June 22, 2018

It has already been a month since the Royal Wedding, and the internet has been abuzz ever since with talk of The Dress. Meghan looked beautiful, and the classic, elegant simplicity of her dress is already catching on. But with all the talk of how the wedding both followed and broke from tradition, I decided to look at the Royal Wedding that created one of the biggest bridal traditions in Western history: the white dress.

Today, in most Western countries, brides wear white – or some variation on white, like ivory. Of course, some brides wear color (my mom and grandmother wore blue and purple), but the assumption is usually that the bride will appear at the end of the aisle in a virginal white gown. Brides in various cultures have worn white for centuries – Hopi and Shinto brides traditionally wear white, for example – but the significance of the color is culturally and historically specific. White and red symbolize purity in Shinto, but in Europe, white was once a color of mourning.

{Hopi bride. Anna May, daughter of Chief of Old Oraibi, by Joseph Howard McGibbeny}

In 1840, when Queen Victoria of England married Prince Albert, European bridal fashion was not color coded. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, factories did not exist – and neither did the idea of making a dress that would be worn for a few hours and then tucked away forever. Brides of all social classes just got married in their best dress, whether it was blue or gold or orange. Even if they did have a dress specially made for their wedding, they would be sure to wear it again for other occasions.

{Engraving of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert}

So how did white become so popular?

The historical connection between money and marriage is vast and complex and could provide enough material for several books, let alone a blog post. But suffice it to say that, as much as Victorians idealized romantic love, upper-class marriages in Victorian England were primarily financial settlements between families. Dowries and entailments were commonplace, and heirs were a matter of huge consideration. And Queen Victoria’s wedding was not just an upper-class marriage, either – it was a Royal Wedding, an occasion that called for extravagance of the highest degree. For centuries, royal brides had used their wedding as an opportunity to impress the groom with the wealth of their country. Margaret of York reputedly wore a gown so heavily encrusted with jewels that she could not walk under the weight of the dress and had to be carried into the church.

Queen Victoria was genuinely in love with Prince Albert, however, and she wanted her wedding to be about two star-crossed lovers uniting in holy matrimony rather than two monarchs forming a political and economic alliance. She wanted to look like herself. So she decided to appear in a relatively simple lace-trimmed ball gown after the style of the day, with a wreath of orange blossoms in her hair (boho brides rejoice!). And the color was – you guessed it! White!

{Queen Victoria’s Dress}

Actually, the dress was technically ivory or champagne, because it was not yet possible to create pure white silk. But close enough.

The dress sent several messages. The Queen looked prudent and practical, which was a plus for monarchs in the decades following the French Revolution. Her flower crown was a hit with poorer women, who often wore wreaths of flowers when they could not afford expensive veils. The lace in the dress championed England’s Honiton lace industry, which was going through a rough patch. But most importantly, despite all its understatement, the dress still made Queen Victoria look grand and regal, as she was expected to.

Because white was for aristocrats only. White dresses were for swooning onto fainting couches and waltzing through fancy ballrooms, not doing dirty chores like laundry or cooking or fieldwork. The primitive bleaching techniques of the day made white fabric expensive to produce. And in the event that a dainty Victorian lady should drop a spoonful of trifle or a finger sandwich upon her pristine ivory dress, there was no Shout to get the stain out. Only an aristocrat with a full team of servants could buy and maintain a white dress.

Throughout human history, royals have been the ultimate trendsetters, and Queen Victoria was no exception. Her dress was heavily reported on and emulated throughout Europe and the British Empire, which at that point included territories in the West Indies, North America, Australia, New Zealand, the Mediterranean, India, and various parts of Africa. And, as photography became more and more popular, the white, poofy ball gown became even more of an international sensation. White stood out in the muddy haze of sepia-toned photographs.

As for the connection between white and virginity? The Victorians loved to moralize, and feminine purity was their favorite subject. In 1849, Godey’s Lady’s Book, the Victorian VOGUE, declared that “Custom has decided, from the earliest ages, that white is the most fitting hue, whatever may be the material. It is an emblem of the innocence and purity of girlhood, and the unsullied heart which she now yields to the keeping of the chosen one.”

But whatever the reason behind the white wedding gown, white dresses are undeniably beautiful, luxurious, and elegant, and every bride deserves to feel that way on her big day.

Thanks for reading,