Inventing Traditions: White Wedding

White has become an essential symbol of everything bridal, culminating, of course, in the requisite white wedding dress. Wearing white on one’s wedding day has been subsumed into a cultural narrative of timeless tradition; we associate the white gown as a symbol of the bride’s sexual purity before consummating her marriage, a color of hope and peace. In reality, the color white’s association with brides, and especially with the wedding gown, has much more to do with conspicuous consumption and spectacle than virginity. Renaissance wedding dresses were usually green, a symbol of fertility, and throughout the 18th and most of the 19th centuries, wedding dresses came in a wide variety of colors. Some were white, but it wasn’t the exclusively expected color for a bride to wear; purple, deep blue, brown, red, and gold were also popular colors. The white wedding first became a sensation, and was then quickly incorporated as a tradition rich with symbolism, with Queen Victoria’s 1840 nuptials.

Detail of George Hayter’s painting of Victoria and Albert’s wedding

Queen Victoria’s white gown and her attendants’ white formal attire sparked admiration and imitation in the upper classes; newspapers emphasized the elegance of the all-white wedding. The white formal wear of Victoria’s wedding was more of a show of extravagance White dresses were more obviously luxury items; dirt, stains and age show quickly on light, non-patterned fabrics. This trend would grow in popularity among the middle classes as mass-produced textiles lowered clothing prices. More brides could purchase ready-made white gowns from major retailers in the latter half of the 19th century, and so the white wedding gradually became the standard.

For most of the 19th century, the majority of American brides wore their Sunday best on their wedding day, a dress that was often worn several times throughout a woman’s life for special occasions. Early 19th century Americans typically had very few clothes, especially before the technology of the Industrial Revolution made cotton easier to harvest and spin, so a separate dress to wear on a single occasion was extremely impractical. Even by mid-century, the wedding dress was not worn exclusively for the wedding, and colored dresses were still very popular.

Wedding dress

1812 wedding dress

Wedding dress

1860 wedding dress

 

Wedding dress

1869 wedding dress

Clearly, the two dresses from the 1860s are much more elaborate and formal, even if one is darker in color. This reflects a change in the formality of the wedding ceremony. Several women’s magazine articles from the 1880s and 1890s are dedicated to creating elegant wedding decor (often including elaborate floral arrangements, intricately crocheted doilies, special lighting, and false walls to cover fireplaces and wood stoves). The purpose of these home decorative elements in the wedding were to remove the practical aspects of the home for the wedding. Early 19th century weddings usually took place in the church and included the entire congregation; exclusivity did not become an issue until home weddings grew in popularity in the postbellum era. This was a source of criticism and lamentation from the older generation that viewed these more private, but also more spectacular, ceremonies as excessive.  An extravagant and romanticized wedding day was seen as a mockery of the marriage vows’ solemnity and poor preparation for the drudgery of running a household, the impending possibility of childbirth, and the responsibilities that came with the change in social status. The elaborate scenery (most periodicals offer suggestions for transforming a parlor into a romantic “bower” complete with trees, copious amounts of flowers, fairy lights, and flower-studded netting to cover the walls) and the obviously luxurious dress intended for single use sharply separate the wedding day from the life into which the newlywed couple is entering. The white wedding is another step toward specialty and luxury, but was quickly incorporated into a narrative of purity and tradition, so that by the turn of the century, nearly all brides wore white, even poor brides. For example, William Dean Howells’ 1895 novella The Day of Their Wedding follows a Shaker couple who escape from their celibate community with the intent of eloping. They have virtually no money, but the young bride Althea is able to purchase a white dress.  Althea balks at the extravagance of purchasing a new dress strictly for the purpose of the ceremony, but her groom Lorenzo insists; he is well aware of the social standards and throughout the story, he convinces Althea to adhere to these expectations, in order to do things “right.” The white wedding was one of those assumed cultural standards to which all brides were expected to conform. Today, a non-white wedding dress is considered “alternative”; even Jessica Biel’s pale pink gown was seen as a daring and unique wedding gown choice, though such a color would have been commonplace in the 1820s. The mass-production and standardization of clothing through the late 19th century, compounded by the increasingly elaborate standard for wedding ceremonies, resulted in white being the one and only color for a bride.

Image sources:

Victoria painting: http://thedreamstress.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/04/Victoria_and_Prince_Alberts_wedding.jpg

1812 wedding dress: http://www.metmuseum.org/Collections/search-the-collections/80013183

1860 wedding dress: http://www.metmuseum.org/Collections/search-the-collections/80035678

1869 wedding dress: http://www.metmuseum.org/collections/search-the-collections/80005673

Domestic Dramas

Theater became a popular and socially acceptable middle class pastime around the 1840s, but before then, playhouses had quite the reputation. It was often portrayed as a symbol of the temptations and dangers of urban life as American cities grew in population and young people moved away from small, family-based rural communities in the wake of the Industrial Revolution. Theater has historically been associated with the bodily passions; early 19th century sermons warned against the intoxicating effects of viewing the passions played out on stage. The most condemning argument against theater-going as a respectable pastime were the prostitutes known to work the third tiers (the cheap seats). Theaters’ location in urban centers, the melodramatic and often suggestive content of the plays, the presence of prostitutes, and the cultural imperative for feminine domesticity and privacy influenced perceptions of the theater as improper and morally questionable.

Performances were very common forms of domestic entertainment, however, particularly music and dance; fiddles, whistles and other musical instruments were available for even poor families, and the piano grew in popularity among wealthier families. Dramatic readings and play-acting were also popular parlor games and evening pastimes. For instance, Louisa May Alcott’s novel Little Women includes several references to domestic dramas; the four March sisters act out the Pilgrim’s Progress, and Marmee uses their play-acting as an educational opportunity. Alcott was an amateur actress, and though she had a very unconventional childhood influenced by her father’s Transcendentalist philosophy, the use of dramatic sketches in education was well-established. The Revolutionary-era author, actress, and educator Susanna Rowson composed textbooks for her Academy for Young Ladies in Boston. Her 1811 textbook, A Present for Young Ladies, included several short dramatic sketches for her young female students to perform for their classes and at semi-public assemblies. Rowson’s school book dramas were always overtly didactic; they presented the students with an ethical dilemma that the characters solved through the virtues she intended to instill in her students: compromise, wisdom, generosity, moderation.

These school assembly performances also prepared Rowson’s students for the type of speech they would likely encounter in social gatherings at the time. Early American culture was quite theatrical, even if it condemned the theater as an institution; the preachers of the Great Awakening were overtly dramatic, students of both sexes were taught rhetoric and oratory in the decades immediately following the Revolution, and exhibitions of oratory and debates were often part of social gatherings. So it is unsurpising that domestic dramas and plays, put on in family parlors, were a popular form of entertainment in early American social life. Situating theater firmly within the domestic sphere bypassed many of the objections to the stage, especially the growing objections to female public speech. Rhetoric and argumentation were highly valued aspects of post-Revolutionary society, especially in the upper and middle classes, and a proper young lady would be expected to exhibit good diction, witty replies, and above all, excellent reasoning. This mode of socialization fell away as the 19th century progressed, however, and notions of femininity shifted to value silence, tranquility, and angelic “niceness,” which would forbid any argumentation.

For further reading on early American theatricality, see:

Carolyn Eastman, “The Female Cicero: Young Women’s Oratory and Gendered Public Participation in the Early American Republic.” Gender & History 19.2 (2007)

Jeffrey H. Richards, “Susanna and the Stage: or, Rowson Family Theater.” Studies in American Fiction 38.1 & 2 (Spring and Fall 2011)

What’s all this then?

This is a lifestyle blog for the 19th century, a history of pop culture, an exploration of daily life 200 years ago: what people did for entertainment, what they wore, what they ate, how they celebrated, how they mourned. I hope to show that these everyday details can make the past simultaneously familiar and foreign. We’re not so distant from our 19th century predecessors, and they influence us still today. Many of the “timeless” traditions and inherent elements of American culture were actually invented in the 19th century, when Americans often worried about being too European in their sensibilities, styles, and traditions. And yet the 19th century was such a different world.
When Rip Van Winkle woke up after a twenty-year nap, he was astonished by how much his small town in the Adirondaks had changed, how easily his community had forgotten the recent past. At first, he was disoriented and dismayed by all the changes that had occurred after the Revolution, shocked by how homogenized and Anglicized his community had become. But the story resolves with Rip becoming an oral historian, the voice of the past and remembrance for the ever-changing community. He is an uncanny character, blurring the line uncomfortably between past and present. In “Rip Van Winkle” and throughout The Sketch-Book, Washington Irving emphasized the heterogeneity of American culture and history, at a time when American culture was becoming homogenized and dominated by British influences; in Irving’s native New York, German and Dutch cultural practices were giving way to English customs, and Native American cultures, the great tribes of the Iroquois League, were suffering from cultural (and physical) genocide. Authors like Irving and James Fennimore Cooper feared that America was becoming too hmogenized and too English, that Americans had already forgotten the nation’s French, German, Dutch, and Native American heritage. These authors gave considerable preference to preserving European cultural influences, but they did acknowledge the importance of and many threats to Native American culture (although it is crucial to note that, in the early 19th century, they already considered Native American culture to be part of America’s past and their representations of Native Americans are problematic to say the least). I will write about 19th century views on Native Americans often, because I’m simultaneously intrigued and infuriated by the recent popularity of Native American imagery and contemporary issues of cultural appropriation (which, in many ways, echo 19th century orientalism). This is just one instance of the persistent influence of 19th century views in contemporary America.

This blog will cover many of those traditions and rituals (like weddings, funerals, and holidays), as well as pop culture and fashion, looking for the places where the past invades the present in Rip Van Winkle uncanniness, and the places where the past is unfamiliar and strange. Fear not, my posts will not always be this verbose and dull–I hope this blog will be a fun way of looking at some issues in pop culture and entertainment that span two centuries.