The Late Victorian Bridal Trousseau

Bride getting dressed, 1890s

Bride getting dressed, 1890s

I recently made a purchase from The Mantua Maker to add to my library of historic sewing instruction books. “Home Dressmaking – a complete guide to Household Sewing” by Anne E. Meyers was published in 1892 and covers dressmaking techniques from the late 1880’s and early 1890’s.

While casually skimming, I came across a chapter titled “Bridal Outfits.” I usually skip the bridal stuff because I don’t work in that genre, but this time my eye caught on “The General Trousseau.” I’m familiar with the custom of a bridal trousseau, the things a bride brings with her to the wedding (as opposed to the dowry, which is paid to the groom’s family). However I had no idea what constituted a proper trousseau in Victorian times. Boy, was I in for an education.

Victorian couple on their wedding day. (EphemeraObscura - etsy)

Victorian couple on their wedding day. (EphemeraObscura – etsy)

“A young woman should only provide herself with a complete and good outfit of clothes such as she should have at hand all her life.

This outfit should be fresh and well made and not lacking in necessaries, but that does not mean a dozen dozen of each piece of underwear and a dozen trunks filled with frocks. It means rather just enough clothing to last the bride one year, at the furthest.

No woman with real womanly pride wants her prospective husband to provide her trousseau, and no woman wishes her husband to be put to much expense immediately. Yet it is not best to leave it too long before allowing him to provide something for her comfort and adoring. He will take a pleasure in doing it and such harmless pleasures should not be denied him.”

For a moment I wondered if this applied to the Vanderbilts, et. al., and immediately realized of course it did – in high society the rule of thumb is my-wedding-trousseau-is-bigger/better/more fashionable-than-yours-and-daddy-bought-it-all. Always has been, probably always will be.

The author then proceeds to provide advice for those brides “moving in a modest circle socially.” You might want to sit down for this.

“Such a bride will require but one half-dozen night dresses, the same number of drawers, undervests, corset-covers and dressing sacques. She will want the same number of petticoats, with two flannel short ones, one white and one colored.

A long black silk petticoat should be among the first six. She will need the same number of hose, two pairs of waking boots and as many shoes. She should have six to ten pairs of gloves and plenty of collars and pieces of ruching and lace for her dresses. Handkerchiefs may be unlimited but one dozen is sufficient. There must be a winter wrap and one for spring and autumn wear. Three hats will be required, one for the best, one for general and another for evening-wear.

By the way of gowns, she must have two woolen street dresses, as many silk visiting or dinner dresses, one evening dress at least – her wedding gown will answer, if it is not too elaborate – two simple and pretty house dresses and a heavy and a lighter wrapper or tea gown.

She should be provided with good brushes for the toilette and all the other necessaries for the same.”

That would certainly fill a trunk or two.

When reading through this list, my first thought was “good grief, that’s a lot.” The time to make everything, perhaps by hand yourself, required considerable forethought. No wonder girls started working on their trousseau at a young age. (Hence, the unlimited number of embroidered hankies.) On the other hand, they would want to be as fashionable as they could afford to be at the time of their wedding, if they had that option. Not everyone did.

In addition, the author points out earlier in the chapter that this trousseau represents a marked diminution of the previous standard, wherein the bride was expected to bring to the marriage all the clothes she would need for her lifetime!

However, as I read through the list a second time, I considered the trousseau in its entirety. The bride would be bringing her current wardrobe with her, so not everything needed to be made ahead of time. Plus, given this was a complete wardrobe for an entire year, it’s really not that much. Gloves soil easily, so the 6-10 pairs makes sense. But the rest is skimpy by current standards: 2 pair boots, 2 pair house shoes, 2 wool winter outfits, 2 silk dresses, 1 evening dress, 3 hats, 2 house dresses, 1 wrapper/teagown, and 3 wraps. And with no daily bathing, a weeks’ worth of undergarments made perfect sense.

I’d have to toss 90% of my wardrobe to match that standard. It would certainly make getting dressed a snap. Perhaps those uptight Victorians had something going after all.

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3 thoughts on “The Late Victorian Bridal Trousseau

  1. You make a good point. I’d wondered why Victorian homes have so few closets, often only a linen closet. But if all your clothing will fit in a small armoire and a chest of drawers, there’s no point in wasting the space, especially when Victorian houses tended toward small bedrooms.

    I adore Margaret’s wedding dress!

    • I live in a Victorian sea port town founded in 1851. A lot of the old buildings and homes have been preserved or turned into museums or at least still exist and are used. Many of their owners provide tours, especially during the winter holidays.

      The clothing storage space has been a puzzle for me as well. In this culture we are so used to big, bigger, best that I think it skews our sense of requisite proportions and sense of actual need.

      The vast majority of “recreated” or preserved Victorian bedrooms I’ve seen do indeed have an armoire. For decades I’ve wondered where they put all their things (within reason) until I read about the bridal trousseau, and then everything clicked.

      The concept of wearing something different every day of the week just didn’t exist unless you were at the top of society. The mention of a good assortment of collars and laces for the bride’s dresses was another tip for me – you didn’t need lots of dresses because with a change of a collar or a lace fichu you could change the look, add different colors with ribbons and bows, change your hair and hair ornaments, to create enough variety that the “oh…your blue dress…again” just didn’t happen. Especially given a huge wardrobe wasn’t expected.

      And since one typically changed anywhere from three to five times a day, nothing really stayed on long enough to get soiled (barring accidents, mud, children and sweat).

      I love Margaret’s dress as well – the proportions work well for her figure and height. And it’s just plain pretty. The rows of ruffles on the skirt really work without being over the top.

      But the one who captures my imagination is the young woman on the lower right. These old photographs really call out to me. With that “Madonna” pose and her sad eyes I can’t help wondering about her. Was she entering an arranged marriage to a man she didn’t love, or perhaps loved another? Did she have a recent loss – death of a parent, or sibling, or beloved friend. Would the newly wed couple be moving far away, perhaps even to another country, and the chances of seeing her family again were slim to none?

      For some reason, I wish I knew her name. You can blame the writer in me for that. 🙂

      • She does look sad. Not what I’d expect on her wedding day. An unhappy arranged marriage suits her expression perfectly.

        Thinking of having enough changes of underwear, I remember reading about poor a woman in the 1700s, who was rich enough to own a corset, wore her stays until they rotted off. One of the odd factoids that stick in my mind, and remind me to be grateful for my overfilled closet. 🙂

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