A History of the White Wedding Dress

As a little girl and later as a mature woman, when we imagine the day that we marry, most of us see a vision in frothy white gliding down an aisle. Why is it that most women and men associate wedding gowns with the color white? I am currently a member of a few different wedding websites and a very regular topic of conversation is the “White Wedding Dress.” So often women are concerned or confused as to why they look for and wear a white dress or even if they should. Other women feel constrained by the feeling that they are REQUIRED to wear a white dress rather than the bright colors they would love to wear. Reds, purples, greens, and blues all used to be regularly acceptable colors for wedding dresses that now seem forbidden.

Purity & Virginity
One of the major falsities of the idea of the white wedding dress is that the color white indicates some sort of purity or virginity. Some people try to make the color of the wedding dress important in regards to religious or sexual purity. This has not always been the case. In the past, women wore dresses that were practical and could be worn again. There was a poem that “assisted” young ladies in choosing wedding dress colors:

“Married in white, you will have chosen all right. Married in grey , you will go far away. Married in black, you will wish yourself back. Married in red, you’ll wish yourself dead. Married in blue, you will always be true. Married in pearl, you’ll live in a whirl. Married in green, ashamed to be seen, Married in yellow, ashamed of the fellow. Married in brown, you’ll live out of town. Married in pink, your spirits will sink.”

From this poem, we can see that white, grey, blue, brown, and pearl were all considered acceptable colors while having different meanings. Never once was it indicated that the wearing of white meant that the wearer was pure. In fact, blue was the chosen color of purity (due to its Biblical references) while white indicated joy. Blue was a quite popular wedding dress color for many years.

There is also a decided “creep factor” in supposedly announcing to the entire world a woman’s sexual experience or lack thereof. The man is not required to announce his sexual experience publicly. If we really wanted to make a public service announcement about the status of the bride’s virginity, why not just hang a sign around her neck? It seems it would be much easier and less controversial.

Traditional Wedding Dress Color
Another reason people give to the white wedding dress is that it is and always has been the traditional color of wedding dresses. This is also false. In the past, women have worn dresses that could be easily altered to be worn again. This typically included colors that were not white. Philippa of England, Queen of Denmark, Sweden and Norway from 1406 to 1430, was the very first documented woman to wear white on her wedding day. Both previous and after Philippa would wear dresses that were easier to clean and re-wear. White was worn again as a wedding dress by Anne of Brittany in 1499 for her marriage to the French King Luis XII. Even though white had been worn by a few royals, it was not a typical wedding dress color.

Black Wedding Dress

In 1840, white became a popular wedding dress color after the marriage of Queen Victoria to Albert of Saxe-Coburg. She wore a white wedding dress so that she could incorporate some expensive handmade lace she owned, as well as to show how fabulously rich she was (she would never wear the dress again, a huge waste during the time period). The official photograph of the wedding was widely circulated, thus many other brides who were rich enough to afford a white dress during this time period wore white dresses in honor of the Queen.

Queen Victoria's Wedding 10-Feb-1840

After 1840, white became a staple color for wedding dresses, especially by the 1890’s and the arrival of the department store. Now the white wedding dress could be afforded by more than just the noble rich. In 1890, Ladies Home Journal wrote: “That from times immemorial the bride’s gown has been white.” The truth was that white had only been a popular wedding dress color for 50 years, and this was only amoung the rich. A typcial bride would never imagine buying a dress she could not wear again. White stayed a popular wedding dress color choice until the start of World War I in 1914, 24 years laterr. During this time most women wore much more practical dresses – whatever their best dress was at the time.

Ivory Wedding Gown 1870-1880 (front)

Ivory Wedding Gown 1870-1880 (back)

Olive Silk Taffeta Wedding Gown 1883-1884

Olive Silk Taffeta Wedding Gown 1883-1884 (back)

In 1920, Coco Channel introduced the short (knee length) white wedding dress – and so white again became a part of the culture of weddings.

1920s Coco Chanal Inspired Wedding Dress

1920s Flapper Wedding Dress back

1920s Wedding Party

The Depression after WWI and then the following WWII made the white wedding dress simply a dream for the majority of women. The elaborate white wedding dress was still for only the fabulously rich so everyone else made due with the best that they had. Even the majority of women who could afford a white wedding dress would chose something that could be easily dyed to a different, wearable color.

1950 Cecil Chapman Wedding Gown

1940s blue Wedding Gown

In the 1950’s the world got a lot smaller – there were over 10 million TV sets in the United States alone. People across the world were able to watch royalty and movie stars get married in elaborate white dresses, so the tradition of the white wedding dress for everyone was born.

Today, brides are slowly throwing off society’s pressure to constrain their imagination. Weddings are becoming more “offbeat” and individual. No longer are traditional weddings and wedding dresses the norm. If a bride wants to wear white, no longer do we try to figure out if she is “eligible” for the color based on her sexual experience. Brides are wearing colors – by personal choice – again, and while white is still an option it is no longer the only option.

Freudian Slip Vintage (Vintage Inspired)

Vera Wang

Kindred Spirits

Vera Wang

Aimee Atelier Wedding Gown

Vera Wang

Photo Credits:
Posh Girl Vintage
Timeless Vixen Vintage
Antique Dress.com
Decolish.com
Freudian Slip Vintage
Kindred Spirits
Atelier Aimée

Notes:
“Wedding Dress” Wikipedia
“The History of the White Wedding Dress” By Kelsey McIntyre
“The History of the White Wedding Dress” By Reno Charlton

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