Wedding Traditions of the Georgian Era: Let Them Eat Cake
“To you I shall say, as I have often said before, Do not be in a hurry, the right man will come at last.”
As we continue our research series on marriage during the Georgian era, from courtship through honeymoon, we now reach wedding customs. There's an assumption that rather than relying on historical accuracy, writers of hist roms depict the wedding and traditions we expect to see because, well, that's what we expect to see! It fulfills a need we have when seeing the union between our hero and heroine. Would you be surprised to discover that many of these depictions are accurate for the time?
For this focus, we'll look at the wedding ceremony itself, as well as some of the features of the wedding day, such as the wedding breakfast, the wedding dress, the wedding cake, and more. This is a long one, I forewarn you, because much of seeing what is accurate also involves what is not, as well as what could be accurate.
There are two points to keep in mind as we move forward:
The type of ceremony depended on the social status of the couple marrying. Frankly, everything depended on the social status, from the dress to the honeymoon and beyond. Also, what was "traditional" depended not only on status but on location. As far as status goes, an aristocrat's wedding day would look different from a commoner's wedding day, as would the day of a gentleman of landed gentry compared to a clergyman. Royal weddings, for example, were enormous, theatrical affairs, widely publicized, and more resembling our modern weddings in terms of attendance, dress, banquet, etc. Our modern weddings are, essentially, based on royal wedding traditions, as it was the royal weddings that were printed in newspapers and established as the "ideal" weddings. Meanwhile, aristocratic weddings could be either a large affair or familial. Gentry weddings would almost always be private family affairs. Everyone else would range from a quick exchange of vows with no one in attendance to a small, private, family affair. It is more likely that our heroes and heroines would have small, private, family-only weddings, but it's also perfectly acceptable for them to have a larger event if they are well connected in society and are wealthy.
Let us keep in mind the points in the previous posts of this marriage series--the basis of marriages, specifically gentry and aristocratic marriages, was a uniting of families for land (and alliances and money), not between two parties in love. While the wedding day celebrates the union, the exchange of vows was more a legal matter than anything else, thus family and friends would be less inclined to witness this part, celebrating instead the marriage at the wedding breakfast.
The Challenge of Accuracy
The majority of the weddings we see in historical romances are of those among the gentry and aristocracy, which was so small of a group in terms of population, wedding traditions amongst these parties could be fairly consistent. In terms of the remaining population, i.e. anyone who didn't own land, the traditions are nearly impossible to pin-point. Let me open by expressing the challenges of determining wide-held traditions.
While many weddings shared identical features (like marrying in a church), not all shared customs, traditions, or even superstitions, as these elements were not only regional but local, so the traditions could change from parish to parish, not to mention county to county or even coast to coast. Imagine how different the customs in Cornwall were from the customs in Northumberland, and that's not accounting for the differences town to town. Thus, identifying "British wedding traditions" in the Georgian era is not so cut and dry when dealing with wholly different cultures even within the same country. One parish may have a long-standing tradition of throwing stockings for guests to catch while another parish has a tradition of stepping over broken dishes piled by neighbors the day before the wedding.
In some ways, this lack of consistency in what was traditional and what wasn't can be frustrating because we can't easily pin-point just what customs or superstitions would have happened and what wouldn't have happened, but in many ways this leaves our heroes and heroines ample creative flexibility. While there were elements that most certainly would have been customary across the country and thus inaccurate if not represented by the legal confines of British law, there is ample room for fun when it comes to wedding day customs.
For that matter, authors could harness this by crafting their own wedding customs for their couples, such as in one parish, maybe brides had to race the bridegroom on horseback the day before the wedding, or maybe in another parish the bridegroom had to stand sentry before the bride's house the evening before and "challenge" any gentleman who approached the house--how fun would these customs be to craft and include for plots? Technically, they wouldn't be inaccurate because who is to say there wasn't a village or hamlet or town or whatnot that held a similar tradition? The point being, we'll look at some of the traditions that were more widely held and brush over some of the customs found in journals and writing of the time, but ultimately, let's embrace a little creative freedom on wedding days!
Location, Location, Location
The location of the wedding venue is something touched on within my Marriage Licenses post, so be sure to explore that as part of this series. To recap the venue, the rules set by The Marriage Act of 1753 required all couples to marry within the church of residence.
If a couple did not wish to marry within a church, they could either elope to Scotland (which was shady business since the family could protest the legitimacy of the marriage) or they could apply for a special license.
Eloping to Scotland was risky. While most associate eloping with Gretna Green since it was where the toll road from London took folks heading to Scotland, any border village would do, so depending on where you lived (in Cumberland, for instance), another border village would be the most popular choice rather than Gretna Green. Anyone in Scotland could marry the couple, not just a clergyman, (note the blacksmith in the artwork featured here) so while many elopements were accepted in England (I mean, at that point the bride is compromised anyway so...), many were not. A heroine could elope only to return and find her father has signed the settlement with someone else and intends to force the marriage regardless of the elopement and supposed vow exchange in Scotland. The purpose of the Marriage Act was to halt all clandestine marriages, so those taking the risk had the law against them. Here’s a brief and fun article on Gretna Green by Ellen Castelow from Historic UK.
Moving forward, the common license, which would have been the more likely of the two licenses, as special licenses were extraordinarily rare, still required a church wedding, the only benefit being it removed the stipulation of banns being read. (Click on my linked Marriage Licenses post for all the details on banns and licenses.) By banns or by common licenses, the church was the location to exchange vows.
The special license was the only alternative for a couple not wanting to marry in church, as it allowed a couple to marry any place and any time, removing the obstacle of marrying within a church or between the hours of 8am-12pm. We'll dive into the special license in more depth in a few, so hang in there, but suffice it to say, as tempting as it might sound to snag a special license for more flexibility of location and time, it wouldn't have been a viable choice, leaving the happy couple with the same venue as everyone else--the church.
While the laws may seem stifling to our modern sensibilities, especially those of us who prefer less than traditional ceremonies, the law was created with good reasons, ranging from prohibiting prepubescent children from engaging in clandestine marriages to ensuring a greedy person or even former lover did not attempt to snare an inheritance through claims of an undocumented and clandestine marriage (all of which happened far too often). James Hardy goes into detail on some of these very cases in his post The History of Hardwicke's Marriage Act of 1753.
For clarification, you'll see this same act referenced as both the Act of 1753 and the Act of 1754. It is the same act, so don't be confused. Technically, the act's name holds the 1753 date because that is when it was proposed to Parliament. The act became official in March of 1754, thus the confusion. Another issue is that this can be confused with the Marriage Act of 1836, but let's be clear that our heroes and heroines would have been under the rule of the Act of 1753 since the "new" version was not enacted until nearly a century later.
What the ceremony looked like and who attended depended on the status of the family and the location of the wedding. The modern vision of an ideal wedding is based on royal weddings rather than any other ceremony we would have seen in the 18th or early 19th centuries. This article on "The 'Royal' Wedding: An 18th Century Invention?" offers some great detail. Another fun source on the Royal Weddings of the Georgian Era can be found at All Things Georgian, Generally speaking, wedding ceremonies would have been small with the attendants being only the bride and bridegroom or possibly the siblings and parents of the bride and/or bridegroom--this goes for even the most fashionable weddings by the most well-associated aristocrats. That said, there are plenty of exceptions to that rule. Let's say this is a village wedding in a small parish with an active and social village life. It wouldn't be unheard of for the village inhabitants to attend the ceremony. Or let's suppose an aristocratic family has a great number of family members and this is a long awaited union between neighbors. It wouldn't be unheard of for this to be a large affair with filled church pews. Would either of these examples be common? No, but they certainly did happen, both in reality and in literature.
We even see these differences in Jane Austen's novels where she has, for example, in Pride and Prejudice, Charlotte Lucas marrying in a private and unattended ceremony, while in Mansfield Park Maria Bertram is depicted as an elegant bride with two bridesmaids, a father giving her away, and a mother gripping her smelling salts. Emma's wedding is described in Emma as being attended only by close friends and family. While none of these quick examples show us a large event that we would be used to in a modern wedding, it does show a pointed difference in attendance during the ceremony, from not attended, to family only, to friends and family.
It was not the ceremony itself that was celebrated on a wedding day, rather the wedding breakfast that followed. More on that soon. Let's spend a little more time on the ceremony first.
Given the venue and the rules, all weddings (save for by special license, of course) must be held between 8am to 12pm, although these times were not put into writing until the marriage act was amended in 1868. Since the officiating clergyman had to agree to marry the couple and agree to when the marriage would take place, much of the scheduling of wedding days depended on the clergyman. To be industrious, many clergyman preferred to schedule like events on the same day, such as scheduling all baptisms for the week on the same day, one right after the other, or scheduling all weddings on the same day, etc. In this way, it was less common to "book" the venue, so to speak, so that the family could decorate the church for the occasion and invite guests to fill the pews. The reality would have been the church clergyman scheduled the wedding day so that he could marry three couples one after the other, often the couples waiting their turn in a pew, the witnesses being the other couples to be wed.
During the ceremony, the clergyman would read from the Book of Common Prayer, which was altered several times during the 19th century, so the version our heroes and heroines would have used to exchange vows would have been the 1789 Book of Common Prayer (or prior to that, the 1662 Book of Common Prayer). Following the ceremony, as the newlyweds departed the church, it was customary for the church bells to ring. A quick digression: the bell ringers were rarely affiliated with the church or family, rather villagers or rural laborers hoping to make a few shillings by offering their ringing services for special events (weddings, funerals, executions, storms, etc.). The ringing of bells for a wedding was not an obligatory feature of the ceremony, so some newlyweds would not have heard the peals, but it would have been common, nonetheless, to ring in the couple’s joyous nuptials.
Interestingly, if the couple were from different parishes, it would not have been uncommon for them to exchange vows at each church, having two wedding days. Once wed, it was customary for parishioners to call on the newlywed couple to congratulate them. Not to call on them would have been quite the affront. For more details on calling etiquette, check out Calling Cards & Paying Calls.
If exchanging vows was dependent on the clergyman's schedule and conducted in an almost conveyer-belt fashion rather than the family affair we have today, does that mean most weddings we read about in historical romances are historically inaccurate? Nope. Uncommon, yes, but not inaccurate. The point to remember is that our heroes and heroines are typically aristocrats (or landed gentry). If an aristocrat (or landed gentry) wished to "book" the church and invite his family for the ceremony, it would certainly be within his power to do so, especially when most clergymen's livings were decided by the local noble (cue Mr. Collins' obsequious behavior with Lady Catherine in Pride and Prejudice).
Since it wasn't customary to have a large familial wedding with guests attending a decorated church, it's unlikely brides or bridegrooms would have even thought to do so, not unless they had witnessed or heard about a royal wedding and were inspired by that. By the time the marriage settlement was signed, the marriage was already legally binding (or at risk of a lawsuit if the wedding didn't take place), so it was simply a matter of the officiating clergyman to confirm it via vows. Since the attention wasn't on the ceremony itself, the family would have focused their celebration on the wedding breakfast instead.
Before we look at the wedding breakfast or elements of the wedding day, let's pause to look at the special license. I've already linked to my license post, but I do want to highlight the special license here since it's a game changer when it comes to wedding ceremonies. The special license is the only license that allows the couple to marry anywhere and anytime they pleased. They're not bound to the 8-12 hours nor to the church venue. As long as the clergyman agrees, it can be whenever and wherever.
An especially important factor to note is that the only people permitted to apply for a special license were nobility and their immediate children, baronets (but not their children), knights (but not their children), Members of Parliament, and a select group of government officials. Any hero not fitting in that list, be he landed gentry, grandson of an aristocrat, or otherwise, could not obtain a special license. The license itself was exceedingly difficult to obtain for not only was it expensive and required a second party to agree to pay the expense on the hero's behalf if something should happen, it also required an application wherein the bridegroom must argue why a special license is needed over the banns or common license--and it had better be persuasive.
The special license legalities could be played around with in a plot depending on what year the story takes place, for there was a little mix up with whom could purchase it immediately following the Marriage Act of 1753. Before the Marriage Act of 1753, special licenses were extraordinarily rare. For a couple of years after the act, special licenses became quite popular at around 40 per year. With the rules now set, plenty of people looked for workarounds, i.e. snagging that special license. The wording of the act was such that it sounded as though the special license was available to anyone as long as they could afford it and came from a good family. Given the legal misinterpretation and the increase in requests, the special license wording in the act was changed so that only the aforementioned nobles, baronets, knights, etc. could obtain the special license and only after a good deal of hoop jumping. After the adjustment, the annual numbers dropped to about 6-8 per year.
In the end, could an aristocratic hero obtain a special license, invite his friends and family, book the church, decorate said church, and have a big wedding? Sure! Was it likely? Maybe a 1/1000 chance. If someone did secure a special license, it was likely to hasten the vows in secret or to host it at his ancestral home (great plot points there, such as ensuring the dying grandparent could attend the wedding from the deathbed before his loyal grandson inherited...). In all likelihood, though, our aristocratic hero would have married in church between 8am-12pm and put the vow exchanging behind him as quickly as possible.
Now, something funny that you might recall is that in Pride and Prejudice, Mrs. Bennet makes a to do about Mr. Darcy and how he's wealthy enough and fine enough to be considered a lord and thus could marry by special license. The joke was on her (and the readers of the time would have laughed heartily at her ridiculousness) because being wealthy enough and fine enough to be close to lordliness is a far cry from actually being a lord. Mr. Darcy was only landed gentry. He could not have obtained a special license (not unless he was marrying between about 1754-1756 when the "misinterpretation" over the wording occurred).
Wedding Breakfast & Cake
While the wedding itself was typically intimate, nothing like the large weddings we see today, the wedding day could be festive with potentially daylong celebrations of one type or another. Rather than a wedding reception, our heroes and heroines might enjoy a wedding breakfast. There is some contention as to if the wedding breakfast was really a thing in the 18th century, as its popularity appears pre-reformation in the 16th century and then again later in the 19th century, leaving a gap in popularity from the reformation through to the mid-19th century. Journals of the era, however, do make references to shared meals with family on the wedding day. Whether the breakfast is before or after the ceremony, differs in accounts. Some journals remark on the after-ceremony breakfast while others detail the breakfast happening before the nuptials, with the family accompanying the couple to the church after the feast.
Since the vows weren't what drew a crowd, it was at the breakfast that the family, friends, and neighbors would gather. Some reports are of nothing more than cake and wine while others are of large feasts. The consensus in research is that the tradition is pre-reformation when the couple would fast before Mass, and then the tradition dies out until royal weddings began hosting celebratory meals. The term "wedding breakfast" doesn't appear until the 19th century, which is part of the confusion. As we move into the 20th century, the wedding breakfast tradition again falls in and out fashion (with preference leaning more for tea than a sit-down meal). So, where does that leave us? The term itself may not have been used in the Georgian era, and the purpose of the meal would certainly have changed shape since its origins, but our heroes and heroines sharing a celebratory meal was likely.
Announcements of marriages would commonly appear in the newspapers, as nearly every newspaper of the era had a "Marriages" column that listed the name, profession or title, and home of bride and groom. Some announcements included information like the officiating reverend's name and family information of the bride, such as, "daughter of...". Now, just how the announcements came about in the newspapers, I'm unsure--did the column writer peruse the local register, receive notes from the local clergy, or perhaps families had to send the information to be printed? If anyone knows, do share. In a previous blog post, I had linked to the archives of several of the most popular newspapers at the time. For our current purposes, I'll include here a link to the largest newspaper archival collection, including papers from the early 17th century: British Library Newspaper Archives. To spy some of those announcements, simply narrow the date range and search something along the lines of "Marriage," and you'll be happily reading the archives of old! You might be shocked with just how much was printed for all the world to read, from ongoing Breach of Promise suits to whispers of possible engagements.
While announcements were definitely an element of the era, wedding invitations, on the other hand, would not have been a thing yet, at least not for the ceremony. The earliest wedding invitations seem to come from the Victorian era. A Georgian era family could have, however, sent invitations to attend the wedding breakfast, but likely only amongst aristocratic families who could afford such a costly endeavor. Invitations would have been handwritten, of course, so consider the time, the cost of ink, paper, sand, and quill, and postage. Postage rates ranged roughly 3-8 pence per sheet and varied by distance. Speaking of postage, check out this page from the Samuel Johnson Museum regarding postage rates and other interesting tidbits.
A brief digression on postage (which is out of our scope for this conversation and will be covered in a different blog post altogether): I've read in some Jane Austen blogs that the recipient must pay postage for packages received, and that is not quite right. Either the sender or the recipient could pay, and the sender could even go so far as to pre-pay for a reply from the recipient. For instance, if a father were writing to his son at Eton, the father would frank the letter in advance so that his son would not have to worry about postage. Conversely, if the son were writing to the father, he need not worry about postage, knowing his father would pay upon receipt. For the conscientious, this system worked great, but for the absent minded or thoughtless, it could prove an annoyance or embarrassment to a recipient who had not expected to pay for a letter (and perhaps couldn't pay). More on that in another post. Regarding wedding invitations, instead of sending those costly invitations, word of the wedding breakfast would have spread among family members or be included in personal letters as a brief line amidst the other news (along with a note to tell other nearby family).
One of the important features of the wedding breakfast was the wedding cake. Hands down one of the best articles I’ve found on wedding cakes, not only including the history but also the regional traditions and several recipes can be found in “Wedding Cake: A Slice of History,” by Carol Wilson. This article is simply a must to read, even touching on regional superstitions.
The wedding cake began as a wedding pie and is traced back to the 16th century. Historically, it would not have been a celebration without the wedding pie! A lovely source to peruse for this comes from English Heritage in a post exploring The Origin of the Wedding Cake, beginning, of course, with the pie. Unlike the cakes we know now, the wedding pie would have been savory rather than sweet, so instead of topped with icing, it might have been topped with mashed sweet potato. The wedding pie could range from simple to elaborate and almost always consisted of a "surprise" that would help increase fertility, be the pie topped with hen eggs or baked with something rumored to have aphrodisiac properties (cock sparrow brains, anyone?).
By the 17th century, the wedding cake became just as popular as the pie, celebrations often featuring both or at least one or the other. Since they served different functions, it was more likely to feature both. For example, the pie would be considered a main dish at the table while the cake would be more like a side of bread rolls or pound cake (still no sweet icing, sorry). The movement from breaded cake into fruit cake and on into white-icing cake is detailed in the English Heritage post, so definitely give that one a read. This post from The Historian Next Door explores some of the recipes and symbolism of the bridal cake and even touches on the tradition of having a bridegroom's cake.
Since a wedding cake or pie is one of those traditions that almost always features into the wedding breakfast, it would be a safe wager that the wedding festivities in the hist roms of our heroes and heroines would include a cake or pie (or both), and accurately so. Not to include the wedding cake or pie would be a lost opportunity, although I would recommend shying away from the sweet icings we know today. Now, the wedding cake traditions do vary, of course, ranging from being a pie, being a tiered cake, being broken over the bride's head, and beyond. Speaking of tiered cakes, enjoy this historical exploration from Sarah Murden at All Things Georgian.
Customs and Superstitions
The customs and superstitions were based on local lore and family traditions. If someone wanted to be as accurate as possible to the local customs, the best research would be investigating that particular area and the family history of that area--Are there journals written by families in the area? Are there paintings depicting ceremonies or festivals in the area? What might the parish church records show for that area? What traditions are still practiced in that area? Getting to know that area would offer keen insight to what was a popular wedding tradition or superstition, as what was popular there is likely to have been completely different than what was popular two counties over. More often than not, what was popular in the area remains popular to this day, the traditions being so deeply ingrained in the local culture that it's still practiced, even with the addition of modern traditions.
An irresistible post about customs and superstitions can be found at All Things Georgian: 18th Century Marriage Customs. This one is a must read from start to finish and offers plenty of additional sources to consider. What I love about this particular post is the variety of customs it discusses and how many of them are focused on the location, thus showing how vastly different traditions were from location to location. Check out the Riding for the Kail section regarding a popular Northumberland tradition that is still practiced to this day in some areas! If you're as tickled as I am about it, know that it's also referred to as the "Race for the Kail" and can be found in most Northumberland glossaries. You can even spot references to it and other fantastic traditions in this book on the customs of Whittington Vale, Northumberland: David Dixon's Whittington Vale, Northumberland, Its History, Traditions, and Folk Lore.
There is an unlimited number of superstitions stretching across the country in the long Georgian period, ranging from only marrying on a full moon to not looking at a mirror on the day of the wedding. There is no end to the superstitions, so if you have a chance, consider looking up some of the 18th century wedding superstitions. Wales has some pretty fun ones, I have to admit.
As far as customs go, one popular custom among the wealthier families, namely those who could afford exclusive wedding dresses, was to purchase an abundance of the same fabric as the dress to fashion dolls in their own image wearing the same dress. This was in demand due to the popularity of the Pandora doll, or fashion doll, which dressmakers would use to display the fit of certain gowns and other features. The fashion doll was used instead of mannequins or fashion prints, at least until fashion prints became popular. While this was something dressmakers used as a tool, there were any number of individuals who had them custom made for their own personal collection, cue the wedding doll as a replica of the bride's own wedding gown. I've featured here two photos, one of an actual wedding doll clad in a wedding gown, as well as a more generic fashion doll showcasing a dress--note the adjustable joints of the doll, ready to be posed to show her dress to advantage. To read more, check out this brief discussion from the Costume Society: Walk, Walk, Fashion Baby: 18th Century Fashion Dolls.
Another custom was to sew/embroider gifts for the family to distribute at the wedding breakfast, including a shirt for the bridegroom. Yet another fun custom was to have shoes made of the same fabric as the dress and display them in memory of the wedding day.
Did anyone decorate the carriage or tie noisy items to it for when the couple rode away from the church? Did anyone throw confetti, bread, flowers, or otherwise at the couple as they walked out of the church? What about tossing coins in the air? These are all up for you to decide, as they may be traditions in one location but not a tradition in another. None would have been common across the country, but certainly could be in different regions. I say it's up for the writer to decide, as there's no definitive answer. I would argue they would not have been common at the church but could have been likely at the wedding breakfast. Check out this fun post from Jane Austen's World about the wedding procession at the end of the 1995 film adaptation of Sense and Sensibility (Oh, Colonel Brandon...).
While we lack photographs and even fashion prints from the 18th century and early 19th century (1813 being the earliest fashion print), we do have paintings, journals, plays, and literature to help determine what was popular. Would it shock you to learn both the white dress and lacy veil were increasing in popularity? Even Jane Austen's niece wore a white wedding dress. Let's dig into the details!
The tradition of the white bridal dress began with Queen Victoria's wedding in 1840, but she was not the first bride in history to wear a white wedding dress, only the person to begin a tradition that from that point forward, white was the expected color. Generally speaking, in the Georgian era, not only would the wedding dress have been worn before and after the wedding, likely the bride's "best Sunday dress" rather than a dress purchased for the wedding, it would not have been white. Rarely did anyone wear white for any occasion in the 18th century, not even by the gentlemen under their waistcoat, because white was impossible to keep clean or keep from staining.
For anyone to wear white for any occasion, it was a display of excessive wealth (and pride). Wealthy aristocrats were the ones to favor white for that very reason--it distinguished them from everyone else since in all likelihood, they would only be wearing that garment (shirt, dress, wedding dress, or otherwise) once. Who else could afford to wear something once? We'll come back to this. For now, the 18th century, specifically, was a time of bright colors and flamboyant fabrics, a time to be noticed and catch attention. One couldn't expect to stand out if wearing a dull color like white--the brighter the better! This changes as we move into the early 19th century, however, and embrace Neoclassicism (not to mention the appearance of Beau Brummell who changed men's fashion forever). By the time we reach the Regency, white is the color to wear. But let’s back up a for a moment.
As we move into the 19th century, for those (such as gentry) who could afford to choose the color of their wardrobe, it was customary for unmarried girls to wear light colors for their daily attire to symbolize their youth and innocence. Once married, their wardrobe colors would darken to symbolize maturity. With this in mind, the wedding dress at the turn of the century, while not being white, would likely be a light color. If her family chose to purchase a new dress for the wedding rather than relying on the Sunday best, the expectation would be that she wear it again for the first ball attended with her husband, and beyond, thus an appropriate color would be chosen for the dress. As we move further into the early 19th century, closer to the Regency, Neoclassicism became popular in all aspects of life, especially fashion, thus an increase in lighter colors, namely white, including with daily attire, ball gowns, and wedding dresses. Even the gentlemen traded the rainbow array in the wardrobe for the simple black and white suit (that part being thanks to Beau Brummell). Would our 18th century heroine marry in white? Not likely. Would our Regency heroine marry in white? Most likely.
An aristocratic wedding dress in any era just might break all of these commonalities, however. If anyone was to order a custom wedding dress, never before worn, it would be a wealthy aristocratic family, but even then, the bride would have the dress altered after the wedding to be worn again on special occasions. If anyone were to choose white for the bridal dress, it would be a wealthy aristocrat as a way to showcase wealth. The point was that white symbolized wealth more than it symbolized anything else, so while it was not so much the color sought after or popularized, it was what the color meant--the family has money.
So, let's unpack this dress color a little further. Queen Victoria was not the first to wear a white wedding dress, although she did popularize it. Two of the main reasons she popularized it were that her photograph in the dress was widely distributed throughout England and beyond, something that wasn't available in times prior, and the affordability and accessibility of fabrics and colors and sewing means to all classes, which also hadn't been the case prior. The preference for white among the wealthy can be traced back to the Middle Ages. Both Princess Philippa (1406) and Mary Queen of Scots (1559) wore white dresses. Princess Philippa was the first documented princess in history to wear a white wedding dress, so props to her! Mary Queen of Scots was the first high profile figure to wear a white, brocade wedding dress. In 1768, the popularity for white dresses increased with the publication of the play The Good Natur'd Man as it spoke of a silver and white wedding dress, thus prompting the wealthiest families to opt for silver and white dresses if possible, silk, satin, and velvet being the preferred materials. The popularity was for ivory and silver or ivory and gold, or some combination of white, gold, and silver, aiming for a metallic look. A highly recommended article on the history of wedding dresses across time and culture, can be found here: “A Natural History of The Wedding Dress,” by Summer Brennan. This page from Mansion Musings is a fun pictorial look at white wedding dresses.
All that established, don't be surprised that some brides chose to wear as their wedding dress not something old, not something new, not even something ivory or silver or gold, rather they chose to wear nothing at all. Before you say, "Balderdash!" enjoy this fun post on the "naked marriage" tradition from All Things Georgian.
Veils are a point of contention, but suffice it to say, they were increasing in popularity as we move from the 18th into the 19th century, more so during the Regency, and then made forever a wedding tradition by Queen Victoria when we finally reach the Victorian era. The popular choice of the Georgian era was not a veil, rather flowers worn in the hair or flowers on a bonnet, yet in some paintings of the time (ignoring here the paintings of later artists depicting the era, such as a Victorian artist painting a Georgian wedding), we do see veils worn, and there are references to veils in some literature of the time. Those references increase as we move into the 19th century. Take, for instance, Jane Austen's references to a veil in Emma when Mrs. Elton asks Mr. Elton if Emma wore a long white veil during the wedding ceremony, making specific mention of French Valenciennes lace as what she might expect a wealthy and fashionable bride to wear. From most of what I've read, it would seem the veil was not popular in the 18th century, being more associated with pagan religions than Anglicanism, but became popular at the turn of the 19th century when Neoclassicism arrived given the origin of veils comes directly from Ancient Roman and Greek societies. That's only my guess, though.
This is where we really have to suspend our disbelief. In the 18th century, there was not a "honeymoon" as we know it--don't panic yet! There are always exceptions to the rule. The term honeymoon referenced not a post-wedding trip but the first month after the exchange of vows, a full moon cycle. The honeymoon period, this whole whopping month, was supposed to be when the bride and bridegroom could enjoy tenderness and affection before that wore off for reality. Not until the 19th century did it become associated with a trip, but even that was only for wealthy families and typically only during that one-month period, including travel time.
Emma tells Mrs. Elton at the end of Jane Austen's Emma, for instance, that their honeymoon was two weeks in length, one week for travel and one week to enjoy the seaside. We see here the term "honeymoon" used to reference a trip, and the newlyweds just so happen to be quite wealthy. Within the same scene, we also see references to Frank and Jane having honeymooned to Switzerland. While anyone familiar with Mrs. Elton's character might know she is not exactly the opinion to trust, it should be noted that she expects a (wealthy) newlywed couple to honeymoon, going so far as to make mention that although "...Knightley is a very odd man, very peculiar, but even he would have a honey-moon."
As we move into the later half of the 19th century (i.e. Victorian era), the honeymoon becomes synonymous for all classes as a newlywed trip, although what that sort of trip looks like and what it's called varies, as some considered it a trip to visit family and friends as a newly wed couple (rather than a romantic getaway), and others called it a bridal tour to help acquaint the bride with married life (i.e. keep her from running away once she discovered marital rights). The bridal tour typically was a trip to the Continent for international travel or to somewhere closer and scenic like the Lake District or a seaside resort.
In the 18th century, the honeymoon simply was not a thing. Now, I hope you haven't panicked yet, worried for all our heroes and heroines not being able to travel as newlyweds (or taking anachronistic honeymoons). If we look back, we can see honeymoons happening even if the term wasn't yet used and even if it wasn't common for commoners. Henry VIII, for instance, took Anne Boleyn to Thornbury Castle for ten days after the wedding--nothing spells romance quite like a trip to Gloucestershire, right? (And just in case you're curious, you can enjoy at your leisure "The Henry VIII Experience" at Thornbury.) How about Charles II who honeymooned--lavishly--at Hampton Court Palace? (The painting featured here is of Charles II leaving the Palace. Although the artist is unknown, you can read more about it at the Royal Collection Trust.)
I'm reaching here, I know, but the point is that a precedence has been set historically that we can cling to. Honeymoons were happening, even if it was by royalty and even if wasn't called a honeymoon. If we jet back to that pokey fact that most marriages were family alliances rather than love matches, it might clue us into, aside from financial situations, why honeymoons weren't a thing, not until love matches became more common (and I think we can emphasize here Emma and Mr. Knightley's match as fitting that since neither had any reason to marry each other than for love. Oh yeah, and there was the fact that both were exceedingly wealthy, allowing them the ability to travel if they wished). Since our heroes and heroines are typically marrying for love, and since they are also typically financially secure, why shouldn't they celebrate with a honeymoon?
'Now, my dear Mrs. Knightley,' began Mrs. Elton eagerly, hitching herself forward in her chair in Emma's pretty sitting-room, 'Do tell me, there's a dear, where it is that you and Mr. K went on your honey-moon?'
This concludes the Marriage Customs post, but be sure to check out the other posts in this series or related to this series: Marriage Settlements, Proposal Traditions, Banns & Licenses, Widows, and Breach of Promise.