The "Steampunk" Victorian Wedding Dress

satin Victorian wedding dress from 1878

When Emily Kitchin married Mr Arthur Turner Waite in September 1878, she wore this dress. They took their vows at St Mary’s Church, Scarborough. The dress is cream satin; a very expensive bridal gown.

The fitted bodice has no buttons at the back. There are long princess seams, a tailoring technique just introduced by Charles Frederick Worth.

And that's all I know.

The rest of this post? Guesswork.

It must fasten at the front, like a coat. And it's not one dress, but two.

Most of what you see is the satin over-dress, but those ruffles and pleats are another garment entirely, an under-dress.

Two layers gloriously entwined in a notched hem. Like a cog wheel, this is the detail to note: are we looking at a Victorian bridal gown here, or a steampunk costume?

Repeated on every edge and in miniature at the cuffs, these notches reveal the accordion pleats and lacy cuffs beneath. It’s not clear if the cream-over-coffee tones are by design, or the effect of time. Either way, I love it.

A September wedding. A dress that’s a little like a coat. Of course.

And don't you wish you could have taken a pew? To watch that over-dress separating to reveal those ruffles beneath, to see that gossamer veil slide over the dark flagstones…

Invitation to Comment

So, that notched hem, have you seen the like anywhere else (apart from Erryl Flinn's Robin Hood costume)?

And, if you're a wiz at ancestry research, what more can you discover about Emily and Arthur? Did they always live in Scarborough? Did they have any children?

Update 19 October 2010: Museum curator @zooarchaeologis has unearthed this very similar dress, also dated 1878. Part of a private collection, it's modelled here in the 1950s by ballerina Marjorie Tailchief. This time it's not a notched hem that defines the design, but a thick cord lacing over a satin panel. How wonderful to be sent this new image; an excellent addition to the blog. Thank you.

Update 1 August 2013

New analysis of Emily Kitchin's dress from historic objects conservator Leah Warriner-Wood, of Lincolnshire:

"I think you're right in reasoning that it must be worn as a 'coat', and I'm imagining dozens of hook & eye closures down the front, but from the close fit my gut is telling me that she didn't wear anything more substantial than her shift (and stays obviously) underneath & it wouldn't surprise me if the ruffles etc. are sewn into what we see rather than on a separate under dress, as they might have been on a C18th robe a'la francaise (which was also worn as a 'coat', with an interchangeable stomacher pinned in). I'd love to be able to get my hands on it to investigate properly.

"An interesting possibility is that I wonder if Emily Kitchin ordered this with the intention of using it afterwards in a slightly altered style (especially as all that satin must have come at a price), but never did. The notches down the front would lend themselves to conversion to oversized buttonholes and the neckline could be easily re-cut to make it suitable for evening wear (or am I just dreaming about how I would 'up-cycle' it?)

Of course, long sleeves & modest necklines were expected for day dress then, especially in church, so it could only be that she was conforming to that, and we're assuming there was more to it because it looks to US like a coat. In any case, it's very beautiful, and I like the Steampunk reference!"

The Castle Museum
Notes: St Mary’s Church is the final resting place of Anne Bronte, in her grave some 30 years when Emily and Arthur tied the knot in 1878. This dress was photographed at the Cradle to the Grave exhibition at The Castle Museum, York, England, a place of vintage wonders in a city of historical delights. Highly recommended. I am indebted to my mother, a dressmaker of great skill, for helping analyse the structure of this gown from these images alone; she was not with me at the museum. You are welcome to read more about her recent achievements in this post in my personal blog: In which I Humiliate my Mother.

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  1. Beautiful, I imagine that it must have been researched by the curator. You could contact them for more information. To me, those notches around the hem look just like something which I have been researching, so I will get back to you. My feeling is that on the dress I am researching they are not appropriate period and thus my dress is an old theatrical costume.
    It would be nice to be able to have a closer look at this wouldnt it? It looks like there are steamed pleats under the notching.
    Im not entirely convinced by this will have a look in my books tomorrow :)

  2. Thanks very much Zoo (can I call you Zoo?) for taking a look and adding your knowledge to this blog.

    The information panel was quite limited in the exhibition, but it's a social history museum not a fashion one, so I'll forgive them.

    I also would like to get a little closer, the dress is about four foot away behind glass!

  3. Wow!! fabulous dress..and i love you blogging style its really unique...

  4. Thanks 'Latest Fashion Trend', I love writing the posts and making them as quirky and informative as I can.

  5. I visited the Castle Museum last week and fell in love with this dress! Im getting married myself and would love to get this dress recreated. I did wonder myself if it was an overcoat with a dress underneath. If so I would have loved to see the dress underneath!
    Im glad I stumbled upon your site, its fab :-)


  6. Natalie, thanks so much for the kind words. It's quite a gown isn't it?

    Best wishes for the wedding, if you do get this dress recreated do come and let me know I'd love to see the pictures.


  7. I just stumbled across your blog and I must say, I am in love with it. I agree with Natalie. I would love to have this dress recreated for my fall 2013 wedding. I am currently looking at Victorian wedding dresses but nothing has caught my eye the way this dress did.

    I also just finished reading your post "Vintage Gallery #5 The 1940s Wedding Dress." I must say the '40s are one of my favorite time periods. It is a shame I am not able to wear a dress similar to the one Joan Reddington wore.

  8. Thanks Kelly,

    By strange coincidence my children are going to the museum today with my mum, who is a talented seamstress and helped me work out the construction of the dress from the photos. It really is unusual yet completely right isn't it?

    Congratulations on your engagement, and I hope your autumn wedding is the one of your dreams.


  9. It really is unique. If I ever make it to England, I will have to visit the museum. I looked it up and it seems amazing. That's great your mum was able to help you with the construction.

  10. What a marvellous dress, and such a fascinating history as well! It certainly was very modest in those days!

    1. Sorry for the late reply but thanks for the lovely comment, the dress is indeed very modest, I wonder if a summer wedding would have shown any more flesh?


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