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Bridal evolution Wedding styles have come a long way, baby,in the past 160 years

Were you married in white?

Did you carry a small, tasteful bouquet? And wear new jewelry purchased specially for the big day?

Afterward, did you pack your wedding dress carefully away, never to be touched -- let alone worn -- ever again?

Bet you did all those things. And bet you thought you were being really traditional on your wedding day, too.

Well, prepare yourself for a surprise.

Weddings in Western New York have changed a lot in the past 150 years, in pretty much every way -- from the gowns and veils to the attendants and receptions.

Two historical exhibits, one in Buffalo next weekend and one in Amherst until the end of this year, prove it.

You'll want to check out these fascinating exhibits, at the Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural National Historic Site and the Amherst Museum, for yourselves -- especially if you're one of the many people in the Buffalo area busily planning a wedding. (After all, the Christmas, New Year's and Valentine's Day holidays see lots of engagements, and winter is prime wedding-preparation season.)

Read on for more about vintage weddings, from the 1840s onward, and how they differ from weddings of today. (The bottom line, of course, is that weddings are still the same: celebrations of love and commitment.)

To all the brides- and grooms-to-be out there, we say, good luck and happy planning.

And to everybody else, we say: remember when?

>Tiny brides

The hard fact first: if you were getting married 100 years ago, you would likely be a lot smaller than you are now.

For proof, see the mannequins over at the Theodore Roosevelt site on Delaware Avenue, where organizers are putting the finishing touches on an exhibit for this weekend called "Vintage Memories: Weddings Past." The exhibit features 23 bridal gowns and veils from the 1840s on.

And those mannequins? In order to fit the vintage gowns, they had to be a modern Size 1.

We'll say that again: the typical size of these dresses is a 1. Some, ahem, are smaller.

"Women back then weren't exercising, they weren't doing much more than picking up a needle," said Janice Kuzan, assistant director of the site. "They didn't have shoulders and backs like modern women."

Mary Lee Marino can confirm that. The Kenmore bridal shop owner specializes in remaking vintage dresses for modern brides, and she said that women today have a hard time fitting into past dresses from any period.

"People are heavier now than they were even 20 years ago," said Marino. "We're just bigger. We're taller than we were then."

To rub salt in the wound, know this: in order to show the vintage dresses on live people, which happens on Friday night at the Butler Mansion as part of the gala opening event for the Roosevelt site's exhibit, organizers had to recruit adolescent girls.

And some of these girls -- we're talking 12-year-olds that wear sizes 1 and 2 -- didn't even fit.

"It's kind of spooky, actually," said Kuzan, noting that one dress from the 1860s is so small that staffers have taken to calling it the "child bride" dress.

Still. Size 1. If you need us, we'll be crying into our pound cake.

>Married in white?

You can blame the phenomenon of the white wedding gown on none other than Queen Victoria. In 1840, she got married in a gigantic white dress, and "white weddings" became all the rage.

Before that, brides got married in all sorts of colors: peach, pink, gray, navy, brown, plum -- even black. (Of course, an old rhyme also pointed out "married in black, wish yourself back," as the Amherst Museum notes.)

The Theodore Roosevelt Site will be displaying a full-skirted blue-striped wedding dress from the 1860s this weekend. They call it the "Lincoln Dress" for its Civil War-era appearance.

At the Amherst Museum, where the exhibit "Wedding Belles: The Fashionable Bride 1840-1990" runs until the end of the year, a voluminous wedding dress from 1841 is made of a substantial fabric of green, brown and gold plaid. Yes, plaid. Fanny Enck wore the dress when she married John Hirver in Williamsville that year, two decades before the start of the Civil War. It's hand-sewn, with a tiny gathered waist and flared cap sleeves.

Sounds strange, maybe, but at the Bridal Chateau in Williamsville, manager Beth Daruszka reports that the latest trends show some color creeping back into bridal wear. Newly popular, she said, are black embroidery details on white dresses, as well as bridal dresses in pink.


The modern trend of picking out a bridal veil separate from the wedding gown -- at a different store, maybe, or online -- is a far cry from the way that veils were obtained in the past.

Veils in bygone years were made for the exact gown they matched, and bought as a set; or they were handmade to fit the dress and wearer, said Nancy Barnwell, co-chair of the costume resource center at the Roosevelt site. She picked up a long veil of fine netting with a crownpiece made to frame the face: it matches a 1930s A-line satin sheath wedding gown in the exhibit -- a dress that looks like it could have been worn by Jean Harlow.

"The veil complemented the bride and the dress," said Barnwell.


Bridesmaids today wear gowns in colors that offset the bride's and groom's outfits. But years ago, the display at the Amherst Museum shows, women attendants would often dress as mini-brides.

That's right: they would wear gowns to match what the bride was wearing. They would even wear veils like hers.

That doesn't happen anymore. In fact, Daruszka at the Bridal Chateau said that modern brides are doing the opposite -- they're picking up bits of color from their bridesmaids' dresses and incorporating them into their own looks.

"A lot of girls don't want the same dress as everybody else,"she said.

>Once and done

A big difference between wedding ensembles of yore and today's brides is that wedding gowns are no longer reworn -- or, very rarely.

Back in the mid-1800s, a serviceable gray or navy wedding dress could serve a woman as a visiting dress for years to come. A black wedding dress could do double-duty as a mourning dress. Into the early 1900s, a wedding dress often saw frequent rewearings as the bride's best evening gown. And during World Wars I and II, brides often married in dark suits that both conserved valuable silk and could be used as everyday outfits. This weekend, the Roosevelt site will display a handsome brown wedding suit with seal fur trim; it was worn by a local bride during the Great War.

"They used and reused. This was not a throwaway society," said Kuzan.

Case in point: you know those bridesmaid dresses they sell now in two separate pieces, a bodice top and a detachable skirt? Well, they did that in the 1800s, too -- and the bride could reuse the skirt for many years, simply by pairing it with different bodices.

>The 2-foot-wide bouquet

Fashionable bridal bouquets now are small and densely packed, and oftentimes get tossed for good luck at the reception.

But that wasn't always the case. Brides used to throw shoes or stockings for luck, not their bouquets.

And speaking of bouquets, for many years the concept was simple: the bigger, the better.

In the 1880s, some brides carried bouquets that were as big as two feet across -- so big that they couldn't actually carry them.

"The brides would have a little pageboy carry the bouquet for her," said Kuzan.

>Boots and jewels

Brides didn't always wear fancy high heels at their weddings. In the late 1800s, for instance, the properly dressed bride would wear a pair of leather boots, probably in an off-white or ecru shade, to match her dress.

That was so her ankles wouldn't show if by some chance her foot peeped out from beneath her hem, said Barnwell.

(Contrast that with today's risque garter ceremonies, hmmm?)

As for wedding jewelry, most brides of 100 years ago would never have dreamed of going out and buying a necklace or other jewelry to wear. The only jewelry she would wear would be a gift from the groom, or, in special cases, jewels that were family heirlooms, said organizers at the Roosevelt site.

And necklaces weren't the norm, especially in the late 1800s, said Barnwell. Brooches were more common, she said, due to the fact that wedding dresses of the day had high collars.

>Back into laces

A hot trend is a throwback to an earlier era, however. Some popular bridal gowns now feature corset-style laced backs, said Daruszka at Bridal Chateau.

Corset backs allow brides to be laced tightly into a dress -- for a form-flattering fit -- and they also eliminate the need for sewing changes on the dress.

"A corset dress pulls you in, and you don't need the alterations," Daruszka said.



>Visiting the exhibits

The Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural National Historic Site at 641 Delaware Ave. will be open from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday; admission of $12 at the door ($10 presale) includes access to the site and 23 wedding dress mannequins displayed throughout the mansion, as well as champagne and wedding cake slices. Private group tours are available by calling the site, as are tickets for the Friday gala event at the Butler Mansion. The site may be reached at 884-0095.

The Amherst Museum's wedding dress exhibit runs through the end of 2006. The Museum is located at 3755 Tonawanda Creek Road, and its hours are 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday. Starting in April the museum will be open Saturdays and Sundays from 12:30 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. Call 689-1440 for information. Admission is $4 for adults.

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