Maria Rosina Lorillard (1800–1880) was a wealthy twenty-six-year-old when she married Robert Bartow (1792–1868) in New York City on March 20, 1827. Did the bride wear white? This might seem like a silly question today, but as fashion historians know, wedding dresses have not always been made in shades of snow, alabaster, pearls, or lilies.
White did not become a popular choice for bridal fashions until the 19th century, and even then, the trend took a while to develop. It is often said that Queen Victoria started the tradition in 1840 when she married Prince Albert in a dress made of creamy white satin and Honiton lace. (Honiton is a small town in Devon and a well-known English lacemaking center.) This is something of a myth, however, as the young monarch was not the first to don a milky shade for her nuptials. In fact, some affluent brides had chosen to dress in white since the beginning of the 19th century in Britain, France, and the United States. These pallid bridal styles—worn by young women who had the means to buy expensive garments made in a color that required a great deal of care—appeared in influential fashion magazines of the period. Surviving examples of white wedding dresses from the first few decades of the 19th century can also be seen today in museum collections. On the other hand, many wives-to-be—especially those on smaller budgets—simply donned their best dress (preferably new), whatever the color. But from about the mid-19th century—when clothing became less expensive, thanks to the widespread availability of sewing machines and other new technologies—middle-class brides could better afford to follow Queen Victoria’s example and wed in a white gown.
Although it was not the norm, white was worn even earlier by some aristocratic and royal brides. Occasional references to such ensembles (sometimes combining white with silver or gold) can be found as early as the late Middle Ages, when Princess Philippa of England wore white satin trimmed with velvet, miniver (squirrel fur), and ermine for her wedding to the Scandinavian ruler Eric of Pomerania in 1406. Mary, Queen of Scots, also dressed in white when she wed the Dauphin of France in 1558 at the cathedral of Notre-Dame. By the mid- to late 18th century, however, the custom appears to have expanded beyond the nobility, according to Oliver Goldsmith’s comedy The Good-Natur’d Man (1768): “I wish you could take the white and silver to be married in. It’s the worst luck in the world in any thing but white. I knew one Bett Stubbs, of our town, that was married in red, and, as sure as eggs is eggs, the bridegroom and she had a miff before morning,” frets one character superstitiously. Marie Antoinette, Josephine Bonaparte, and others helped to popularize a general trend for white dresses in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, and it is not surprising that this fashion for snowy colors extended to bridal wear. In addition, it is well known that white is a symbol of purity.
Neoclassicism was popular in the Western world across the decorative arts during the early 19th century, and women wore columnar Grecian-style gowns that were inspired by classical antiquity. But society was ready for a change. Romanticism—which, like Neoclassicism, had 18th-century roots—embraced emotion, imagination, nature, and fantasies of the historical past and reacted against classicism’s precepts of order, harmony, and rationality. As the movement gained momentum, women’s clothing responded with exuberant Romantic styles. During the 1820s, women’s fashions steadily evolved as waistlines dropped, sleeves became larger, sleeve plumpers exaggerated shoulders, and skirts grew wider. Tightly laced corsets cinched waists. Elaborate rows of trim or flounces bordered full hems, which rose to the ankle at the end of the 1820s. Flamboyant hairstyles—as well as extravagant bonnets and other headgear—complemented the fashionable woman’s dramatic silhouette.
The Lorillards—like the Bartows—descended from French Huguenots. As the granddaughter of Pierre Lorillard (1742–1776), Maria (pronounced “Mariah”) was one of the heirs to his descendants’ formidable tobacco fortune and a member of one of New York City’s elite families. Her father, Blasius (or Blaze) Lorillard (1769–1802) died when Maria was a toddler; her upbringing is a mystery, and the fate of her mother, Maria Leinau, is unknown. Research has not yet revealed the financial provisions made for Maria by her parents; however, in the 1830s, she inherited a large sum of money from her bachelor uncle George Lorillard.
We do not know what Maria wore for her wedding to Robert Bartow in 1827, but she would have had access to a dazzling array of fine bridal fabrics in city shops, and as a well-heeled New Yorker, she would have been able to employ the services of a highly skilled dressmaker. In addition, the bride-to-be probably consulted the latest magazines before deciding what to wear on the big day. French periodicals—such as Pierre de la Mésangère’s Le Journal des Dames et des Modes—dictated the newest styles. Paris fashions were closely followed and copied by British magazines, such as Rudolph Ackermann’s Repository of Arts and La Belle Assemblée. The narrator of “The Last Day of the Last Year,” which appeared in the Repository on May 1, 1827, describes the influence of London fashions in the provinces. “The arrival of a belle from London, duly announced, was an event of some importance; we were on the look-out for a fresh supply of fashion and new patterns of every thing wearable (for, notwithstanding the laudable efforts of the Repository and La Belle Assemblée to simplify the mysteries of the newest modes by coloured engravings and notes explanatory, there is nothing like a real well-dressed belle to assist the dull apprehensions of us country women).” Here, we could just as well substitute “American” for “country.” And indeed, American women were familiar with publications such as these, which were available in the United States. In 1827, for example, Ackermann’s Repository offered free postage to New York, and in that same year, the Boston Atheneum had thirty-two volumes of it in their library. Le Journal des Dames charged 50 centimes extra for each three-month period of foreign subscriptions, and Anne-Marie Kleinert writes in Le Journal des Dames et des Modes: ou la conquête de l’Europe feminine (1797–1839) that the magazine was read in Boston and Philadelphia. In addition, American women traveling or living abroad would have enjoyed poring over hot-off-the-press fashion plates and writing home about them, as well as buying stylish new clothes in Paris and London.
White bridal dresses in the 1820s were often made of sumptuous fabrics, especially satin, tulle, silk, and lace such as Brussels, Honiton, and blonde (a fine silk lace). However, some cotton muslin dresses can be found in museum collections, indicating that the nuptial fashion for white was not strictly limited to the wealthy. Lace veils, orange-blossom wreaths, and other flowers adorned bridal heads, which were coiffed in curls and high chignons. Jewelry made of pearls and gems, white satin shoes, and white kid gloves completed costly wedding ensembles.
Many women, of course, did not marry in white but in a range of colors, which enabled them to continue wearing their wedding dress for other occasions (and making alterations if needed). White, however, could also be worn again. For instance, on March 20, 1827 (which just happened to be the day of Maria Lorillard’s wedding), a fashion plate depicting a “costume de mariée au bal” (bridal ensemble for a ball) appeared in Le Journal des Dames et des Modes. The month before, in February 1827, La Belle Assemblée had some advice for women who had recently married. “The most elegant dress for a bride to wear on her first appearance in public is a gown of white gros de Naples [a sturdy ribbed silk fabric], ornamented at the border with three rows of embroidery in white floize silk.” And in anticipation of a dinner party invitation, a newlywed in Catherine Gore’s novel The Sketchbook of Fashion (1833) was “determined to make her début on the occasion in her wedding dress of Urling’s lace with her new set of pearls.”
“The Rival Belles,” a short story published on August 1, 1829, in the New-York Mirror and Ladies’ Literary Gazette (the same periodical that announced the Lorillard-Bartow marriage), describes a society wedding of the period. “The company were all assembled at Mr. Singleton’s at eight o’clock. The bride, attired in lace and white satin, sat in her dressing-room with her mother, waiting the arrival of the clergyman. In another apartment were assembled the twelve bridesmaids, beautifully arrayed in crêpe-lisse over satin; the groom and groomsmen were there also, in their new blue coats lined with white silk. . . . The arrival of the clergyman was now the signal for summoning the bride. Augustus met her at the foot of the stairs. She accepted his arm with the charmingly timid air and downcast eyes, proper for the occasion. The groomsmen and bridesmaids followed arm-in-arm. They entered the drawing-room, took their appointed places, and the ceremony commenced.” This description from the late 1820s helps us to imagine the wedding of Maria Lorillard and Robert Bartow, which was officiated by the Reverend Dr. James Milnor (1773–1845). He was the rector of St. George’s (Episcopal) Church, then located on Beekman Street. Robert Bartow lived a few doors down and was a parishioner, as were a number of other members of the Bartow family and the bride’s uncle Jacob Lorillard, who was once a member of the vestry. It is unknown whether Dr. Milnor led the ceremony at the church or at someone’s residence. However, it is very possible that the bride and groom followed the common 19th-century practice of a home wedding, which was usually held at eight o’clock in the evening. A wedding cake—typically a rich, iced fruitcake—would have been served along with other food and drink.
Maria Lorillard Bartow became the mother of nine children. She and her husband were married for forty-one years until his death in 1868. She died almost twelve years later in 1880 at the age of seventy-nine. The generous inheritance she had received from her uncle remained under her control throughout her married life, which gave her more independence than most 19th-century women. The Bartow mansion—built largely with her money and completed in 1842—was Mrs. Bartow’s home for almost forty years.
Every March, we celebrate the Bartows’ wedding anniversary and Women’s History Month. This year, we look back to what must have been a joyful day in the life of Maria Lorillard Bartow, a (likely) vision in white.
Margaret Highland, BPMM Historian