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Here comes the bride

Photo by bach hanzo on Pexels.com
A white bridal gown

Why are wedding dresses white?

One of the first images that springs to mind when we think about weddings is the white bridal dress. Although our society is no longer son strictly bound by cultural norms, the traditional white wedding dress is still overwhelmingly chosen by many Western brides. But where and when did brides start wearing white ?

Before the white wedding dress

Before the white wedding dress, that is, prior to the 1840’s, there was no predominant colour for a wedding dress. Brides wore coloured dresses, or even black, as the dress would probably have been used afterwards for social gatherings, and white would not have been a practical choice. Even royal brides wore coloured wedding gowns, although with the addition of luxurious furs and expensive jewellery.

Until Queen Victoria’s wedding.

Queen Victoria married Prince Albert on 10th February, 1840. She made an unusual choice to get married in a white silk-satin dress, trimmed with lace. She chose British fabric in order to boost the ailing lace industry and the fabric manufacturing trade. The silk was from Spitalfields and the lace from Honiton and Beer, in Devon. Instead of a donning the heavy robes of a monarch, she attached a white satin train to her dress and held an orange blossom and myrtle wreath , along with orange blossom in her hair instead of a crown. The image below shows Victoria and Albert’s wedding ceremony , in a part of a painting by George Hayter.

A section of George Hayter’s portrait of Victoria and Albert’s wedding.

Victoria’s choice of attire was groundbreaking. The fashionable colour for wedding dresses at the time was actually red and a royal bride was expected to be decked out in a heavy, brocaded robes of state that showed status and wealth. A comparable event today would be a royal bride walking down the aisle in a blue or red wedding dress, for example. Some members of the court criticised Victoria’s sartorial choice as insipid and excessively simple, expecting to see much more lavish jewelley and expensive materials. However, Victoria had her reasons. It is thought that the lack of pomp and circumstance served to show her reign would not be flamboyant but based on simplicity and good sense, along with the promotion of national craftsmanship in the dress itself.

Of course, reports and pictures of Victoria’s wedding and her dress were widespread for several months after the event. Before long, wealthy brides were getting married in white dresses with orange blossom additions. In 1849, Godey’s Lady Book, a forerunner of a modern fashion magazine, declared that white was the best colour for a bride, “as an emblem of the purity and innocence of girlhood.” In addition, the publication incorrectly claimed that a white wedding dress was an ancient tradition that represented virginity, something that resonated with the public, even though it was not true.

And so began the association of the colour white with the virginal bride, although the choice of white also denoted that the bride’s family had the financial means to afford a dress in an impractical colour which could not be easily cleaned. The same went for the fabrics used in the bridal gown – the more luxurious the fabric, the wealthier the family. By the end of the 19th century white wedding dresses were the norm for brides who had money, whereas the less financially well-off would simply wear their best dress or suit in whatever colour they had. During the Second World War some brides actually wore wedding dresses made from parachute silk. But when better times arrived after the war and with white weddings portrayed on the silver screen, the whole concept of a white wedding became part and parcel of Western culture.

April 2011

Catherine Middleton on her wedding day in April, 2011

When Kate Middleton married Prince William on April 29th, 2011, there were several nods to the precedents set by Queen Victoria. Kate’s dress in itself had a Victorian line, with a tight bodice and long, full skirt. The lacework on the silk was created by needlewomen, not machines. The dress was made completely from British fabric, with only one exception which was French Chantilly lace. Myrtle was used in Kate’s bouquet, just like Victoria’s.

Victoria’s legacy

The Royal Family have access to great wealth and privilege, but a white wedding is something that many of us are familiar with. Nowadays we have access to a huge variety of options for wedding ceremonies – under the sea, in a hot air balloon – where a flowing wedding dress is not exactly practical. We can dress in any way or any colour we like. But a huge majority of women still opt for the white wedding dress – or ivory or cream or ecru or eggshell. Although other royals may have worn white for their wedding ceremonies before Victoria, it is her influence that has given us the modern white wedding dress. I wonder what she would make of the backless, strapless and off the shoulder versions ?

By paulinell

I am an EFL teacher, examiner, Spanish to English translator and English-stuff is my blog on English history, culture and language.

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