A History of Wedding Attire

Pilgrim Hall Museum’s latest exhibition, Wedding 396: Four Centuries of Wedding Fashion in Plymouth, 1621-2016, explores the evolution of South Shore weddings over nearly 400 years, beginning with the first Plymouth Colony marriage in 1621. Mayflower passengers Edward Winslow and Susanna White both lost their spouses during the devastating sickness that afflicted the colonists during their first winter in Plymouth. Going it alone was not a strategy for survival in the wilderness, however, and Edward and Susanna were joined together in marriage on May 12th, 1621. No details of the event survive, but “Wedding 396” includes an informed reimagining of the clothing worn at this first colonial wedding. The bride’s recreated 17th-century gown of bright red wool anchors a dazzling display of 30 antique and contemporary wedding dresses, with related artifacts, spanning 396 years of nuptial fashion all the way to 2016.

Plymouth bride Barbara Belsito arrived at St. Peter’s Church in this Renaissance Revival gown of silk trapunto on her wedding day, November 25, 1967. The dress is now part of an extensive costume collection at the Plymouth Antiquarian Society.

A white gown symbolized wealth as well as purity long before Queen Victoria popularized the fashion by wearing it at her own royal wedding in 1840. Many South Shore brides preferred color, however, and their choices are reflected in a spectrum of gown shades from gold to brilliant blue to brown. One of the earliest gowns on display is an embroidered pink and white striped silk worn by Sally Loring of Duxbury when she married Reuben Drew in 1793.

The exhibit includes a giant multimedia display featuring hundreds of real-life wedding images from the past 150 years. Shared by local South Shore residents, these images were collected as part of an ongoing community digitization program. Photographs of any wedding held in the region are eligible to be scanned and made part of the museum’s permanent digital archive. Some participants have contributed generations of images, from their own happy day back to the weddings of parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents.

“Wedding 396” traces other intriguing customs including the wearing of veils, tossing the bouquet, jumping the broom and the divinatory power of wedding cake. Celebrate the South Shore’s wedding history with a visit to this fascinating display. “Wedding 396” opens to the public on Saturday, May 13 and will be on display through December 30. Pilgrim Hall Museum, 75 Court St., Plymouth, pilgrimhallmuseum.org

Men’s wedding styles took a subdued path in the early 19th century, dominated by dark-colored suits and toppers with occasional forays into shades of gray. Cravats and waistcoats sometimes strayed beyond the no color rule. In the background, an ivory silk brocade vest worn by Charles Rogers at his 1840 wedding is decorated with gold-color figures. Courtesy of the Plymouth Antiquarian Society.

A handwritten label on Penelope Pelham Winslow’s 17th-century silk slipper tells the story of its careful preservation by descendants before it became part of Pilgrim Hall Museum’s collection. Worn at her 1650s marriage to Josiah Winslow of Plymouth, the fragile slipper was originally salmon pink with silver galloon lace. The silk has since faded to white and the lace, made of actual silver metal threads, is darkened from centuries of tarnish. The slipper’s mate was passed down in a different family branch and is privately owned. According to family tradition, Penelope was the first of several brides in the family to wear the slippers on their wedding day.

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