Society Weddings - Then and Now

Ok, so we have a confession to make…. we’re all a little obsessed by society weddings!  I mean, what’s not to like?  The glitz, the glamour…. the beautiful people; all in one place!  If you’re anything like us, then you enjoy pouring over the photos in the press and on Instagram – picking over all the little details of how the couples celebrated their big day.  It got us thinking.  How much have posh weddings changed over the last 100 years or so.  We decided to investigate!

We chose a handful of high-profile weddings – from the marriage of Consuelo Vanderbilt and the 9th Duke of Marlborough in 1895, to the recent wedding of the Hon Harry Herbert and TV cook Clodagh McKenna, and we came away with some surprising conclusions.  In many ways time has stood still, but in others…. well…. let’s take a peek together….

Fashion and Bridal Dresses

Then:

On 6 November 1895 huge crowds gathered outside St. Thomas’s Episcopal Church at 5th Avenue and 53rd Street in Manhattan, to catch a glimpse of the celebrants at the society wedding of the decade; the ultimate ‘celebrity wedding’. 

Consuelo Vanderbilt, one of the wealthiest women in the United States (reputedly worth around $4 billion in today’s money), married Britain’s most eligible peer, Charles Spencer-Churchill, the 9th Duke of Marlborough.  It was an arranged marriage, brought about by the machinations of Consuelo’s socially ambitious mother, Alva, who wished her daughter to marry into the British aristocracy.  For his part, the Duke’s motivation was financial.  Consuelo’s fortune allowed him to restore his ancestral home – Blenheim Palace - to the splendour the great house still parades today.

This was really the first ‘tabloid’ wedding.  The bride’s mother had leaked every possible detail to the press in the run up to the big day, which had, unsurprisingly, led to huge public interest in the event.  Everything from the bride’s dress, her trousseau and even her lingerie were laid bare in exquisite detail, much to the mortification of the bride, who recalled in her memoirs the agony of “[reading in] stupefaction that my garters had gold clasps studded with diamonds, and I wondered how I should live down such vulgarities.”  

As you’d imagine, the bridal dress itself was both lavish and ornate.  Consuelo wore a gown of cream satin with a five-foot long train that was trimmed with lace. The net veil was held in place with a coronet of orange blossoms - made popular with British brides after Queen Victoria donned one for her wedding to Prince Albert.  The gown had huge, full sleeves, which became close fitting below the elbow.  It also featured a high neckline and tightly corseted waist, which was bound off with a wide sash and from which fell a skirt edged with multiple borders of lace, wrought with pearls and tiny silver spangles.

The wedding dress of Consuela Vanderbilt 

Photo: From The Bygone

NOW:

Over 100 years later and many wedding dress fashions remain the same.  White or off-white fabric.  Check.  Veil?  Check.  What differs is the simplicity of dress design favoured today.  Nowadays, high society brides favour clean, simple lines – there are no massive meringues in sight!  But, as we will see, many modern gowns feature a personal touch, unique to each bride.

The wedding dress of Lady Charlotte Wellesley

Photo: Getty Images

Lady Charlotte Wellesley, daughter of the 9th Duke of Wellington, descendent of the first Duke of Wellington, who defeated Napoleon at Waterloo, married Colombian-American financier and philanthropist, Alejandro Santo Domingo in 2016.   The wedding was held in Illora, Granada, Spain in the 16th Century Church of the Incarnation.  It was followed by a reception at Molino del Rey, the Duke of Wellington’s house on his Dehesa Baja de Íllora estate.

She wore a stunning cream, off the shoulder gown and lace veil with embroidered dots - custom made by Emilia Wickstead.  As striking as this refreshingly structured and modern design is, the bride has added her own statement twist.  You can see in this photo that she wears green shoes, instead of the more traditional cream or ivory, to match the dress.  It gives the whole ensemble a fresh, funky feel.

Camilla Thorp's wedding dress

Camilla Thorp's Dolce & Gabanna weddding dress
Photo: Blenheim Palace

 Consuelo Vanderbilt’s great, great grandson, George Spencer-Churchill, Marquess of Blandford and heir to the Dukedom of Marlborough, married his long-term sweetheart, Camilla Thorp, in 2018, at a ceremony at St Mary Magdalene Church in Woodstock.  It was followed by a reception at the family seat, Blenheim Palace.

The Dolce & Gabanna white dress, was the first bespoke bridal gown by the designer ever to have been worn in Britain.  The dress featured an intricate off-the-shoulder lace bodice with tiny, pale pink and white flowers and seed pearls.  The skirt was made up of multiple layers of tuille, for volume, and topped with organza.  We loved the fact that, in a nod to family history, Camilla wore the diamond and pearl-encrusted Boucheron tiara which was originally a wedding gift to Consuelo Vanderbilt, from her father, on her wedding to the 9th Duke in 1895.

Clodagh McKenna's wedding dress

Photo: David Hartley

For Clodagh McKenna, who married the Hon Harry Herbert, this summer, in a ceremony at St. Michael & All Angels Church in Hampshire, followed by a reception at his family home, Broadspear – (in the Highclere estate grounds) – it was all about finding a dress that reflected her boho lifestyle and love of gardening and nature.

She certainly achieved her aim with this gorgeous, full-length, v-neckline, white lace gown, with embellished bell sleeves, designed by Alice Temperley, which had intricate floral embroidery added around the waist. 

Groom Wedding Fashion

THEN:

In 1895, the frock coat was the choice of most grooms.  Worn by the 9th Duke of Marlborough, on his wedding day, it was usually accompanied by a double-breasted, dark waistcoat, and dark grey-striped cashmere trousers.  Patent leather button boots and tan kid gloves finished the smart ensemble.

The Duke of Marlborough in wedding Morning suti

Photo: Wikipedia

By the time John Francis Amherst Cecil married another Vanderbilt heiress - Cornelia - at All Soul’s Church, North Carolina, just quarter of a century later, in 1924, morning dress was de rigeuer, as can be seen in his wedding photo.

John Cecil's morning suit when he married Cornelia Vanderbilt

Photo: Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division

Cecil combined a high winged collar, with a cravat and wore spats as footwear – a classic pairing at the time.  Morning coats would usually have been worn with a top hat.  

NOW:

Today, there has been little change in groom’s wedding attire.  Morning dress remains the outfit of choice for most high-society men – although there’s nary a spat or top hat in sight and a turndown collar and silk tie has replaced Cecil’s neckline of choice.  In addition, there is a more flexibility in terms of colour.  Whilst a black coat remains the choice for the most formal of occasions, waistcoats are up to the individual wearer.  Buff, grey and duck egg blue are the most traditional modern hues, but the reality is, anything goes.  Trousers also vary in colour – from the formal striped design, to houndstooth check, Prince of Wales check and grey flannel, amongst others. 

George Spencer-Churchill flanked by his ushers in Morning Suits

George Spencer Churchill (Centre)
Photo: Matt Porteous

Alejandro Santo Domingo in a morning suit on his wedding day

Alejandro Santo Domingo
Photo: Getty Images

 Wedding guest dresses and outfits

It’s here we see the biggest changes.  When Consuela and Cornelia Vanderbilt got married, guests were required to stick to a strict dress code.  Women were required to be decently covered, often wearing white dresses, to mirror the bride, and hats were worn in church and after.  For men, it was strictly formal attire only – in short, either a frock coat and then, later on, morning dress. 

 wedding guest dresses at Cornelia Vanderbilt's wedding

Wedding of Cornelia Vanderbilt to John Cecil
Photo: Biltmore

Nowadays the rules for both genders have relaxed greatly.  For women, the only rule is that they wear something appropriate – i.e., no short hemlines, garish accessories, or huge hats that block the view of the couple taking their vows.  Couple this with heels that feel comfortable to wear all day and a small bag (for essentials) and you’re good to go.

For men, turning up to a high society wedding wearing a smart suit, is no longer frowned upon.

the wedding guests arrive at the wedding of Lady Charlotte Wellesley

Wedding guests at Lady Charlotte Wellesley’s wedding
Photos: Getty Images
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Wedding guests arrive at the wedding of Clodagh Mckenna and Harry Herbert

Guests at Clodagh McKenna and the Hon Harry Herbert’s wedding
Photos: Daily Mail

 

WEDDING STATIONERY

It goes without saying that when it comes to weddings, we are particularly fascinated by changing stationery trends over the years.  However, what struck us, during our research, is how little has actually changed when it comes to formal luxury wedding stationery. 

Today’s classic, luxury wedding invitations look just the same as they did when Consuelo and Charles Spencer-Churchill married over 125 years ago!  The die-stamp engraving, the layout and the wording remains the same: as classically chic, elegant and simple today, as it was then. 

A traditional engraved wedding invitation from 1895 

Wedding invitation of Consuelo and Charles Spencer-Churchill - 1895

Here is another example of an invitation, 30 years later.  This time it is for Cornelia Vanderbilt’s wedding (left) and her wedding reception (right).  Again, it features the same luxury design favoured by many a modern bride of those times.

a traditional church wedding invitation with it's matching invitation to the reception

Cornelia Vanderbilt’s wedding stationery (1924)
Photos: Biltmore blog

Whilst this classic design – white / cream card with black writing (die-stamp or thermographic engraving, or flat printed) – remains popular today, there has been a shift away from the traditional formality of wedding stationery.  Many brides nowadays – especially those in the highest echelons of society - seek to stamp their own personality on their big day and this includes their wedding stationery suite.

From the design, to the wording, it’s down to personal preference and personalisation is the name of the game.  Whilst many couples still enjoy a traditional style English wedding, they want their stationery to reflect a more relaxed, modern approach. 

For wedding invitations, this can take the form of more up-to-date wording, with many brides not wishing their parents to be the ones formally inviting their guests.  Instead of the invitees being, “Mr and Mrs”, invitations now say, “We” or “X&Y with their families” invite.  Even if brides wish to stick with the more formal, and traditional, wording on their invitations, many choose a bespoke, colourful design – that reflects their personality and taste – and makes each invitation / card something to treasure.

This wedding stationery design by talented artist, Stephanie Fishwick (below), for Lady Charlotte Wellesley’s wedding, is stand out.  It features exquisite and unique hand-drawn designs coupled with elegant calligraphy.  It packs a design punch and makes quite the statement.  It’s an invitation you’d be proud to display on the mantlepiece!

water colour wedding stationery by Stephanie Fishwick

Photos: : Instagram / Stephanie Fishwick

Some upper-crust brides – such as Camilla Thorp – still favour a more classic stationery design – see her beautiful white and gold wedding table stationery below.

gold and pastel colours are the them for the table stationery at this wedding reception

Photos: Matt Porteous

Other brides let their imagination run away with them.  We particularly adore the unique artistry displayed on Clodagh McKenna and the Hon Harry Herbert’s Order of Service:

an illustrated front cover of an order of service for a wedding

Photo: Instagram / Jimmy Wales

And don’t even get us started on their outrageously fabulous table place cards.  Imagine turning up at a wedding and finding this?  It’s so delightfully colourful and engaging, and it would definitely be something we’d keep and take home as a keepsake!

A colourful hand drawn wedding breakfast menu

Photo: Instagram / Laura Whitmore

Whether you’re a traditionalist or a free-wheeling, boho-babe, the great news is – as these modern-day society brides have demonstrated – when it comes to wedding stationery, there’s a huge variety of options to choose from.  Unlike in 1895, when the accepted format was extremely rigid and formulaic, nowadays…. anything goes!

 

WEDDING FLOWERS:

 Then, as now, flowers are used profusely in society weddings.  They make a glorious, colourful, ‘scent-sual’ impact across every aspect of the day.  From church decorations, bridal bouquet, and wedding attendant accessories, to wedding reception and banquet décor – it’s all about making a statement.  The bigger the better!  Dramatic floral design never goes out of fashion!

THEN:

When Consuela Vanderbilt got married in 1895, her floral decoration packed as much of a punch as her wedding dress.  For a start, her orchid bouquet was three feet long!  The blooms were brought all they way from Blenheim, the groom’s estate.  That’s one heck of a journey and one heck of a size! 

In addition, we are told that the floral decorations of the church far excelled anything seen before in the USA.  The walls, pillars, and indeed, almost every square foot inside, were covered with artistically arranged designs of flowers and foliage.

Consuela Vanderbilt's church flowers during her marriage ceremony

Photo: Vogue

Size was also a factor at Cornelia Vanderbilt’s wedding.  Look at the HUGE bouquets, carried not only by the bride, but also by her bridesmaids and attendants. 

The bridal procession of Cornelia Vanderbilt with bridesmaids carrying huge bouquets

Photo: Biltmore.com

NOW:

OK, so the bouquets have definitely shrunk!  There’s no three foot ‘tree’ for these modern brides to carry up the aisle! 

The Wedding Bouquets of Charlotte Wellesley, Camilla Thorp and Clodagh McKenna

From L to R: Lady Charlotte Wellesley; Camilla Thorp; Clodagh McKenna.

Photos: Instagram/@carosieber; Matt Porteus & David Hartley

Whilst the bouquets have got smaller…. other floral decorations have got bigger.  For a start…. the flower arch is a thing – a beautiful thing - that’s for sure!  It’s a feature at many high-society weddings and definitely the perfect spot to take a photo of the happy couple as they come out of the church, after the wedding service itself.  We love these different style floral arches – a classic, white arrangement for the Spencer-Churchill / Thorp wedding and an informal, colourful array at the Herbert / McKenna wedding.

floral wedding arrangements adorn the entrances of these churches

Photo: Matt Porteus & One Fab Day

Unlike in days of yore, when bridesmaids were required to wear hats, the modern trend sees them sporting pretty floral headpieces instead.

bridesmaids in their outfits

Bridesmaids (from L to R)
Spencer-Churchill / Thorp wedding; Herbert / McKenna wedding;
Santo-Domingo / Wellesley wedding

Photos: Little Eglantine; Instagram / @rorysfood & Habitually Chic

We hope you’ve enjoyed our cursory look through the wedding archives, to spot the differences in today’s society weddings, versus those of yesteryear.  What’s clear is that the rigid formality that characterised high-end events in the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries, have all but disappeared.  We love how brides, and grooms, are now freer to express their own personal taste, on their big day, across all echelons of society.  We are no longer quite so bound by rigid convention.  Hurrah!