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Brown Wedding Dress

Golden-brown silk gown worn by Miss Mary Dittberner at her 1887 wedding to Bernhard Stieg in Clintonville, Wisconsin.
(Museum object #2008.129.1A-B)

The white dress and veil. The bridal party. The wedding cake and honeymoon. All of the things we think of as necessary for a traditional wedding did not actually exist until the middle of the nineteenth century. The beautiful, white wedding dress—the pinnacle of "wedding"—did not become popular until Queen Victoria wore such a dress when she married Prince Albert in 1840, and not until the twentieth century did the white wedding dress become a commonplace costume in the United States. This golden-brown wedding dress worn by Mary Dittberner in Clintonville, Wisconsin, illustrates what many brides, especially rural ones, wore in the late 1800s. Like many small-town brides Mary, who may have made this dress along with her father (a tailor), chose a more practical brown color for her wedding dress rather than the increasingly popular white.

Born in Stettin, Germany on January 5, 1869, Mary moved with her parents to New London (Outagamie County), Wisconsin, at only seven months of age. After a short stay in New London, the Dittberners moved to nearby Clintonville (Waupaca County), where her father William set up a tailor shop. In 1885 Mary returned to New London to learn the millinery trade, where she met Bernhard Stieg, a pharmacist. The couple married two years later on December 26, 1887 and moved back to Clintonville. There Bernhard worked for the Sedgwick Drug Store until he died ten years later and Mary continued to work as a milliner until her death in 1929.

While white arose as a fashionable color for wedding dresses in the European court as early as 1778, when aristocratic brides drew inspiration from Roman and Greek antiquity, for working class women of the time, white, because it soiled easily, was not a practical choice. Most European and American couples in the late eighteenth century wore their finest attire for the wedding ceremony, after which the woman's gown then became her new best piece of clothing, worn for other important occasions. If a woman could afford a new dress, it was often in yellow or blue brocade. In the nineteenth century brides wore their wedding dresses, sans wedding veil and orange blossoms, for bride visits and other festive occasions during the first year of marriage. Not until the 1930s did the average bride wear her wedding dress only once.

Wedding veils have a much longer history than white wedding dresses. Dating as far back as the ancient Romans, veils were used to protect the modesty of the virgin brides. Later, in the royal courts of Europe, flowers and other trimmings replaced veils. They made a comeback in the nineteenth century, but were used only for decoration, and were worn at the back of the head. In the 1860s and 1870s women again began wearing their veils over their faces, but it was not until the next century that brides walked into the wedding ceremony with the veil over their face, and walked out with it triumphantly pulled back. In Mary's case the only thing that distinguished her as a bride in her wedding photograph was her white wedding veil.

The fashion magazine Demorest's Monthly noted that by the time of Mary and Bernhard's wedding in 1887, the tradition of morning weddings was being replaced by afternoon ceremonies. Victorian Americans had considered the white wedding gown appropriate for morning ceremonies, but the switch to afternoon weddings brought with it a new trend of wearing traveling suits instead of the more traditional wedding dress. Mary may have been part of this trend. The suit-like look of the dress was very popular at the time, along with its multitude of small, decorative buttons, watch pocket, velvet lapels, tight bodice, and full, bustled skirt.

As a milliner and daughter of a tailor, Mary appears to have been very up to date with the newest fashions and her wedding dress reflects this knowledge. In 1887 most women's skirts had some form of asymmetrical draping, but in Harper's Bazar, "A Repository of Fashion, Pleasure and Instruction," there were a few examples of a symmetrical drape at each hip, known as panniers, such as those on Mary's dress.

By the early twentieth century white dresses worn only for the wedding ceremony, veils, and other wedding accoutrements had become the norm, especially as a distinct wedding industry grew and expanded, prescribing to potential brides what was popular and traditional. But in Wisconsin, like everywhere else in the United States, the transition to the wedding we know today was slow, with wealthier urban brides often adopting the new "traditions" faster than their rural cousins.

[Sources: Monsarrat, Ann. And the Bride Wore… The Story of the White Wedding (New York: Dodd, Mead and Company, Inc., 1974); Zimmerman, Catherine S. The Bride's Book: A Pictorial History of American Bridal Gowns (Arbor House Publishing Company, 1985).]


Posted on August 21, 2008

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  • Clothing & Personal Items
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