French aristocratic weddings in the 19th century

France’s nobility was decimated during the Revolution. This led to dramatic changes in every aspect of their lives. Their weddings and marriages were to be quite different after the Revolution to what they had been before. The nobles of the Ancient Regime had become notorious for their decadence and lavish lifestyles, especially their weddings. This was no longer the case at French aristocratic weddings in the 19th century. Instead, the French nobility adopted a more restrained approach to their weddings and ironically these proved to be enormously influential and greatly contributed to the development of the modern French weddings.

1862 LE MARIÉ ET LA MARIÉE D 996.1.4946 B Musée de l’image – Ville d’Épinal / cliché E. Erfani

French aristocratic marriages 19th century

Few married for love in the French aristocracy. Most marriages were arranged, and they were intended to perpetuate a family name or to safeguard the transfer of property. The marriage was expected to be lavish to demonstrate the wealth and the status of the families involved. After the Revolution this was no longer socially acceptable and could even be dangerous. So increasingly French aristocratic weddings became associated with the private space such as home or private dwellings. Increasingly French aristocratic weddings were lavish private affairs. Before the Revolution they had been ostentatious communal events but by the early 19th century involved only the extended family and friends and this is something that can still be seen today.

Wedding Rings at 19th century French aristocratic weddings

Traditionally at a French aristocratic marriage in the 19th century involved the exchange of rings. Some have speculated that the exchange of rings was a form of payment. Many wedding rings in the 18th and 19th century had gemstones. The French nobility often engraved their rings with the date and names of the wedding couple, and this symbolized their union. Today it is quiet, common for rings to be inscribed and it is something of a French tradition.

Changes to the service at French aristocratic weddings 19th century

Descriptions from the eighteenth century and earlier show that all marriages took place in Churches and were consecrated by priests. Only these marriages could be considered legal. In medieval account the rings were blessed before the couple took their vows.

The French Revolution was openly anti-Catholic and the revolutionaries saw the Church as a bulwark of superstition and obscurantism. French aristocrats would be married by the mayor and later be married by a priest. This set a tradition which continues to this day. There is no best man or bridesmaid in French weddings and there are only witnesses. This is indicative of the fact that the wedding was focused on the legitimate transfer of property.

Before a French aristocratic wedding in the 19th century in the Church the couple would have sat on red chairs under a canopy, and this was a relic of a Medieval tradition.

Wedding Dress and style.

At least in the first half of the 19th century, the French aristocratic bride did not wear a white dress by default. Many brides walked up the aisle in gold blue or in any color. They usually wore their best dress. The wearing of blue could be problematic after the Revolution as it was the color of Royalty. Many of the dresses were in reality only evening dresses and could be worn again. Some of these wedding dresses had elaborate trains and corsages that originally were inspired by the Court of Versailles. Flowers were important as they symbolized the virtue of the bride and warded off evil spirits.

Elaborate wigs had been popular with the aristocracy who became deeply influenced by the style of Versailles. French aristocratic weddings 19th saw century floral headdresses become the norm and brides wore their hair long as a symbol of feminine virtue. Some things stayed the same. The wedding couple all wore gloves on the wedding day. This was to show their refinement and the fact that they did not engage in manual labor which defined an aristocrat. The style of the wedding dress was markedly different from the 18th century. The new simplicity in style was an expression of the new domesticity. 19th Century French aristocrats values domestic values and family in a way that was reminiscent of Victorian Britain. As France industrialized more dresses were mass-produced but French aristocratic brides continued to source handmade dresses. This was even after white wedding dresses became the fashion as a result of the rise of fashion magazines.

Victoria and Albert Museum Department of Prints and Drawings and Department of Paintings Accessions 1954 London: HMSO, 1963

From the mid-19th century, the French fashion industry expanded greatly, and this led to changes in wedding dress. Most French noble brides would have worn white dresses with veils by the latter half of the 19th century.

The Revolutionary period was an era marked by war and this was reflected in 19th French aristocratic wedding. In the decades following the Revolution men tended to wear their uniforms and also wore their ceremonial swords. In the 18th century men would have imitated the fashion of Versailles. By the 1800s many more were married in their uniforms. This reflected a certain ambiguity by the French elite towards the new French state. They welcome the opportunity for glory and advancement in the Revolutionary armies even though they saw the Revolution as something wrong if not immoral.


The Trousseau

One tradition that dates back to at least to the Middle Ages was the custom of the trousseau and it remained popular for French aristocratic weddings in the 19th century. This may have originated with the aristocracy and the Court. We know that Catherine de Medici when she arrived in France to marry the Dauphin had her trousseau in 1553.

The word trousseau originally came from the Old French word trousseau. This meant a collection of linen, sheets, embroidery, textiles and even jewels. Also included were dresses and a dozen of napkins, tablecloths, towels, bedlinen, nightgowns, and petticoats. All of them were often hand embroidered. A young French woman would begin to amass her trousseau when she was incredibly young, and it was designed to allow her to start her own household and to have some financial independence. At times, the trousseau cost more than the wedding. The trousseau was a symbol of a young bride’s status at a French aristocratic wedding in the 19th century.

Armory of Marriage

These splendid trousseaus needed to be stored. The French tradition was to hold them in a beautiful French armoire de mariage (armory of marriage). These were often built on the orders of the father of the young mademoiselle. These are often beautifully carved wardrobes with symbols of marital harmony such as musical instrument. Also, they had images symbolizing a happy marriage such as lovebirds, and of course symbols of domestic prosperity such as vines. Many of these armories of marriage are highly sought by collectors.

The weddings feast

The real celebrations started after the wedding ceremony. They started later because of the need for a secular and religious service. One of the striking features of the celebrations in the 19th century was that few if any commoners were present. In the 18th century weddings were often much bigger. There were drinks served for several hours in what is known as the Le Vin D’honneur. In the 19th century champagne became much more popular and it appears that the famous tradition of the champagne pyramid was first developed. In French, the reception or “wedding meal or feast” is called repas de noces, and it lasts all night. The menu would have included all the French classics but in rural areas wild boar was necessary. A 19th century French aristocratic wedding would have lasted all night and into the morning. Traditionally onion soup was served to the guests before they left. French aristocrats had their wedding festivities in their own chateau and in the 19th century the Middle Class soon wanted their special days to be held in the lavish stately homes. Something which continues to this day.

Other Wedding customs

There would have been no wedding cake at a 19th century French aristocrats’ wedding. The Croquembouche or a  profiterole piled into a cone and bound with spun sugar would have been created for the guests. Another unique French tradition is providing gifts to the wedding guests. These often were local products from the estate of the aristocrat such as wine or olive oil. The coupe de marriage  is an engraved, two-handed ornate silver cup passed down as a family heirloom. An aristocratic couple would have toasted each other for the first time at the wedding banquet. These cups usually in silver often had inscribed all the names and dates of the family members who had married and would have been a prized possession in any household.

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