When people think Victorian, they often think high tea or garden party, filled with doilies and cherub birdbaths, cast iron benches and finger foods, mismatched teacups and “shabby chic.” This is a beautiful way to do Victorian, but it’s not the only way. Victorian had an evening style as well. Perhaps the easiest way to picture formal Victorian: imagine the upper-class ballrooms on the Titanic. Think of crystals and fringe dripping from chandeliers, lamps and candlesticks. Imagine a piano player in the background, softly tapping out a Mozart sonata, or something by Liszt or Chopin. A string quartet would also be common.
Then, picture men in black tails and white gloves, peering over spectacles at their polished pocketwatches. And enormous Lady Ferns (a Victorian favorite) arching over square mahogany stands. The Victorians were obsessed with ferns, Lady or otherwise. You can’t overdo them.
Before the Reception
Many people hold a cocktail hour before the reception, to keep guests happy while they’re waiting on the bridal party to take pictures. If you’re having one, a wonderful touch would be to scatter a few Victorian-era newspapers around where people can use them to pass the time and break the ice. Place them somewhere central where people aren’t afraid to flip through them.
Try eBay for some inexpensive, vintage newspapers, remembering that the Victorian age is from 1837-1914. Take the most picturesque papers and scan in the headlines, articles or ads for imagery to use on your own custom invitations, wedding programs or favor tags.
If your venue allows it, you could also place some nice cigars in the cocktail lounge. A vintage humidor would make for great presentation. Another fine detail would be to add a Victorian-style cigar cutter.
The Big Event
Snap some Victorian-themed photos of the bride and groom at a costume-friendly photography studio, or use a photo editing program to superimpose your faces on old, sepia-toned photographs. Place the results in Victorian-style pewter frames and display at the reception.
It would add greatly to the look of your reception if you have a local prop shop that can rent you some period-style furniture, such as fringed lamps, grandfather clocks, large, faded carpets, overstuffed Windsor chairs, and large oriental vases. Use silver (polished to perfection) and crystal wherever you can. Silver trays, candlesticks and cutlery. Crystal chandeliers, candelabras, and sparkling wine glasses.
“Charming” Victorian Wedding Customs
Don’t miss the repopularized Victorian cake-pull custom, where the bride (or in our case, the baker) ties ribbons to charms and tucks them between the layers of the cake. Before the cake-cutting, each bridesmaid pulls a charm from the layers, and learns her fortune. An anchor charm meant Stability; a clover, Good Fortune; the flower, Blossoming Love; the cross, Peace; the heart, True Love. And the wedding ring? You can probably guess that one. Hint: it’s a lot like the bouquet toss.
Queen Victoria, that wedding trendsetter, started the terribly romantic custom of saving a sprig of ivy from the bridal bouquet, planting it and gifting the cuttings to future generations (of which she had plenty).
Early Victorian bridal bouquet fashion was the tussy mussy — a tightly arranged, hand-tied nosegay of blooms and natural items slipped into a decorative cone. A later trend was for enormous cascade bouquets, often with a sprig of ivy, which we still see today. In either case, the bride-to-be would pore over the Language of Flowers before settling on her blooms.
High-Style Victorian Food
High Victorian wasn’t so much crumpets and scones as it was the food that even today we link with high society and indulgence. You know the drill: oysters, caviar, beef consommé, filet mignon, truffles, roast duck, foie gras, eclairs, brandy and fine wines. As the years crept forward toward the Edwardian Age, this food was typically served over an unthinkable number of courses, as in eight, ten or more.
Swanky Victorian Attire
Subtle Victorian touches for your wedding day attire could include a silk ribbon for your neck, a cameo necklace or brooch, a pearl choker, a sparkly beaded purse, or a pair of gloves. Of course, those who aren’t afraid to enter costume territory can buy beautiful reproduction Victorian wedding gowns complete with glorious bustles and white lace-up ankle boots. Add crocheted wrist-length gloves.
Victorian men dressed to the nines for formal occasions, wearing white shirts, white vests and white bowties. All this was topped off with a black tailcoat (sometimes referred to as an “ultraformal” traditional style tuxedo), a top hat and white gloves.
Think crisp white boxes tied up with brown satin ribbon, small beaded purses, decorative hand fans, tussie mussies, anything floral, anything ornate and pewter. The Victorians adored favors — the more complicated, the better — and used every excuse to hand them out, even at small parties.