Say Yes to the (White) Dress

Why do brides wear white wedding dresses in Western tradition? The answer involves a parade of British royalty, including Princess Philippa, Queen Victoria, and Princess Diana.

The earliest record of a bride wearing a white wedding dress was Princess Philippa of England when she married the Scandinavian King Eric in 1406. She wore a white silk tunic lined with squirrel and ermine fur.

In 1556, Mary, Queen of Scots, also wore a white wedding gown when she was married to Francis Dauphin of France, despite the fact that the French customarily wore white in mourning.

Up until the mid-nineteenth century, some wealthier brides had a new dress made for their wedding, sometimes white, but often gold or blue or heavily brocaded with silver thread. Those who were of more humble circumstances simply wore their best dress they already had in any color. At this time, red was a popular color in eastern Europe, black was common in Scandinavia, and those in America and western Europe often wore blue, yellow, brown, or gray. Wearing a white dress symbolized wealth and status, more than anything: white was a rare and expensive color before the mastery of bleaching techniques, and only the rich could afford an elaborate, impractical dress that would be costly to keep clean. Generally, women repurposed their wedding attire for formal occasions after the wedding. Before the industrial revolution and the mass production of textiles, it would have seemed absurd to wear any dress only once, even for the upper crust of society.

The Victorian Wedding Dress

In 1840, Queen Victoria married Prince Albert in a now-iconic white lace dress. It both reflected and set the fashions of the age—the champagne-colored dress, with an off-the-shoulder neckline, a tight bodice hugging the Queen’s natural waist, and a full skirt held out with petticoats was the height of style in the Victorian Era. It featured handmade Honiton lace from a small village called Beer, an attempt by Victoria to support the struggling lace industry in the country. Rather than wearing a jeweled tiara, the queen chose a crown of orange blossoms and myrtle, which would have been more reflective of a commoner’s wedding attire rather than that of an upper-class socialite. This elegant take on a simple style endeared Victoria to her subjects and made her seem more down-to-earth than other royals before her.

February 10, 1840: Queen Victoria and Prince Albert on their return from the marriage service at St James’s Palace, London. Original Artwork: Engraved by S Reynolds after F Lock. (Photo by Rischgitz/Getty Images)

With no elaborate jewelry, bright colors, or gold embroidery, Victoria’s wedding dress was a decided departure from queens and princesses who had gone before. Her wedding was frugal, comparatively speaking, and conveyed her good sense and prudence as a ruler as well as her love for Albert, uncluttered by heirloom jewels or fur trimmings.

Illustrations of the royal couple were widely circulated, and every newspaper column and women’s magazine reported on Victoria’s dress for months on end. Both British subjects and American onlookers were enraptured with the Queen, romanticizing her relationship with Albert as one of love and domestic bliss. As images of Queen Victoria’s wedding gown spread across Europe and North America, the upper classes began to copy her style. Many brides opted for white wedding dresses inspired by Victoria, often with embroidered silk, lace, or floral detailing.

Queen Victoria presented an image of simplicity and good taste with her bridal wear, but ironically, the white wedding dress became a symbol of conspicuous consumption. It caught on in society precisely because it was quite expensive for the average person. A white dress that would dirty easily through any kind of work or even the tasks of daily living would be impractical for all but the richest members of society.

The Wedding Register by Edmund Leighton, 1852, shows a bride in a Victorian-era wedding dress.

A Reversal of Values

In 1849, Godey’s Lady’s Book, a popular women’s magazine in the United States, claimed that “custom has decided, from the earliest ages, that white is the most fitting hue [for brides], whatever may be the material. It is an emblem of the purity and innocence of girlhood, and the unsullied heart she now yields to the chosen one.” This was a dubious claim to anyone who looked a little closer—white had very recently become the color of choice for wedding dresses, and it was clearly worn as a show of wealth rather than a symbol of purity.

The Virgin in Prayer by Giovanni Battista Salvi da Sassoferrato, c. 1640–1650.

In addition, at the time, the color blue rather than white was associated with purity and with the Virgin Mary. Mary was often depicted wearing a blue robe (which, as it happens, was because blue was the color worn by an empress in the Byzantine Empire). Up until white wedding dresses came into fashion, many women specifically chose to wear blue dresses because of their association with purity.

Godey’s Lady’s Book used some inaccurate history and creative hyperbole to promote the white wedding dress, and it’s clear that color symbolism is not always straightforward. However, the symbolism of the white dress did in fact shift to an association with purity and innocence. Though these values seem outdated to many today, they make sense in light of traditional cultural expectations of a young woman’s conduct before marriage.

Industry and War

With the industrial revolution and subsequent innovations in manufacturing, fashionable clothing in general became more available to the average person. Bleaching techniques allowed for the production of cheaper fabric in a true white color, rather than the cream or eggshell hues that were produced in the nineteenth century. Synthetic fibers, developed in the late 1800s and early 1900s, were also used to create cheaper and more durable clothing. Better laundering techniques allowed for washing and preserving white clothing for longer than ever before. All these advances allowed more women to buy a white wedding dress specifically for their wedding.

A wedding party in 1917 in Chicago, Illinois.
Image from Richard Arthur Norton family archives, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

It was not until the end of World War II that a white wedding dress was expected for most brides. Wartime rationing was over, and there was increased prosperity throughout the United States—what a delight it was to buy a nice dress to celebrate a special occasion! Hollywood movies also featured brides walking down the aisle in white, contributing to the color’s popularity.

The white wedding dress was thus recognized as tradition for all social classes in the mid-twentieth century, and white is the color of choice in many countries around the world, from Australia to Singapore to Italy. In fact, Chinese brides often pose for a wedding photoshoot in a Western-style white dress, then wear a traditional red dress on their actual wedding day.

Modern Trends

Actors, princesses, and other celebrities continue to influence wedding dress fashion in Europe and North America. Princess Diana’s elaborate, puffy-sleeved wedding gown reflected the trends in 1981, and Duchess Kate Middleton’s lace sleeves became wildly popular after her wedding in 2011. Major designers immediately scrambled to emulate the royal wedding dresses in their own designs.

Around the 1960s, some brides began to wear more colorful frocks, largely inspired by Elizabeth Taylor’s green, yellow, and rainbow wedding dresses (she was married eight separate times). Today, a small subset of brides wear colored or black dresses or even floral prints. Though colored dresses continue to become more common, none of these trends has yet gained enough momentum to displace the white wedding dress, and the white dress remains engraved in the popular idea of a wedding in the Western world.

Extra Credit: Watch 100 Years of Fashion: Wedding Dresses for fascinating look at wedding dresses in the past century.

Sources

Brennan, Summer. “A Natural History of the Wedding Dress.” September 27, 2017. JSTOR Daily. https://daily.jstor.org/a-natural-history-of-the-wedding-dress/.

Komar, Marlen. “Why So Many Brides Wear White on Their Wedding Day.” February 8, 2019.  CNN. https://www.cnn.com/style/article/history-white-wedding-dress-royal-wedding/index.html.

Sanusi, Tayi. “The Reason Brides Wear White on Their Wedding Day Might Surprise You.” October 29, 2019. Elite Daily. https://www.elitedaily.com/p/the-reason-brides-wear-white-on-their-wedding-day-might-surprise-you-19274189.

“Wedding Dress.” Wikipedia. Retrieved January 16, 2021, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wedding_dress.

“White Wedding.” Wikipedia. Retrieved January 16, 2021, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/White_wedding.

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