Nicola here. Last night we had dinner with my mother-in-law and when I admired the beautiful, hand-embroidered table mats, she told me that she had made them in 1961 as part of her trousseau. That made me think; I hadn’t heard that word in such a long time and I have always loved the sound of it. And I also wondered whether people still had a trousseau or if it was another thing that has gone out of fashion.
The definition of “trousseau” is the clothes, linen, and other belongings collected by a bride for her marriage but originally the trousseau was the box itself. It’s also known as a hope chest or dowry chest, glory box or “bottom drawer.” It’s this last term that I remember from when I was growing up. My grandmother used to refer to putting things in your bottom drawer for when you got married, but by the time I married in the later 1980s things had changed!
The “cassone” of medieval Europe were large, decorated chests like the one in teh picture that were extremely valuable in themselves and were a part of the dowry of a bride from a rich and/or aristocratic family. Elizabetta Gonzaga of Mantua and Guidobaldo da Montefeltro, Duke of Urbino, were betrothed in 1486 and married in 1488. In an inventory of Elisabetta’s trousseau corredo, compiled around 25th February 1488 was recorded: ‘Venti forzieri, dieci lavorati d’oro, dieci depinti a la divisa’ (twenty chests, ten gilded, ten painted with heraldic arms/devices" which included the flames of love. This was a trousseau on a very grand scale both in terms of the boxes and their contents!
The basic form of the trousseau chest was large and rectangular and the majority were made of wood. They were a practical piece of furniture as well as a means of transporting a bride’s goods to her new home. Once in place, they could continue to be used to store items and the flat top provided a surface that could be used as a bench or small table. Some had drawers in as well for extra storage. Often a smaller, special box was included inside for makeup and jewellery. In some countries such as Holland and Germany, the chests were tall with double doors and shelves inside, again so that they could be used as cupboards after the marriage. This Dutch version is now in a museum.
Trousseaux chests were often highly decorated. As well as the elaborate gilding on the medieval casson, wooden chests might be carved or painted. Painting was particularly common in Scandinavian countries and also in the Arab traditions. Flat chests were well suited to storing blankets, table and bed linens, and clothes as well in the days before wardrobes. And so the term trousseau changed from being the box itself to the contents: anything that a woman of any level of society might have collected and set aside ahead of her marriage. Traditionally this might also include mattresses, pillows, quilts,curtains and towels, especially those that were home made or hand-embroidered.
There was however, always a great emphasis on clothes. We are fortunate enough to have a complete trousseau list for a lady of the Georgian period from the poet Robert Southey in his Commonplace Book. First there is the lady’s gowns – four different gowns in black, pink, gold and white, then a pink lutestring petticoat, a velvet scarf and hood, two aprons one of which was pink and the other embroidered, two pairs of silk stockings, two pairs of shoes, a Turkey handkerchief, four fans and a watch. In terms of underwear there was a set of Brussels lace night clothes and another set of Mechlin lace, a Paris cap, a number of mop caps and ruffles and tippets and other lace items. There were also plainer aprons in cambric and lawn.
This was relatively modest; by the mid-Victorian era the aristocratic rule was that a trousseau should include “a dozen of everything” and in 1877 Tatler denounced this extravagance with the words “the trousseau with all its horrors rises before you… It’s Monstrous proportions indicate a Giant Horror from which you will shrink back, appalled.” It was now not uncommon to spend months on a shopping spree of epic proportions in the lead up to the wedding.
Whilst the British felt that the trousseau was best kept in the bottom drawer, or drawers, in France it was the custom to spread out all the trousseau items on view at the wedding feast, including the petticoats and stockings. Paris fashions were of course considered the finest, as demonstrated when Frances Folsom married Grover Cleveland in Washington in 1886, having purchased all her trousseau in Paris. For British royals however it was important to be patriotic. Princess May of Teck commented that “we get trousseau things sent to us on approval from all parts of England, Scotland and Ireland…” Her “bottom drawer” had to be big enough for 40 outdoor suits, 15 ball gowns, 5 tea gowns, bonnets, shoes and gloves unnumbered.
By the 1930s The Brides’ Book or Young Housewife’s Compendium, designed for a more modest wedding, decreed that the rule of “a dozen of everything” should now apply to all trousseau items – but that you should make your own silk and lace nightdresses, bed jackets, chemises and knickers. Heaven help those women who had no talent for needlework! I would have had a tiny and badly-made trousseau!
With such trousseau-inflation for the middle classes, the upper classes had to increase theirs to compete. Sonia Keppel, daughter of a friend of King Edward VII, had three dozen night gowns, petticoats etc, a dozen pairs of evening and day shoes, six pairs of stays, evening and day dresses and endless other outfits with silver lace and silver lamé, plus a pink satin peignoir trimmed with ostrich feathers and grey cap trimmed with ospreys!
The trousseau was going out of fashion the 1970s in England but I’ll finish with a wonderful list from a fashionable girl’s honeymoon trousseau from 1973:
12 pairs of tights, 1 bra, 2 packs of paper panties, 1 pair of suede lace up to the knee boots with platform soles, 2 trouser suits, 1 pair of blue jeans, 2 skinny knit sweaters, 1 beach outfit, 1 mini skirt, 1 ankle length granny dress for day wear and one slightly longer and “barer” dress for evening wear.
Her husband’s trousseau meanwhile, consisted of 1 lace shirt, 2 lace trimmed shirts, a hand-embroidered Japanese kimono, and six pairs of stretch bikini brief underpants “ranging in colour from sky-blue with flowers to fire engine red”!
Did you have a hope chest or a bottom drawer, or did someone in your family have one and can you remember those items that went into it, either clothing or other special household items? Has the idea of the trousseau gone out of fashion and should it be revived – for both men and women?