Trousseau is a French word that translates loosely as bundle. Generally, the word meant and still means to an extent, the collection of clothing, linens, and lingerie that a bride would gather together before her wedding. An elaborate trousseau would include new clothes for the honeymoon, table, bed and bath linens. More simple trousseaux might simply be a supply of new or mended clothing, and whatever the bride could gather to prepare to be a homemaker.
The modern trousseau is usually not so extensive. Instead, bridal showers may gift the bride with kitchen supplies, bed and bath linens and lingerie. Clothes, except for the wedding dress and perhaps “going away” outfits aren’t always new, and some brides do not take honeymoons. Many brides are already outfitted with plenty of supplies for a home, and don’t require much in the way of gifts to help in running a household.
The trousseau reached its height of popularity in the Victorian era, with most middle to upper class women thinking it would be unfit to enter a marriage without one. Even before the mid-19th century, references in literature to marriages and clothing abound. In Pride and Prejudice for instance, Mrs. Bennet remarks on how her daughter Lydia’s elopement and subsequent marriage to Mr. Wickham is most disgraceful since Mr. Bennet refuses to allow any funds to purchase new clothing. “She was more alive to the disgrace which the want of new clothes must reflect on her daughter's nuptials, than to any sense of shame at her eloping and living with Wickham a fortnight before they took place.” A want of clothing, to Mrs. Bennet, nearly invalidates Lydia’s marriage.
Mrs. Bennet’s reflections place the trousseau, though a bit exaggerated by Jane Austen, in its important light. For many women, preparing what they would bring to a marriage, often begun prior to any engagement was a rite of passage that allowed a woman to enter a marriage with her head held up. This view of requiring clothing continued into the 20th century, and there are again plenty of literary allusions to it. Occasionally, men of fortune purchased trousseaux for fiancées in lower socioeconomic circumstances. Maxim De Winter, in Daphne Du Maurier’s 1938 novel Rebecca reflects that he and his wife should have stopped in London so she could purchase more clothes.
However, as we approach the modern era, the trousseau becomes less common, except among the very wealthy. Formal marriage visits, second day dresses, such as that worn by Scarlett O’Hara on the day after her first marriage, are for the most part socially unimportant. The cedar chest, once the repository for the woman’s new clothing and linen has become a nice piece of furniture for storing things, not necessarily those things related to a woman’s marriage.
The change in the importance of the trousseau perhaps reflects the more modern and equal standing between genders. More choices exist, such as never getting married, and a woman may enter a marriage with plenty of assets. Most importantly, what she needs to bring to a marriage, love, compassion, honor, and friendship, can’t be finely sewn and packed in an attractive box. Further, a husband must enter a marriage with the same things. As genders are more equal, men often take as active a role as women in choosing things for a house and helping to purchase all the supplies needed for running a household. Thus the trousseau has had its heyday, but has been replaced in the main by the more intangible “bundles” of thoughtful emotion that should enter a marriage, and be brought by both partners in a relationship.