Through the centuries, brides have always worn some form of headdress during the wedding ceremony. Of all bridal customs and traditions, wearing a circlet, wreath or coronet of flowers or greenery on the head during the wedding ceremony is the one that seems to best represent the bridal legend, and be the most consistent. In early times, flowers and herbs were chosen to wear for sensible and sentimental reasons. Rosemary and myrtle were highly prized for their fragrance as well as for being evergreens. Roses were selected not only for their beauty, but they were then thought to be the flower of Venus, goddess of love.
For their bridal headdress, country maids wound wildflowers into a wreath or, depending on the season, would gild small branches of leaves and wheat, then shape them into a golden coronet. Of course, royal brides were an exception to the botanical wreath rule, wearing crown jewels rather than some simple flowery, pastoral crown!
Now where do orange blossoms come into the picture? Incorporating orange blossoms into the bride's costume originated in ancient China where they were emblems of purity, chastity and innocence. There are few trees so prolific as the orange; it is one of the rare plants that blooms and bears fruit at the same time, thus becoming symbolic of fruitfulness. During the time of the Crusades, the custom was brought from the East first to Spain , then to France , then to England in the early 1800's. By then, many enchanting legends had spread throughout the continent of maidens entwining fresh orange blossoms into a bridal wreath for their hair. The influence became so indoctrinated into the culture that the phrase "to gather orange blossoms" took the meaning " to seek a wife".
Models at "Cornelia Powell" dressed for a vintage wedding dress fashion show including a wedding bouquet. The two models in front are wearing antique wax flower headpieces replicating the romantic orange blossoms. Model at left, 1920s style; model on right, late Victorian 1890s style. (Photograph courtesy of Cornelia Powell)
Even America became enthralled with the bridal orange blossoms. Ann Monsarrat in her book, And The Bride Wore, reports, "Miss Mary Hellen, a badly-behaved young lady who trifled with the affections of all three sons of President John Quincy Adams before settling for the middle one, wore orange blossoms for her White House wedding in Washington in the winter of 1828, when, according to her cousin and bridesmaid, Abigail Adams, she ' looked very handsome in white satin, orange blossoms and pearls'.
Circa 1920s Vintage Wedding: Bride has a wreath of wax replica orange blossoms embellishing her headpiece and veil. (Photograph courtesy of Cornelia Powell)
The 19th century bride even decorated her gown with this symbol of fertility. But it was Queen Victoria who created the vogue for the sweet smelling blossoms when she wore them in a grand wreath for her 1840 wedding, and the classic floral theme for the Victorian bride was set. The very influential etiquette journals of the 19th century dictated that every bride include the blossoms in her wedding. This was so opulently obeyed, that by the 1870s, one of the powerful arbiters of good taste in England, John Cordy Jefferson, was begging for a change from the all-white headdresses, stating " 'not one lovely girl in a thousand could wear without disadvantage the solely yellow-white orange-flowers' ", according to Ann Monsarrat. And it seems that "he also found the connection between orange blossoms and fertility extremely distasteful". Those Victorians!
Circa 1920s Wedding: Vintage Bride with wax or replica
orange blossom clusters on her veil.
(Photograph courtesy of Cornelia Powell)
When real orange blossoms were in short supply or in northern climates where citrus fruits did not flourish, wax replicas were used instead. However, reports in society newspapers of some extravagant Victorian weddings would specify "real orange blossoms" were used and the effusive accounts of the nuptials told of lush scents wafting through the air! These exquisite folkloric flowers, either genuine fresh blossoms or wax replicas, continued to be used to "fulfill the demands of tradition" well into the 1950s. The wax reproductions so prized during the Victorian era have become extremely precious today. Whether it is an entire vintage wax flower wreath that has been restored to wear again or some individual flowers saved to nestle into a newly made headpiece, these harming wax replica orange blossoms are being treasured again, and being used for their uniqueness, beauty and sentiment.
About author: Wedding folklorist Cornelia Powell grew up with a paternal grandmother, a child of the late Victorian era, who talked to flowers — and they responded with abundant beauty that she generously shared with others with pleasure! Read more of Cornelia’s stories that deepen a bride’s rite-of-passage as well as a woman’s journey of self-discovery in her online magazine, Weddings of Grace (www.WeddingsOfGrace.com) and in her blogs, “Letters to a Bride” (www.CorneliaPowellWeddings.blogspot.com) and “The Woman You Become” (www.WomanYouBecome.com).
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