Great grandma wore a black wedding dress! What’s with that?


With the recent announcement that our youngest child and only daughter is getting married, my thoughts returned once again to some of the old wedding photographs I have seen of my ancestors.

There are two photographs of particular interest. One is from my great-grandparents who emigrated separately from Norway and married in America. The other is of my great-grandfather’s brother and bride who stayed in their homeland.  The new American bride wore white and the Norwegian bride wore black.  The Norwegian wedding took place in 1902; the American wedding in 1905. Was it then just a new trend in the new country?   Was it a difference in culture? Was it a socioeconomic difference?

Before 1840 in the Western world, brides often wore dresses that reflected their social standing and the current trends. A color was often a personal preference; the wealthier the family, the richer the fabrics and the richer the colors. Black was common, especially in the Scandinavian countries.  Black was practical, it could be worn often and would not show the dirt and stains. And at that time, white was considered very conservative and often a color for mourning. Interesting, we see the reverse of that today.

However, with preparations taking place in 1840 for the wedding of English Queen Victoria and her German cousin Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg, the wedding gown traditions in the Western world were about to change. You see the Queen had a bit of cherished white lace that she wanted to have as part of her wedding dress; and it was a white silk dress that would be chosen to bring out the richness of the fabric. As later seen around the world as the official wedding portrait was published, Queen Victoria was married in a long white, lacy, frilly wedding gown – and a new trend was begun.

This royal wedding took place about the time that millions of emigrants were leaving the “old country” and coming to America.  As they moved across the expanding country, they wanted desperately to fit in. They each wanted to become an “American”.  I remember Grandma saying, “Speak English! We are Americans!”

Along with learning a new language, clothing was another important way of visually fitting in. The new immigrants were often made fun of for wearing “old fashioned”, dark, heavy, wool clothing. They knew that adopting the new fashion trends would help them to assimilate.  With that in mind and because a family wedding had always been a time to pull out all the stops, many chose this celebration to move from homespun to white and Victorian.  Make a fashion statement. Show their new communities just how “American” they were. And better yet, have a formal portrait taken to send back to the “old country” to show how modern and prosperous they were in America.