white became a popular economical wedding dress choice for brides in the middle and lower classes. It was also suitable for the bridesmaids to wear a lingerie dress, oftentimes with the addition of satin sash around the waist and a brooch at the collar. There was also the two-piece lingerie dress which allowed a new bride to mix and match the bodice and skirts to attend the many parties and events that followed the wedding. Most brides of the time wore their wedding dress to formal affairs after they were married.
A proper Edwardian lady wore a hat and gloves anytime she went outside the home and her wedding was no exception. Wedding gloves were short or long depending on the length of sleeve with the idea that the bride’s arms were to be completely covered. Some bride’s chose to wear fingerless gloves to make it easier to put on the wedding band. Hat styles at the time were large and fastened atop a woman’s upswept hair, often trimmed with chiffon, tulle, and soft feathers. Hats were sometimes decorated with silk flowers or a full bouquet. Bridal headpiece fashion was influenced by the current styles and were artistically arranged.
Around 1907, the corset shape changed as did the fashionable silhouette. Skirts became plainer and less full, taking on an A-line shape. The bosom and hips were no longer emphasized. Necklines remained high and sleeves stayed full, but bodices were no longer blousy. Hemlines also rose about 1-2 inches. In the later part of the decade, brides leaned more towards simple dresses with little decoration. Bodices and skirts were still embroidered, but mostly at the waistline and along the bottom. Full sleeves tended to be gathered at the elbow and ended with a wide lace ruffle. Gloves continued to be popular, with many brides choosing to wear elbow-length fingerless gloves.
Simplicity extended to the headpiece, which was often made of tightly ruffled veil mesh and small white flowers, likely orange blossoms (a bridal accessory popularized by Queen Victoria at her wedding in 1840). Brides typically carried simple bouquets mostly made of greenery and a few flowers, pulled together with a wide white satin ribbon hanging down. For shoes, brides tended to choose white satin slippers, usually adorned with embroidered rosettes.
By the end of the decade, bridal fashion took on a stiffer look. The blousy style gave way to a fit that was closer to a bride’s body, with gowns decorated with satin panels with lace overlays edged in lace. Satin collars lined with a lace ruffle were worn high, almost up to the ears, and sleeves were moderately full. Skirts tended to be a thin fabric covered with a satin slip with white embroidery down the center front and around the band at the bottom. Headpieces began to look more like tiaras decorated in pearls or flowers, with one to two lengths of veil, some that dragged on the floor. Bouquets generally featured white roses and white lilies of the valley. Although dress style became more streamline in appearance, dresses could still be ornately decorated with satin ribbon rosettes or silk tassels. Bodices were still embroidered and silk fringe decorated skirts and the bands of tighter sleeves.
Here is a side-by-side view of women’s wedding dress fashion over the course of the decade, 1900 to 1910:
Throughout the decade, newspapers advertised wedding fashion by season. Click on the links below to view examples:
When searching historical newspapers from 1900-1910 for women’s wedding fashion, you will want to use language that would have been used at the time to get the most results. Here are some search terms that may help you get started:
You can also search the Society pages of newspapers that tended to publish marriage announcements and provided details about specific weddings, such as descriptions of the bride’s trousseau, the wedding party, the ceremony and decorations, as well as profiles of the intended couple and their upcoming plans. The Society pages regularly featured photographs and illustrations of brides-to-be and brides, and at times featured them in their various wedding fashions.
- Bridal Fashion 1900-1950: The American Wedding Dress (2012) by Kathleen York.
- Search Chronicling America* to find coverage of weddings past in historical newspapers!
- Read related Headlines & Heroes blog posts:
Women’s Fashion History Through Newspapers: 1900-1920
Women’s Fashion History Through Newspapers: 1921-1940
Women’s Fashion History Through Newspapers: 1941-1960
It’s a Nice Day for a White (House) Wedding
* The Chronicling America historic newspapers online collection is a product of the National Digital Newspaper Program and jointly sponsored by the Library and the National Endowment for the Humanities.
Follow Chronicling America on Twitter @ChronAmLOC
Click here to subscribe to Headlines & Heroes–it’s free!