I see a lot of brides on Facebook asking others if they should go with a traditional wedding gown or something different. First, I say do what you want. After all it is your wedding and you should choose what makes you feel the most confident and happy. Still, I understand how a bride can have that internal struggle. Chances are most of her childhood wedding dreams included a while dress. When making decisions about wedding traditions in a modern world, sometimes I think knowing about the history of those traditions can help a bride make the right choice for her.
I grew up thinking a white wedding dress was what women had always worn on a wedding day. That’s all I had seen, so why wouldn’t I think that. As it turns out, the history of the wedding dress, and the notion of the white wedding dress, is much shorter than the history of weddings or marriage.
The first time a wedding dress is even mentioned in history comes from an ancient Chinese myth 1,000’s of years old. To sum it up quickly, a princess marries a dragon-dog that became a man, Pan Hu. Her mother, the empress, dressed the princess in a beautiful Phoenix dress and Phoenix crown to ensure it was a lucky union. They had a happy family. When it came time for their own daughter to marry, a real Phoenix flew out of a mountain and presented the girl with the colorful phoenix dress all her own. Talk about an epic wedding story.
Regardless if you wear layers in ruffles of the white like most Western brides or this red Phoenix dresses still worn by brides in China today, the wedding dresses that we call "traditional" are relatively modern, regardless of where they come from.
Weddings outdate the wedding dress partly because marriage politics preceded love. Historically weddings were more like business deals and it wasn't so much a ceremony as signing an agreement. At the very least, they were not the exchanging of vows we are familiar with today. I won't go into the details I found about the ancient Babylonian marriage markets, but let's just say I'm glad that isn't acceptable today.
I did learn that we have no idea what these women wore at this market.
If you have looked at any wedding dress blogs, I'm sure you know that for the most of history, brides did not wear white. In ancient Rome marriages were celebrated with parties and banquets, and brides wore long veils of deep yellow. The yellow veil represented "the color of flame" and of the bride bringing light and warmth into their new family home. Ancient Athenian brides wore long violet robes cinched at the waist by a girdle. For the most part, the dresses were meant to be a symbolic representation of a passage from one stage of life to the next. However these colors were not required for brides to wear.
Now we go back to China, where wedding dresses were first mentioned. It is thought that China is possibly the first place where brides were expected to wear a particular color. 3000 years ago dynasty rulers instituted strict clothing laws that dictated what could be worn and when. These laws were based on profession, social status, gender, and occasion. Brides and bridegroom's both wore black robes with red trim. These rules were strict until about 200 BC and relaxed even more over the centuries. As time went on, a more relaxed social order and integration and cultural influence flowed from China to both Japan and Korea. These fashion influences can still be seen in some of the Japanese and Korean bridal fashions of today both in color and form. "Traditional Korean brides were also expected to embody a common theme and bridal fashion throughout the world which is the emulation of royalty. This is, in part, how Western brides came to wear white as well and in turn how a particular kind of white Western wedding dress began to colonize the weddings of the whole world."
Queen Victoria married Prince Albert in 1840 and wore a white gown. She is credited with being the main influence and reason that Western culture uses a white dress. However white-wedding dresses had been around in European culture before then. The earliest recorded instance of the white gown in Western culture is that of English princes Philippa at her wedding to the Scandinavian King Eric in 1406. In 1558, Mary Queen of Scots wore white during her wedding to the soon to be thing to France, and white remained popular but by no means obligatory colorful royal weddings. And contrary to popular belief, prior to Queen Victoria white did not symbolize purity or virginity. It symbolized wealth. It was costlier and harder to keep clean and it communicated the status and wealth of the wearer.
And still, even the wealthiest and most royal among these also wore gold or blue. If they were not rich or royal they simply wore what ever color their best dress happened to be. It wasn't until the 19th century that it was expected for a woman to wear her wedding dress only once and never again. Prior to that the idea would have been preposterous. Even Queen Victoria repurposed her own wedding dress and veil for subsequent use.( I'll add my own thoughts here and say most women today wouldn't even have an event to wear their wedding dress to if they wanted to wear it again. We don't quite have the balls and events that took place like the ones that occurred in Victorian England.) For most non-Royal women, if they did have a dress made especially for the wedding it would likely become her new Sunday best until it was worn out or the fashion changed beyond the powers of alteration.
All of this changed after the marriage of Queen Victoria. Not only because of the royal wedding and people wanting to emulate her, but a lot of these changes were somewhat because of the Industrial Revolution and a few technological advances. But the most notable influence was photography and the spread of illustrated magazines.
Illustrations of the Queen on her big day for widely distributed and young women sought to copy her wedding costume in any way they could. Even today, it is still considered the classic wedding silhouette all over the world, despite that the style was just like every other dress Queen Victoria wore at the time. Still her image was distributed throughout the British colonies around the world and it has persisted in popularity. Many Chinese brides will even take part in an elaborate wedding photo shoot while wearing a Western white dress, sometimes traveling abroad to Paris or New York for those pictures, even if she chooses a traditional Chinese dress for the actual ceremony.
Simply seeing a photograph/illustration of Queen Victoria’s gown wasn’t the only influence from photography. Brides of the Victorian era chose the light color because white gowns looked particularly good in photographs of the time. The whites stood out against the, sometimes muddy, new black and white images. They looked distinct and showcased the beauty of the bride. It is for this reason that by the 1940’s, women's magazines were telling brides that white was the best color for wedding dresses AND saying that it had always, for the history of weddings, been the best wedding dress color. Thanks to the Internet we know this isn't quite true but, nonetheless, it is imbedded in our culture and how we think a traditional wedding should look.
So, should you wear white? Well, I can’t answer that for you but maybe knowing that most brides actually didn’t wear white will help you choose that blush pink or light blue gown that is secretly your favorite. My favorite wedding dress is the one that makes my client feel like her best self because that is what comes across in her pictures and makes her love them.