Ancestor Weddings: Genealogy Tips for Finding the Dress

Introduction: Mary Harrell-Sesniak is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background. In this blog article, Mary searches old newspapers to find a variety of pictures and articles about our ancestors’ wedding dresses.

Historical newspapers not only give you the names and dates you need to fill in your family tree – they provide your ancestors’ stories, to help you better understand the lives they led and the times they lived in. You can use old newspapers to explore many aspects of your ancestors’ lives. For example, your ancestors’ wedding dresses and other wedding attire are great fun to research in historical newspapers.

GenealogyBank has an entire search category devoted to Marriage Records & Engagement Announcements in Newspapers, many of which describe your ancestors’ wedding garments – but don’t stop there. Look in other parts of the historical newspapers, such as advertisements, fashion pages, photos, illustrations, and the occasional obituary.

wedding announcement for Mae Robinson and Gordon Jackson, Broad Ax newspaper article 8 March 1924
Broad Ax (Chicago, Illinois), 8 March 1924, page 1

Many old newspaper articles and advertisements feature what were then the latest popular wedding fashion styles, such as this 1936 ad, which notes:

Perhaps the most unusual wedding dress we’ve seen this season, is the rich ribbed ottoman dress with a new wide puffed shoulder, at $89.50. For it, we’ve designed the veil garlanded with silver leaves – and silver with white is a new and quite unusual fashion. $30.

ad for wedding gowns, Boston Herald newspaper article 11 March 1936
Boston Herald (Boston, Massachusetts), 11 March 1936, page 3

Dame Fashion

A somewhat forgotten term to use in your newspaper search is the keyword “dame fashion.”

As noted in this fashion column of 1883, bride and bridesmaid dresses were discussed “ad libitum” back then, along with the latest trends and embellishments. For example, this author wrote:

Iridescent beads are used a little in white dresses, but not much, although they are still seen on colored costumes. Amber beads in brown and old gold combinations are much used, but hardly ever on other colors. Where silver brocade is used for wedding dresses, occasionally silver fringe, hardly as heavy as bullion, but partaking of its brilliance, is employed.

article about wedding fashions, Truth newspaper article 11 November 1883
Truth (New York, New York), 11 November 1883, page 2

Missing Wedding Dress Heirlooms

For many brides, tradition dictates wearing a family gown – but if you’re wondering why Great Grandma’s wedding dress didn’t pass through the family, perhaps she was buried in it!

Such was the case with Mrs. Mary Brown of Danville, Kentucky, who passed away in 1907 at the age of 90. For the burial, she was dressed in her wedding dress of 70 years earlier. This was most likely a loving tribute – but from a practical standpoint, one has to wonder if the younger women of the family were relieved they were now able to choose a more modern bridal gown style.

obituary for Mary Brown, Lexington Herald newspaper article 19 August 1907
Lexington Herald (Lexington, Kentucky), 19 August 1907, page 2

Wedding Dress Rentals

Another reason why heirloom wedding dresses sometimes don’t exist is that they were often rented.

Notice in 1901 that this Philadelphia merchant ran a prosperous business hiring out wedding dresses to those with limited finances. All sizes and shapes of bridal gowns were available. Three or four brides a day paid fees from $3 to $10 for gowns, or up to $25 for a more elegant “queenly” option, reminiscent of a Parisian design.

Due to the cost, this particular selection went out very little, except to be shown to prospective customers.

article about wedding gown rentals, Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper article 28 July 1901
Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 28 July 1901, page 5

Did Grandma Wear White?

An astonishing fact about our ancestors is that not every bride wore white. The same newspaper article reported a virtual rainbow of colors:

The prevailing color of the garments is of course white, but in the world of those who hire wedding dresses, blue and pink weddings are not infrequent, and even yellow and green have been known… He had even a red wedding gown, a bright, startling affair of some kind of soft, fluffy material. Beside the red was a gown of black and white, a very pleasing white silk, and over this a silk mousseline, over which in turn were many yards of black velvet ribbon, with narrow threads of black lace running up and down…

Multiple Wedding Dresses

It’s normal to think that our female ancestors only had one wedding dress – but if one could afford it, attire was commonly procured for each wedding event: from the bridal showers to the ceremony to the honeymoon.

Mme. Nilsson’s engagement to Count de Casa Miranda illustrates the point. At the Registrar’s office this wedding diva planned to wear a pale blue surah dress, embroidered with point d’Angelterre and a bonnet to match:

The wedding dress at the religious ceremony will be a very pale heliotrope peluche, with gauze in front, trimmed with a delicate lilac claire de lune, jet collar, high, trimmed with pearls; tulle bonnet to match, trimmed with pearls and a bunch of tea roses.

wedding announcement for Mme. Nilsson and Count de Casa Miranda, New York Herald newspaper article 9 July 1885
New York Herald (New York, New York), 9 July 1885, page 5

Dating Photographs and Heirlooms

Don’t underestimate the value of a newspaper in dating family treasures.

From early time periods, milliners, merchants, dress makers and tailors advertised goods and services in the papers. For instance, in 1834, splendid white crape robes and lace veils were advertised by this New York merchant.

clothing ad, Evening Post newspaper advertisement 13 October 1834
Evening Post (New York, New York), 13 October 1834, page 2

Bridal dresses from other cultures fascinated our ancestors as they do us today, so even if you can’t find an ancestral photo, look for examples among photos and illustrations.

photo of a Korean bride, Baltimore American newspaper article 20 August 1905
Baltimore American (Baltimore, Maryland), 20 August 1905, page 6

Share Your Family Wedding Photos

Lastly, don’t forget to share your family wedding photos on social media and popular genealogy sites. Include pictures of your ancestors that you find in newspapers, such as Belle Wyatt Willard Roosevelt (1892-1968), the daughter-in-law of President Theodore Roosevelt, who was fortunate to be featured in a historical newspaper article in 1914.

wedding photo of Belle Wyatt Willard Roosevelt, Jackson Citizen Patriot newspaper article 26 June 1914
Jackson Citizen Patriot (Jackson, Michigan), 26 June 1914, page 9

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2 thoughts on “Ancestor Weddings: Genealogy Tips for Finding the Dress

    1. Cynthia,

      Thanks for commenting, but I don’t know anything about her. Good luck with your research.

      Mary Harrell-Sesniak

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