Bittinger: Historic Wedding Dresses

Jul 1, 2015

Weddings bring friends and families together, and a new wedding gown exhibit in Woodstock has also brought townspeople together as they’ve gone through dresser drawers and attic trunks for heirloom wedding gowns and accessories for the exhibit “Love in Woodstock” from 1780 to 2015. They’ve also looked through family albums for pictures featuring these gowns, now on display at the Dana House, circa 1807, located on Elm Street in downtown Woodstock.

Our contemporary idea of a wedding gown seems to have begun when Britain’s Queen Victoria married Prince Albert in 1840, in a magnificent white satin and lace dress that - most importantly - was white.

Before Victoria’s big splash on the international stage, American brides usually wore the best dress they already owned for a parlor wedding at home. The dress was usually not pure white, nor the focal point of a large church ceremony. After Victoria, Godey’s Lady’s Book in America declared the white wedding dress a symbol “of the purity and innocence of girlhood, and represents … the unsullied heart now yielding to the chosen one.”

Woodstock brides too, changed with the times. Some of the dresses look uncomfortable with their corsets and crinolines and one ultra-slimming dress didn’t bother with buttons or zippers but had to be sewn onto the bride.

Woodstock was a Shiretown and something of a fashion enclave. It became the county seat in 1786 and was one of the most populated towns in Vermont. It boasted a professional class, and when Charitie Scott Loomis married Charles Dana in 1848, her gown was embellished with silk and taffeta.

There are nineteen wedding gowns on display in this exhibit - many lovingly handed down through generations and worn by several brides in a single family – like the Hazen-McConway dress, that was worn by nine brides from 1903 to 2005. There’s a gown for each decade and 250 photos of happy wedding parties.

Matthew Powers, Director of the History Center, notes that some twenty years ago a local church sponsored fashion shows that featured wedding gowns – an event that may have added a little incentive to Woodstock’s practice of preserving wedding apparel.

Throughout the exhibit, Educational Coordinator Jennie Shurtleff has included educational features at a child’s eye level – so a young visitor can feel different types of silk, for example, or examine packets of cotton seeds.

Heirloom wedding dresses can be seen as both timeless memories and a fashion timeline. The exhibit at the Woodstock History Center offers the two in an interesting combination.