Rites of Passage

Women of the Confederation Generation marked major changes in their lives, such as marriage, childbirth and the death of loved ones, with ceremonies or rituals. The clothing they wore played a central role in honouring the important milestones of life.


Full length wedding portrait of Josephine Maud Spencer and Doctor Alexander McTaggart, with the best man and the bridesmaid, London, Ontario

Full length wedding portrait of Josephine Maud Spencer and Doctor Alexander McTaggart, with the best man and the bridesmaid, London, Ontario 1884, Photo © CMH

Marriage was often the most celebrated event in a woman’s life, as it symbolized her transformation from a young woman to an adult and wife. Wedding attire and a woman’s trousseau — possessions that a bride assembled for married life, such as clothing and linens — were essential components in her preparation for marriage. During the mid-nineteenth century, most brides did not wear white, but instead had a fine dress produced in a favourite colour, which would later be used as a trousseau dress and beyond. By the late nineteenth century, the tradition of marrying in white had become established.

The dress worn by Josephine Maud McTaggart (née Spencer), at her 1884 wedding to Dr. Alexander McTaggart in London, Ontario, is an example of the wealth and finery that was often displayed by families of prominent social standing. Josephine’s gown incorporated elements of high fashion, with its exquisite ivory silk fabric, elaborate bustle and train. She also wore a long white veil, wedding shoes and a special corset and petticoat for the event. Components of a wedding ensemble were often cherished garments that were passed down, as was the case with this outfit: Josephine’s wedding veil was worn by her daughter Cecelia McTaggart at her own wedding in 1921.


Childbirth was typically the next major event in a woman’s life. Although a time of great pride, pregnancy was quite a private affair for women and their families, as demonstrated in the corsets and clothing worn to conceal swelling bellies. There was no maternity wear, so middle-class women typically altered their existing wardrobes or covered themselves using long shawls. Few garments with widened waistlines remain, because it was more economical to return a garment back to its original size. An informal wrap dress from Lindsay, Ontario, however, with its loose-fitting waist, suggests that the informal dresses worn by the lady of the house in the morning also could have been worn at home during pregnancy.


Baroness MacDonald of Earnscliffe and daughter Mary, Ottawa, Ont., May 1893

Baroness MacDonald of Earnscliffe and daughter Mary, Ottawa, Ont. May 1893, Photo © CMH

When women experienced the loss of loved ones, they often mourned by dressing in black dresses, usually made or decorated with crape fabric that was devoid of lustre or frivolity, following the example set by Queen Victoria after the death of her husband, Prince Albert, in 1861. Hair jewellery, as seen in Sir John A. Macdonald’s family collection, was either made of, or contained, locks of hair. “In Memory of N.S.” was engraved on a ring worn by Mrs. Nicholas Sparks after her husband passed away in 1862, and his hair is woven around it. The medieval origins of the hair jewellery tradition lie in its use for mourning. During the Victorian period, however, it was also produced for special events, including engagements and weddings. The crafting of jewellery, pictures, baskets and ornaments made of hair later became a popular pastime for ladies.

This exquisite ivory silk wedding dress was worn by Josephine Maud Spencer at her marriage to Alexander McTaggart in London, Ontario in 1884. The boned bodice, closed with eighteen buttons covered in figured silk, would have fit over her corset like a glove. Silk tulle ruffles and bows decorate the neck and the sleeves. The generous skirt, cut to fit over a bustle, is decorated with a gorgeous panel of silk plush, finished with a pleated frill.