Readers – and writers – love weddings. A joyful wedding, well-described, can end a book on a satisfying note, with all crises resolved and the newlyweds blissfully paired for life. In the world of romance, weddings are the ultimate HEA (happily ever after.)
But writing historical weddings can be a challenge. The majority of my books take place before 1800, when weddings were not the cast-of-thousands extravaganzas that they are today. Eighteenth century weddings were small affairs, usually attended only by family and close friends. The bride wore a dress that would become her "best" dress, more of a dress worn to her wedding rather than a wedding dress. While white was a popular option, it represented luxury and nobility, not purity or virginity; that came later, in the 19th c. Aristocratic Georgian brides like the Duchess of Devonshire would often wear the dresses again when they were presented at Court beside their new husbands.
There are a surprising number of 18th c wedding dresses in museums and other collections (see our Pinterest board featuring Wedding Gowns of the Past), and fashion plates and descriptions of many more. As a result, it's easy to envision the perfect dress for a wedding-bound heroine.
Bridegrooms are another matter entirely. There are no fashion plates of bridegrooms, and no more descriptions of what the groom wore than there are today. There are a few examples in museums of wedding clothes for royal bridegrooms (I was especially lucky with the 17th c wedding suit of the future James II, described in The Countess & the King, and in the collection of the V&A) like the one, left, worn by Gustav III of Sweden. Georgian gentlemen were very much male peacocks in their attire; surely they wouldn't have been content to wear a plain dark suit to their weddings.
But as Loretta proved in her blog yesterday, research is never predictable, and sometimes the answer appears in the most unexpected place. My noble-Georgian-bridegroom puzzle was solved in an unsavory source: the Newgate Calendar, that lurid collection of criminals and executions published in the 18th and 19th c. Laurence Shirley, 4th Earl Ferrers, (1720-1760) was a violent (and perhaps mad) bully who murdered his steward, and for his crime became the last member of the House of Lords to be hanged in England, on May 5, 1760. The Calendar devotes a lengthy entry to the earl's evil deeds and just end – you can read it here – but what caught my eye was how he was dressed for his date at Tyburn:
The Earl was attired in a white suit, richly embroidered with silver; and when he put it on he said: "This is the suit in which I was married, and in which I will die."
"A white suit, richly embroidered with silver": I had my documentation and my inspiration, too – though I promise the inspiration was only sartorial, and no hero of mine will ever follow the same wicked path as Earl Ferrers. But a villain....
Above: Embroidered silk wedding suit, worn by Gustav III of Sweden, 1766. Collection of the Royal Armory and Hallwyl Museum.
There’s a big difference in how we use history. But we’re equally nuts about it. To us, the everyday details of life in the past are things to talk about, ponder, make fun of -- much in the way normal people talk about their favorite reality show.
We talk about who’s wearing what and who’s sleeping with whom. We try to sort out rumor or myth from fact. We thought there must be at least three other people out there who think history’s fascinating and fun, too. This blog is for them.