Originally created 04/24/04

Exhibit examines American wedding customs



WASHINGTON -- Everyone knows a wedding is a lot more than a few words in front of a minister. But where did those bridal showers, flower girls, wedding cakes, lavish receptions, stretch limos and all the rest come from?

Some of the answers are at a new Daughters of the American Revolution Museum exhibit, "Something Borrowed, Something Blue: the Invention of the American Wedding."

One of the customs that has faded lingers in the line that would come after that "Something borrowed. ..." - "And a silver sixpence in her shoe." The sixpence, a British coin, is no longer in use. Curator Alden O'Brien has found one, though, for display in a little jewel case.

"It's hard to pin down exact origins of marriage customs," she said. "Books on the subject tend to be sentimental and vague. They talk about 'old traditions,' and then you can't find any mention of them before 1900," she said.

The DAR had 200 guests to a party introducing the show. Invitations said "wedding party attire optional," but no one took up the option. Some of the daughters appeared in hats, though - big, frilly and spring-like - almost as rare as satin petticoats in 21st-century Washington.

Guests had to be content with mannequins in old costumes from the DAR collection. In 1762 Sarah Bradlee Fulton wore a bright salmon-colored petticoat under a dark green coat-dress, open at the front to display it. Next to her stood the figure of Thomas Romrill, who in 1783 sported an off-white waistcoat embroidered with sprigs of flowers. His striped dress coat has lapels that reach to his shoulders, with the coat skirts down to his knees.

Another groom, from the 1830s, wears a vest made of cloth with wheat sheaves woven into it - a symbol of fertility, O'Brien said.

A proposed prenuptial agreement is mentioned as far back as Genesis, the first book of the Old Testament, where the practice of bride-price, or dowry, appears often. Clauses about what happens when divorce comes are more recent, O'Brien noted.

She thinks the bachelor party began in the late 1800s, when starchy bridegrooms wanted a farewell night with friends whom they preferred not to introduce to their brides. The groom's more presentable associates would receive formal "at home" cards from the new household.

Bachelorette parties, much more recent, are characterized by O'Brien as "just young women who want to be silly and giggle together."

White gowns go back to royal marriages of the 1600s and were popularized by Queen Victoria's wedding to her beloved Alfred. Before 1800 many brides wore pink, and some Roman Catholics wore blue - a color associated with the Virgin Mary. A needlework picture in the show depicts the wedding of the Catholic Henrietta Maria de Bourbon to King Charles I of England. The queen is shown in yellow, the color associated with Hymen, the ancient Roman goddess of marriage.

O'Brien also sees a bit of conspicuous consumption in the white wedding gown. White traditionally stands for purity, but getting pure white cloth was expensive before the days of cheap bleaches, and its brilliance indicated that the wearer had servants to keep it clean.

She sees the bridal bouquet as a development of small nosegays that ladies carried at dances beginning in the mid-1800s. At more rowdy occasions the bride might also throw one of her garters to candidates for the next wedding.

"In the 20th century, the old tradition was revived in more decorous form," says the DAR: "Only the groom retrieved the garter."

The exhibit includes a garter from 1942 - white lace and blue ribbon, with a heart-shaped design in what appear to be little pearls.

The exhibit is open through Sept. 4.

On the Net:

Daughters of the American Revolution: http://www.dar.org/natsociety/pr.cfm