Family photos: weddings
Family wedding photographs
Welcome to the seventh in our series of blogs about how to understand and interpret your old family photos. In this series, Jayne Shrimpton, internationally recognised dress historian, portrait specialist, photo detective and regular contributor to Family Tree, Your Family History and Family History Monthly magazines, dates and analyses different types of photographs and helps you to add context to your old family pictures.
Marriage has been a popular pictorial theme for many centuries and every family archive will surely include photographs of past weddings, either scattered throughout the collection or perhaps preserved in special albums. Wedding photographs portray ancestors and relatives from all walks of life, often span several generations and show different geographical locations, so as a photographic genre they are extraordinarily varied and full of interesting detail.
Larger wedding group scenes demonstrate how earlier weddings, as today, brought diverse relatives together for the occasion and helpfully they often portray many faces from the past all in the one picture. This can sometimes aid identification of unknown family members who appear in other photographs and may also help with making important connections between individuals. In some cases wedding photographs provide the only known depictions of elusive forebears who otherwise managed to evade the camera.
Wedding photographs are highly emotive images which often inspire profound personal attachments and sentiments. A powerful sense of occasion surrounds marriage celebrations and, whatever our personal views on marriage or religious convictions, many of us regard family wedding photographs as very special mementoes.
Identifying mystery wedding photographs
Because inherited wedding photographs tend to enjoy an elevated status within many families, they are often well-documented and firmly identified. It may seem surprising that any picture as important as a wedding photograph could possibly have gone unrecorded but in fact some examples have been passed down unlabelled and are now unfamiliar to today’s generation. There may, for example, be confusion over whose marriage they represent, especially if an ancestor or relative married more than once, or if several weddings within a family occurred in a short space of time.
When trying to identify ‘mystery’ wedding photographs, the first step – as always – is to establish as accurate a date range as possible for the scene. Once a firm time frame has been determined, it should in many cases be possible to link the image to a recorded family marriage. However if it is proving difficult to make a connection, it may be that the photograph depicts more distant relatives, suggesting that the net might be cast wider. If ultimately no match can be found, it could be that a wedding photograph kept by forebears may not represent a family marriage at all, but is a souvenir of a friend’s, a neighbour’s or a work colleague’s wedding that they attended as guests.
Recognising early wedding photographs
Most of today’s collections feature a number of wedding photographs but family historians may have inherited even more of these pictures than they realise, for it is easy to overlook Victorian or Edwardian marriage pictures. This can even apply in cases where the names of the photograph’s subjects are known, because early wedding images don’t often conform to our current perception of what they should look like. Nowadays we usually expect to see an elaborate setting, perhaps a white bridal gown, flowers, bridesmaids and other special accoutrements, yet many 19th and early 20th century wedding photographs display few, or none, of these identifying elements and simply appear as ordinary studio portraits of smartly-dressed ancestors.
The introduction of the carte de visite photograph brought the possibility of photographic portraits to a wide population and by the mid-1860s the social elite were being joined by the middle classes and even ordinary working people in their desire for special photographs celebrating marriage. Since only wealthy Victorian families could afford to employ a professional photographer to attend the actual wedding (see below), it became usual for bridal couples of middling and more humble status to visit a local photographer soon after the church ceremony.
Generally no special setting was used for a studio wedding photograph – simply a conventional studio backdrop and furniture. Usually the couple posed together side by side, both of them standing or, more usually, one standing, the other seated. Typically the bride’s wedding ring was prominently displayed, so this can offer a helpful clue as to a wedding occasion, although a tiny band is not always clear in faded or imperfect photographs, so apparent lack of a ring should not be a reason for discounting a possible wedding photograph.
A simple, one-off photograph was all that many ordinary Victorian couples could afford, and few brides – or their families – could meet the expense of special white bridal attire that could not be worn again. Most brides wore a new or good coloured day dress, while the groom wore his ‘Sunday best’ lounge suit or, sometimes, a more formal morning or frock coat.
Understanding that an early photograph of a fashionably-dressed couple in a standard studio setting could well be a wedding picture can lead to many more such discoveries in family collections.
Wedding photographs and bridal fashions, 1860s-1940s
Although white (ivory or off-white) dresses had been worn by some affluent brides since the 18th century, the full complement of frothy white gown with veil, a floral bouquet and well-dressed bridesmaids became every bride’s dream in the mid-19th century, following the trend set by Queen Victoria when she married Prince Albert in 1840. Victoria departed from royal tradition by wearing an exquisite creamy-white silk satin gown trimmed with lace, a circlet of orange blossom on her head and a lace veil. The couple’s children followed suit with romantic ‘white’ weddings – occasions well-publicised in photographs in the late 1850s and early 1860s.
The earliest known photographic image of a bride wearing a special white wedding dress is a Boston daguerreotype of 1854, while the first known photograph to include bridesmaids is that depicting the marriage of Queen Victoria’s eldest daughter, Princess Vicky, to Crown Prince Frederick in 1858. Therefore family historians are highly unlikely to discover photographs displaying these features until after those dates.
The following sections look at wedding photographs and bridal wear over the decades, to demonstrate how these important events were represented at different times and how bridal fashions evolved: hopefully this and the image sequence below should help researchers to date, identify and understand more about their own family wedding pictures. There is also a useful bibliography at the end.
1860s & 1870s
Most ordinary mid-Victorian ancestors, if they had a wedding photograph taken at all, visited the photographer’s studio as a couple following the church service, as described earlier. The resulting wedding photographs generally depict only the bride and groom, the bride dressed in a coloured daytime outfit made of silk, or the best fabric that she could afford (Fig.s 1 & 3). The style of her dress followed the current modes, as did her hairstyle, so these photographs are dateable from fashion clues, just like any other family photographs (see earlier blog 5: What are they wearing?)
Photographs of more prosperous ‘white weddings’ survive in a few family collections from the later 1860s onwards – impressive open-air scenes depicting elaborately-dressed bridal party and guests gathered in the spacious grounds of the bride’s substantial family home (Fig.2). Early wedding group photographs such as these were taken outside using the more portable apparatus of the wet collodion process, but even so, the outdoor photographer of the 1860s and 1870s had to bring a complete darkroom with him to the venue; the photographic prints, providing different views of the occasion, were produced later, back at his studio.
Affluent brides followed the elite trend for creamy-white silk gowns swathed in tulle, worn with a veil attached to an orange blossom wreath. The shape of their dresses followed the prevailing fashionable line, so again such photographs should be dateable from dress clues, if the year is unknown. In the 1860s bridesmaids also generally wore white gowns and veils and carried round posies like the bride’s neat bouquet, so it can be hard to spot who is actually getting married! (fig.2). By the 1870s bridesmaids tended to wear pale coloured dresses and fashionable hats, rather than veils, making it easier to distinguish between the bride and her attendants.
Most family wedding photos surviving from the 1880s will, as before, portray a respectably-dressed couple in the photographer’s studio: large group photographs taken outdoors were still largely the preserve of more prosperous ancestors, although technological advances were beginning to encourage outdoor photography, so occasionally a wedding of lower social status may have been photographed in the open air. Brides’ coloured day dresses and special white bridal outfits continued to follow fashionable lines, so the stylistic change from the narrow, sheath-like silhouette of early decade to the skirt shaped by a bustle projection at the back, beginning c.1884 (fig.4), should help with close dating.
Significantly, photographs of this decade show that some brides, including working women, were beginning to adopt special accessories suited to the occasion – removable articles that left the basic fashionable outfit unaltered so that it could be re-worn. Sometimes a bridal veil was teamed with a best coloured dress, or a white hat might be worn with white ribbon trimmings in the form of a sash or girdle (fig.4). By the later 1880s, there was also growing interest in flowers, especially amongst the middle classes – a formal bridal bouquet and/or a corsage for the bodice. Where these features occur, obviously they help with recognising wedding photographs of this era.
The 1890s witnessed a sharp rise in the number of larger group wedding scenes – not only those representing upper-class weddings, but also those of the expanding middle classes. Modest studio portraits of bride and groom continued to record humble marriages, but some indoor studio photographs were beginning to picture substantial wedding parties comprising several people. By mid-decade many more wedding group photographs were also being taken outdoors (fig.5), this trend reflecting a general growth in professional outdoor photography and establishing a pattern for wedding pictures of the future. Such scenes inevitably offer family historians a more realistic and accurate impression of ancestors’ weddings and often convey a greater sense of occasion.
A varied array of bridal wear occurs in such photographs, ranging from a fashionable, boldly-coloured or a creamy-white day dress, worn with a stylish hat (fig.5), to the complete bridal toilette with veil – an ensemble still mainly associated with the moneyed classes at this date. Meanwhile bridal bouquets and other floral accessories, and bridesmaids, were gradually becoming more popular lower down the social scale.
Some ordinary weddings of the new century were recorded in a modest studio photograph, and although bridal flowers were quite common by now, when absent the occasion may be hard to identify (Fig.7). However the main trend was for the larger outdoor wedding group photograph, so a significant number of surviving Edwardian wedding photographs are posed outdoors (Fig.6). Open-air settings offered more scope for the photographer to take various shots of the bridal party and guests, so several different views from the one wedding are more likely to survive from around this time onwards.
It is generally understood that elaborate ‘white’ weddings became more popular in the early 20th century, eventually extending throughout society. Certainly the trend towards special bridal wear, bouquets and floral accessories, attendants and other trappings associated with the ‘white’ wedding advanced during the early 1900s, although naturally the scale and luxury of the occasion depended on the family’s finances.
Photographic evidence reveals that while elaborate, formal white weddings were still largely restricted to better-off families during this decade, some ordinary working class brides chose to wear a special white bridal gown and veil. Another familiar combination was the fashionable, pale-coloured dress, worn either with a bridal veil (fig.6) or with an ornate hat. In fact many prosperous brides chose a white dress and fashionable hat, instead of a veil, perhaps because the vast sweeping hats of the era gave a suitably grand and decorative appearance. Adult bridesmaids, present at many weddings by this time, were either dressed alike, or in different coloured dresses, while small flower girls were popular – often young relatives of the bride or groom.
Wedding photographs of the 1910s may be located in outdoor settings as diverse as fields (fig.8), domestic gardens, narrow yards of terraced houses or the sprawling grounds of a country pub or hotel, hired for the occasion. Families who could afford to do so employed a professional photographer to attend the reception after the service, although during the 1910s more people were acquiring their own camera (see forthcoming blog) so some photographs from this decade may be amateur snapshots.
The First World War dominated the mid-late 1910s, however, so many wartime weddings were simple affairs, perhaps organised at short notice to fit around the groom’s departure for war, a brief period of leave, or immediately following his return home. This signalled a return to the studio for some couples – a quick, one-off photograph to capture a special but fleeting occasion.
Whatever the nature of the photograph, many brides of this decade wore white outfits, regardless of social status. The full bridal ensemble with veil was becoming common across the social spectrum (fig.8) although for wartime weddings a more practical plain tailored suit or an afternoon dress might be worn instead. The fashionable silhouette was slender in the early 1910s, while fuller, shorter skirts ending around mid-calf length came into vogue in 1915 – shifting styles that can help with dating unidentified photographs. Bridal bouquets were almost universal, except in the case of very poor families who couldn’t afford even those accessories.
The occasional studio photograph occurs amongst 1920s wedding pictures (fig.9), but many more are outdoor scenes. By the end of the decade some photographers were extending their coverage of the occasion by photographing the bridal couple leaving the church – a new development that would characterise wedding photography of later decades.
Two significant royal weddings were widely reported to the public in the early 1920s – the marriage of King George V and Queen Mary’s daughter, Princess Mary, to Viscount Lascelles in 1922, and that of their second son, Prince Albert, Duke of York, to Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon in 1923. These lavish events and the fairytale royal bridal gowns of ivory and silver inspired a new generation of brides and revived the sense of romance that had been missing from wartime weddings.
Many 1920s brides chose cream or ivory dresses and wore a headdress placed low over the forehead, with a net veil attached (fig.9). Trimmings ranged from lace or swansdown to pearls and beads. Some brides, however, preferred a smart everyday outfit and wore a fashionable wide-brimmed hat, or later in the decade a close-fitting cloche hat. Most 1920s brides’ dresses were afternoon length, rather than floor-length, so dress hemlines fluctuated throughout the decade, following fashion: until 1925 hemlines usually ended at mid-low calf length, but in 1926 they rose dramatically to just below the knee, remaining there until c.1930. Bridesmaids followed suit, adult bridesmaids sometimes wearing bandeau-like headdresses in the later 1920s, while a significant fashion for young flower girls was distinctive wired headdresses (fig.9).
A sprinkling of studio photographs characterise the 1930s, although outdoor photographs are more usual, whether taken outside the church or afterwards at home or at a reception. Significant changes in bridal styles occurred during this decade as dresses acquired an air of glamour under the influence of Hollywood films. Graceful gowns of plain silk, satin or artificial silk (rayon) were bias-cut to achieve the alluring, clinging effect. Day length hemlines were calf-length in the early-mid 1930s, while evening length bridal dresses swept the floor (fig.10). Sophisticated white Madonna and arum lilies became popular for bouquets – elegant blooms that suited fashionable bridal wear.
An alternative bridal vogue also existed for summery ‘garden party’ dresses in flower-print georgette, chiffon or rayon fabrics, which often had a matching jacket or ‘coatee’. These were teamed with wide-brimmed hats rather than veils and, being versatile outfits, could be easily re-worn. By the late-1930s long trained gowns in a cold white satin, sometimes woven in a damask-like flower pattern (‘bridal satin’) had largely replaced the soft ivories and creams of earlier decades: these wedding dresses were ‘special’ garments, not intended to be worn again for any other occasion.
1930s Bridesmaids generally wore pastel-coloured plain or floral-sprigged dresses extending to the floor, or made slightly shorter to afternoon length. Accessories were very important at this time, so bridesmaids’ headwear, gloves and so on, as well as their garment styling, can offer helpful dating clues for wedding photographs of the 1930s (fig.10).
Weddings of this decade were dominated by the 2nd World War and its aftermath, although church wedding ceremonies went on more or less as usual and it was during the 1940s that many more wedding photographs came to be taken in the church doorway, and even occasionally inside the church.
In the early 1940s white weddings seem to have still been fairly common: despite – or perhaps because of – the war and the growing uniformity of civilian dress, brides wanted their wedding day to be special, a festive occasion to treasure in times of escalating hardship (fig.11). Often bridal dresses from the late-1930s were loaned to wartime brides by friends or relatives, or, after clothes rationing was introduced in 1941, families might pool their coupons to buy a new white dress or the material to make one, a few dresses being expertly fashioned from parachute silk.
Wartime and post-war bridal gowns and bridesmaids’ dresses had their own distinctive style, generally featuring fashionable padded shoulders and either puffed or tight-fitting sleeves, subtle details such as rounded collars or ruched bodices adding extra interest (fig.11). Cloth shortages dictated that new wedding gowns were made with narrow or slightly flared skirts and without trains. Veils, however, were still usual, and there was a brief fashion for bridesmaids to wear short veils.
As more men joined the armed services, military uniform became the accepted mode of wedding attire for bridegrooms (fig.s 11 & 12), as it had been during the First World War: as more women entered the services, bride and groom might even both marry in uniform. Civilian brides and their families did not always have the resources for a white wedding during the war, or the time to organise one: as a result many wartime brides were married in a smart utility-style suit or dress, a floral spray, glamorous hairstyle and a stylish hat being the only concessions to the occasion (fig.12).
Victoria & Albert Museum wedding database and forthcoming exhibition
Finally, a mention of the Victoria & Albert Museum database of wedding photographs is a must. This resource can be found at www.vam.ac.uk/things-to-do/wedding-fashion/home. Covering firmly-dated wedding photographs from all cultures, dating from the mid-19th century up until the present day, this visual sequence aims to help researchers date any unidentified wedding pictures. Visitors to the site are also invited to upload their own dated family wedding photographs – so the online collection is constantly growing. This project precedes a forthcoming exhibition of Wedding Dresses at the Victoria & Albert Museum, London, scheduled for 2013.
Photos and captions – click to enlarge
Fig.1, c.1864-6 This is typical of many ordinary Victorian wedding photographs, showing the newly-weds in a standard studio setting, with no clue as to the occasion. They wear smart daywear, the bride’s fashionable silk gown dateable to the mid-1860s (Jon Easter)
Fig.2 Only wealthy mid-Victorian families could afford special bridal wear and all the trappings of a formal ‘white’ wedding. This bride was the daughter of a successful civil engineer but is hard to spot in this scene as her bridesmaids also wear veils and carry posy bouquets (Private Collection)
Fig.3 This modest photograph, which could easily go unrecognised as a wedding picture, portrays a butcher and a cotton weaver just after their marriage in Clitheroe. The bride’s fashionable dress of chocolate brown silk has been kept by the family (Susan Hargreaves)
Fig.4 These Ontario-born farmers both came from Irish immigrant families. Theirs was a modest wedding but the bride’s outfit shows the embryonic bustle behind her skirt and she follows the evolving trend towards white bridal accessories (John Jackson)
Fig.5 Outdoor group photographs became more common from the 1890s and show real settings, this location probably the bride’s home. A carpenter’s daughter, she wears a fashionable white dress with a stylish hat and carries a bouquet. Note too the floral corsages and buttonholes (Heather Nicol)
Fig.6 Large Edwardian wedding scenes often have an air of grandeur, even if the bride and groom were ordinary working people. This bride was a cook in Bath and the groom a coachman. She wears the popular early-1900s combination of bridal veil with a fashionable coloured dress (Anne Smith)
Fig.7 This is a very modest wedding photograph for its date, a picture conveying no sense of the occasion. The groom, a dockworker at Southampton docks, wears his best lounge suit and the bride a formal coloured blouse and skirt, without any festive touches (Patrick Davison)
Fig.8 This scene, set in a Kent field, depicts the wedding of descendants of Irish agricultural labourers who worked the land. The bride’s white gown, veil, bouquet and several bridesmaids demonstrates the growing popularity of ‘white’ weddings throughout society during the 1910s (Sue Balneaves and Brenda Hodson)
Fig.9 Although outdoor photos were usual by the 1920s, some wedding parties posed in the studio. The bride, a builder and decorator’s daughter, wears a fashionable lace-edged dress, still calf-length in 1925, her veiled headdress worn typically low over her forehead. The flower girls wear distinctive wired caps (Private Collection)
Fig.10 This photograph, set in a small back garden, records the marriage of a nail-maker and his bride, a worker in a transformer factory. Her long dress reflects the 1930s vogue for bridal gowns based on evening wear, and her bouquet includes lilies, the favourite bloom of the decade (Ivan Brettle)
Fig.11 This bride worked for the Ministry of Food, Agricultural Division during WW2 and was fortunate to have a white wedding. Her dress and those of her bridesmaids feature fashionable padded shoulders, puffed sleeves and rounded collars. The groom, a radar mechanic with the Royal Air Force, wears his service uniform (Karen Wilson)
Fig.12 This wedding was organised hurriedly, the couple having only been acquainted for five months before the groom, a Canadian airman, was ordered back home. The bride wears a fashionable civilian outfit – a pale blue utility-style crepe de chine dress, a beaver fur coat (a gift, for the Canadian winter) and a jaunty hat (Jayne Shrimpton)
Recommended reading Marriage A la Mode: Three Centuries of Wedding Dress, Shelley Tobin et al (The National Trust, 2003)
Wedding Fashions, 1860-1940, Avril Lansdell (Shire Publications, 1983)
How to Get the Most from Family Pictures, Jayne Shrimpton (Society of Genealogists, 2011) [Contains a chapter on wedding photographs and bridal wear]