If Meghan Markle had married a “single man in possession of a good fortune” back in the early 19th century, she might have escaped a lot of fuss. For the majority of women, even aristocratic ones, weddings were pretty low-key. In Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen didn’t give us a detailed description of the wedding day in 1813 that saw Lizzie become Mrs Darcy, and Jane become Mrs Bingley, but it’s entirely plausible to imagine them at their local church, with just immediate family present. Not only that, they might have worn dresses that weren’t white! Or new! Imagine today’s bride rummaging through her wardrobe, thinking, “Oh yes, this one will do.”
True, when Princess Charlotte married her beloved Prince Leopold in 1816, she wore a fabulous frock (see left) and it was a big occasion – the young princess was immensely popular with the public and, as an heir presumptive to the crown, it was expected that one day she would be Queen. She wore a sassy little number of “silver lama [lamé] on net, over a silver tissue slip, embroidered at the bottom with silver lama in shells and flowers. Body and sleeves to correspond, elegantly trimmed with point Brussels lace. The manteau was of silver tissue lined with white satin, with a border of embroidery to answer that on the dress, and fastened in front with a splendid diamond ornament.” And who designed it? A London dressmaker, Mrs Triaud.
When researching facts about Regency life for What Kitty Did Next, I discovered this interesting account of a wedding that took place in November 1814 when Jane Austen’s niece Anna married Benjamin Lefroy. This is part of Anna’s sister Caroline’s recollection, written a few years after the event.
‘My sister’s wedding was certainly in the extreme of quietness… no stove to give warmth, no flowers to give colour and brightness, no friends, high or low, to offer their good wishes… all these circumstances and deficiencies must, I think, have given a gloomy air to the wedding… Weddings were then usually quiet. The old fashion of festivity and publicity had quite gone by, and was universally condemned as showing the bad taste of all former generations… Mr Lefroy read the service, and my father gave his daughter away. No one was in the church but ourselves, and no one was asked to the breakfast, to which we sat down as soon as we got back… The breakfast was such as best breakfasts then were. Some variety of bread, hot rolls, buttered toast, tongue, ham and eggs… The wedding cake in the middle marked the speciality of the day. Soon after the breakfast, the bride and bridegroom departed. They had a long day’s journey before them to Hendon… In the evening the servants had cake and wine.’
The religious aspect was important of course, but the weddings do seem to have been more solemn and business-like. Although I do like to think that all Jane Austen’s heroines enjoyed their wedding days! I love the quote about “the old fashion of festivity and publicity… was universally condemned as showing the bad taste of all former generations”. There’ll be no shortage of festivity and publicity on 19 May this year! Possibly a lot of bad taste, also.
Anna Lefroy did wear white, but that could just have been chance. White was a popular choice for balls and dances - unlike some other colours, its hue was not altered by candelight. From a practical viewpoint, fabric was expensive and many brides who weren’t wealthy would have chosen darker colours for their best dress, simply because these would wear better for longer. The dress on the right is Regency era, and is part of The Met's collection.Either way, Anna wore a dress of “fine white muslin, and over it a soft silk shawl, white shot with primrose, with embossed white-satin flowers, and very handsome fringe, and on her head a small cap to match, trimmed with lace.” No veil for Anna, but that wasn’t unusual in Georgian England and I can’t see Lizzie Bennet wearing one.
Veils have come and gone as must-have bridal accessories. Queen Victoria brought them back in a big way and they’ve been de rigueur ever since. Will Ms Markle wear one?
Never mind the frock, the about-to-be royal couple’s wedding breakfast is inviting inordinate amounts of speculation, too. I’m more intrigued by the term ‘wedding breakfast’ and I’ll let you know more about that next week, when I delve into what was a ‘normal’ breakfast during the Regency.