We have a lot of wedding-related things in our collections: not only gowns, but also accessories, photos, hymnals, presents, and even a few cake-toppers. What we, and many other museums, lack is the men’s side of the story. There are various reasons for this lamentable fact, and the first draft of this post went into some detail, but let’s sum up for now with “Americans don’t get very attached to the groom’s outfit” (remember, today it’s often a rental) and head straight to one of the few groom-related artifacts in our collections.
These silk and leather suspenders, embroidered in wool, represent a fashion which should be brought back immediately, because they are fabulous. They were worn by Washington Irvin of Baltimore upon his marriage to Mary Florence Hamilton, in either 1874 or 1880. His daughter, Florence Irvin Wright of Kensington, donated them in the 1970s, along with her mother’s wedding shoes; some years later Mrs. Wright’s own daughter added the plaster “Good Luck” horseshoe from the wedding cake. The Irvins have defeated my armchair genealogy skills, so I haven’t been able to confirm the wedding date, about which mother and daughter disagreed.
Berlin wool work is a type of needlepoint defined more by the materials than by the technique. Berlin wool, a soft embroidery floss, was developed in Germany in the early 1800s; it was hard-wearing, brightly dyed, and suitable for functional pieces. In the mid 19th century patterns for Berlin work cushions, bags, bell-pulls, slippers, and suspenders were published in women’s magazines (such as the image below, from Godey’s Lady’s Book, 1867) and sold as single sheets. The designs, often floral pictures, were worked on canvas in cross-stitch, tent-stitch, or other variations. Mr. Irvin’s suspenders are a repeating (and mirrored) floral pattern in tent-stitch, worked on silk net.
Embroidered suspenders were fashionable in the mid to late 19th century, and surviving examples are often (though not always) associated with weddings or other special occasions. The groom did not saunter down the aisle with his colorful accessories on view, however; suspenders were support garments and, technically, underwear. My favorite description of the fancy-suspender trend comes from The History of Underclothes by C. Willett and Phillis Cunningham, published in 1951:
“1857-1866. At about this period braces [British for "suspenders"] embroidered in Berlin woolwork of many colours came into notice. What is remarkable about them, apart from their colours, is the fact that they were so often worked by young ladies and given as presents to the sterner sex; this at a time when prudery forbade the mention of the garments to which they were destined to be fastened. Perhaps we should regard them as symbols of a secret attachment.”
Mrs. Wright knew only that “someone made them for [my father] to wear” – for the sake of his bride’s sensibilities, let’s hope that she herself did the needlework for her future husband.