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Driely S.

The Royal History of the White Wedding Dress

It's been a nice day for a white wedding for less than 200 years.

You want to get married in a bright purple wedding gown? A) You love Dita von Teese? Me too! And B) throughout most of history, no one would have batted an eye at your choice. The notion that white symbolized purity, or that wedding gowns in particular were supposed to be white, is an idea that dates only as far back as 1840.

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Queen Victoria is associated with more fashionable trends—like diamond rings or wearing black in mourning—than any other single figure I can think of. That’s kind of bizarre, because she was not a woman who cared a great deal about fashion. But, no matter, of course she was the first woman to popularize the white wedding dress.

It would be like if Kate Middleton showed up at her wedding wearing a white shift dress and was like, "Hey, guys, I made this myself!"

A white wedding dress which, when she wore it to marry Prince Albert, no one really liked, by the way. She designed her ivory gown herself, and it was considered incredibly sedate and incredibly boring. There was nothing wrong with it, but it would be like if Kate Middleton showed up at her wedding wearing a white shift dress and was like, "Hey, guys, I made this myself!" (The historical equivalent of the people who would find this idea appealing were exactly the people who were into Queen Victoria’s wedding dress.)

The dress’s simplicity was a marked contrast to what people were used to seeing at royal weddings. They would have expected elaborate jewels, ermine trimmed robes and generally silver gowns. The fact that the fabric was woven with silver—or sometimes gold—thread wasn’t meant to indicate that the bride was virginal. It was meant to indicate that the bride came from an extremely wealthy family. So wealthy, in fact, that her family was literally making her a dress out of money.

victoria luvs albert

Queen Victoria's wedding to Prince Albert in 1840. Image: Getty Images

Queen Victoria didn’t even wear a crown. She wore orange blossoms in her hair and a piece of lace made in Devonshire. It was all about boosting the lace economy in England, and showing that thrift was a good conservative value. Her simplicity of dress also went along with her saying that she was going to make her vows just as Albert’s future bride, not as the most powerful woman in the world. So it was inspired by a lot of really sensible reasons that made Queen Victoria a great ruler, if not exactly your number one person to go out and get martinis with. Do not pretend for a second that it would not be 40,000 times more fun to go out drinking with Marie Antoinette.

But if people were a little disappointed that Queen Victoria’s dress wasn’t more extravagant, then no one expected the white dress trend to catch on to the extent it has. If a bride couldn’t afford to have her dress made out of silver or gold threads, yellow or blue or even red were common choices around the 1840s. That’s because the dresses were expected to be re-worn for social events. Doing that was a lot harder if you picked a fabric that was almost 100% certain to stain. In 1850, a wedding bill cited in Courtship and Marriage in Victorian England by Jennifer Phegley stated:

Of what use is the costly white silk bridal dress, which in all human probability will never in its original state be worn again? It will, of course, be laid up carefully, and looked at occasionally with tender sentimental interest; but by-and-by, in a year or two, it will seem old-fashioned, and most probably be picked to pieces and dyed some serviceable color.

That did actually happen! A lot! Dyeing the dresses made it easier for brides to keep wearing their dresses to events after they were married. In her novel, The Age Of Innocence, set in the 1870s, Edith Wharton writes:

As on that evening, she was all in white; and Archer, who had not noticed what she wore, recognised the blue-white satin and old lace of her wedding dress. It was the custom, in old New York, for brides to appear in this costly garment during the first year or two of marriage.

But the fact that it stained easily it didn’t stop people from buying white dresses. In large part that was because Lady Godey’s Book, the Vogue of its day, was all for the dress. The editor, Sarah J. Hale (who, as a weird bit of trivia, got the President to turn Thanksgiving into a national holiday 1863—the lady had influence) told every unmarried woman they needed one. In 1850, Lady Godey’s wrote 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 purity and innocence of girlhood, and the unsullied heart she now yields to the chosen one."

queen v's dress

Queen Victoria's dress on display in 2012. Photo: Getty Images

It’s worth pointing out that Lady Godey’s Book was the equivalent of a lady’s magazine that idolized Kate Middleton, but with Queen Victoria. They loved every single thing she did and thought she was perfect. So, of course they loved her wedding dress. And they kept loving it as Victoria and Albert kept dressing up in their wedding regalia to have pictures and illustrations taken for years after their actual wedding.

Fun fact! When Lady Godey’s printed illustrations of Albert, they removed his moustache, because they didn’t like it. That strikes me as a bit like if editors just decided to photo-shop a beard onto Prince William in every issue because they thought it would make him look cooler.

"The girl who arranges to be married in any color but white takes a sure means of making her bridal doings talked about as savouring of eccentricity."

Other guides for brides soon fell in line. In 1865 The Etiquette of Courtship and Matrimony claimed, "A Bride’s costume should be white, or some hue as close as possible to it. Fawn color, gray and lavender are entirely out of fashion." John Cordy Jeaffreson, who wrote Brides and Bridals in 1872 also noted that, "the girl who arranges to be married in any color but white takes a sure means of making her bridal doings talked about as savouring of eccentricity."

They still would be, today, likely. But if your dream is to wear a giant purple dress, don’t let that stop you. All you have to do is get Anna Wintour’s blessing, and we can turn this whole thing around.

Jennifer Wright is the author of It Ended Badly: The 13 Worst Break-Ups in History, due out fall 2015. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

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