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Wedding Style: A Victorian Event

 

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Looking to be veiled in Victorian? Here's your get-all guide to hosting a wedding from the era that molded our modern traditions.

Photo: Phil Kramer Photographers

A Victorian wedding is about class and grace, and calls for romantic gestures of a dainty nature --fine floral china, lots of lace, and sweet-smelling rosebuds. We've always been fans of era-embracing events: '40s swing celebrations, medieval affairs, and Western weddings are all creative and delightful. But it's the Victorian-style events that are a little more refined, as all modern wedding things are essentially Victorian in nature. After all, it was Queen Victoria who set the trends for white wedding gowns and white floral arrangements. But most importantly, there are few (if any) historical periods that are more romantic. So to plan your affair, you'll need to start considering things like lace hankies, corsets and petticoats, and cupid cake toppers. How are you going to pull off a celebration that's elegant and romantic, but not stuffy (or, even worse, tacky)? Here's our take on hosting a vivacious Victorian celebration.

The Setting

Certain settings seem sensational for a Victorian wedding. Indulge in nostalgia. A botanical garden is a popular choice, for its sprawling acres of manicured lawns and plentiful rose gardens. Keep in mind the Victorians loved statues and fountains, so a garden with one as its focal point would be appropriate. Many couples feel most comfortable hosting a Victorian tea party in the gardens of their family's home. A backyard, with large oak and willow trees, that features tables spread with tea sets and picnic blankets strewn over the lawn creates a charming and casual scene. Meanwhile, the opulent interior of a beaux-art mansion lends a perfect atmosphere for a more refined affair. When choosing a ballroom, consider ones that are drenched in Victorian color palettes: pinks, greens, and gold, or rich jewel-toned blues, burgundy, and copper.

When choosing your Victorian-themed bouquet, stay away from figs (which represents idleness), foxglove (insincerity), larkspur (infidelity), and lavender (distrust).

Other good choices include an historic Victorian inn with gingerbread exteriors and antique furnishings, Italianate-style 19th-century estates that boast the Victorians' adoration for floral fabrics and Persian carpets, or even a Victorian art or history museum.

You can explore outdoor options through your local Parks and Recreations Department; for indoor adventures, call your local historical society or Chamber of Commerce to see what homes can be rented for your elegant event.

The Look

Dressing the part is the most fun aspect of the wedding. Victorian gowns were so extravagant that you'll feel like the queen herself underneath the many layers of ruffles, lace, and accessories. Since Queen Victoria's wedding, white has remained the traditional color for wedding gowns, so you won't have to search far for vintage colors. The Victorians considered the hourglass shape to best flatter the female form, and women were forced to wear restrictive corsets to achieve this ideal shape. You can practice sitting and eating with more modern-day corset tops. The early Victorians (1850) wore gowns with fitted bodices, small waists, and full skirts falling over hoops and petticoats. The late Victorian (1890) bridal gowns (which were made of organdy, tulle, lace, silk, linen, even cashmere) saw the transformation from puffy mutton-leg sleeves to fitted sleeves, and eventually, to bell sleeves, and also from crinoline to bustled skirts. Needless to say, however the styles changed, they were always big, bold, and beautiful.

As for accessories of this era, the cameo became the hot item by the mid-19th century. Meanwhile, necessities included white kid-leather gloves (wrist-length or elbow-length), embroidered handkerchiefs, silk stockings, and flat or brocade one-inch heel shoes.

A Victorian gentleman's formal attire consisted of a cutaway coat or a frockcoat, a waistcoat, cravat or ascot ties, and trousers. You won't go wrong by imitating Hugh Grant's style -- gray morning coat with pinstriped trousers, waistcoat, and ascot tie -- in Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994). And don't forget the top hat -- a definite must.

The Announcement

Your invitations will set the stage to the whole day, so be sure they fit your theme. You might start by sending Victorian-era announcements -- valentines! -- for your save-the-date cards. While announcements were hand-delivered in the 19th century, you don't need to do this, but creating a homemade valentine is both period-appropriate and poetic. Besides, you can save the more formal announcements for the actual invite.

Your invitations should be crafted on smooth white or ivory paper, scripted, with calligraphed envelopes. Use Victorian lettering (the kind where the first letter of each line is very ornate --think fairy tales) and be sure to investigate vintage-looking stamps or ones with a cupid-and-heart motif for the reply card. Your final task is to decide on some decorative touches that will follow you from your invite and reply card to the programs and all other paper products -- whether it's floral patterns, your new monogram, ribbons, bows, or even doves.

The Flowers

The standard Victorian flower is the rose. But other flowers such as pansies, hyacinths, tulips, and stephanotis evoke similar romantic emotions. Your bridal bouquet should be arranged in the style of a nosegay or tussie mussie, which were then most popular, and should feature blooms symbolic of fruitfulness. The Victorians had a strong belief in special meanings of flowers, and they chose their floral arrangements accordingly. Daisies represent innocence, while Stephanotis ensures happiness in marriage. Orchids symbolize true love, mums guarantee wealth and abundance, and mixing freesia and gardenias alludes to your innocence and purity. The most important of these flowers (and one you should be sure to incorporate, if even only as a replica) is the orange blossom.

The Victorians were sure to include orange blossoms in their bridal bouquets (sometimes even in their headpieces or on their dresses) to represent purity, chastity, and the bearing of many children. This custom, which originated in China, was brought to England in the early 1800s. When Queen Victoria wore them in her bridal wreath in 1840, the classic floral theme for the Victorian bride was set! Entwining orange blossoms into the bridal wreath became a must-do, and, in fact, was even stated in the very influential etiquette journals of 19th century. Orange blossoms became so in demand that when real orange blossoms (the official state flower of Florida, by the way) were in short supply or not in season, wax replicas were used instead.

The Backdrop

Your decor will truly speak a thousand words. Start envisioning the decorations as if you are painting a dreamy picture. We recommend mimicking the sentiments explored in the famous French impressionist painting, Le Moulin de la Galette (1876) by Pierre-Auguste Renoir (Okay, so he's not English, but this much-loved painting displays both the color scheme and dress codes shared by Queen Victoria's kingdom).

First and foremost, the place should be brimming with antique lace and vases filled with romantic blooms. Fine china and teacups should grace each place setting (literary buffs may want to name tables after Victorian-era artists, such as poets Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Alfred Lord Tennyson). If it's possible, search through attics of your family homes and look for heirlooms -- family linens, serveware, even handkerchiefs. Scour yard sales and thrift shops for fancy sets of cups and saucers, and mix a variety of styles (whatever you find, it doesn't have to match) at various tables set up around the room. Make sure each table is adorned in layers -- the Victorians loved fabrics and textures. Floor-length tablecloths should be covered with Battenburg lace overlays, topped with fringed coasters or silk doilies. For these items, your first shopping stop should be flea markets and yard sales.

Candles are essential, but for additional lighting, drape small lamps with fringed ivory silk scarves for a soft touch, and scour antique stores for oil lamps. Other romantic touches include having a big open treasure chest for guests to place presents in, and using the traditional gift table for setting up black-and-white family wedding portraits in an assortment of vintage-style frames. You can use this table for your guest book as well, but in lieu of an actual journal, perhaps purchase as many vintage postcards as you have guests and ask each friend and family member to inscribe their warm wishes on the backs of the cards. These are relatively inexpensive and can be boxed and saved as a loving collection of heartfelt letters from the people you love most.

The Music

For the music and entertainment, think strolling violins during the cocktail hour and harps in between courses at dinner. Selections should include anything from Beethoven, Chopin, and Tchaikovsky. For dancing, you could hire a string quartet that will anchor your performances in popular period dances: the waltz and reels. You and your sweetie might wish to take ballroom dance lessons to perform a waltz for your dancing debut.

The Fare

A Victorian wedding-day meal can be anything between a proper English breakfast and a 10-course fanciful feast. First think of the selection, then the presentation. The afternoon tea reception selection: tea sandwiches such as cucumber, tuna, and watercress; scones like currant, raisin, and cranberry; a selection of fresh jams; and piles of fresh berries. The dinner reception menu: combinations of roast mutton, pork, roast beef, rabbit, turkey, duck, pheasant, and sole. Plum pudding, apple tarts, and mince pies can be served for dessert. Garnish each dish with rose petals and serve on fine floral china that rests on white lace doilies.

The actual wedding cake was often a fruitcake decorated with white frosting in ornate scrolled designs and topped with orange blossoms. Favors -- charms with specials meanings, such as a penny for wealth and a horseshoe for good luck -- were attached to long ribbons and baked inside the cake. If you are having a large dessert selection, the cake can be boxed and given to guests as they depart.

For drinks, its obvious -- you'll need a proper number of English teas. If you choose to have an evening reception with a multicourse meal, serve evocative white wines and bubbling champagnes, then for dessert, have the waiters bring out the tea sets to serve some classic English brews such as Earl Grey, Darjeeling, and English Breakfast. You can indulge in tiny bite-size treats to go along with the tea -- anything from chocolate-covered strawberries to petit fours to shortbread cookies; even individual lemon tarts or chocolate tortes will do.

Do a little research and find foods that are in keeping with the theme and that your caterer can comfortably master. We suggest reading Susan Williams' Savory Suppers & Fashionable Feasts: Dining in Victorian America (University of Tennessee Press, 1996), which features 19th-century recipes and sample menus.

 

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