In the immortal Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, the thoughtless and immature Lydia gets a shotgun wedding. Her mother is shocked and appalled that her husband will not provide money for the wedding clothes, without which—and I quote—”her marriage would scarcely seem valid” (Austen, chapter 50).
So by all means, let’s make this historical wedding valid by discussing the history of the wedding dress.
It is somewhat astonishing, given how many historical references there are to this or that person getting hitched or being married, how very few descriptions there are of the bride’s clothes. Is this because most brides couldn’t afford a special dress for her wedding day? Is this because the sources were mostly written by men, who are not famous for their ability to describe a woman’s outfit? Or because the wedding was really not as important as the betrothal, so who cares what you wear to the actual ceremony (if any)? Some other reason? I don’t know.
The point is that the Bible (which is already questionable as a true historical source, but still really, really old) has not a single description of an actual wedding. People tie the matrimonial knot left, right, and center all the way through, but the actual ceremony never gets a mention. So no word on ancient Hebrew brides.
Greek brides wore veils, but little is said about the rest of her ensemble. One source says her dress was often violet or reddish (Hague, 33).
The Wedding Dress in Ancient Rome
In Rome, one deﬁning feature of a bride was not her dress, but her hair. It should be divided into 6 portions, each of which was braided. We know less about those braids (for which there is only one reference), than we do about the styling tool used to create it (the hasta caelibaris). The word hasta means spear, which made me wonder just how big this thing was, but on further investigation, it’s just a hairpin. (Hersch, 73). There is a great deal of controversy over whether brides wore this hairstyle because the Vestal Virgins did it or vice versa. And there’s also a theory that the six braids was the standard hairstyle of a Roman matron, so a bride wore it to signal that she was no longer a girl, but a married woman. (Hersch, 74-76). All I know for sure is that Roman history covers about 1000 years and quite a few ethnicities. I doubt that all brides did it or did it for the same reasons. Certainly not all the matrons depicted in surviving Roman art are wearing six braids.
Roman brides also wore veils, but the controversy continues here. They are mentioned from the beginning to the end of Roman history, but the color? Ooh, tricky. The color word used by Pliny the Elder was luteum, and elsewhere he described an egg yolk as luteum, so many scholars say yellow. But other authors suggest pink or red, the same color as the bride’s blushing cheeks, and still others suggest the color of lightning, which to modern eyes suggests white or even bluish white. (Hersch, 96-97). Even if we leave aside the fact that egg yolks, lightning, and even blushes can vary in color, there is no reason to suppose that these veils did not also vary in color.
The dress underneath the vial seems to be of much less interest. There’s hardly anything written about that. And then it’s often claimed that Roman brides wore yellow or pink slippers, but again there’s one and only one reference to those (Hersch, 112).
Elsewhere in the world, I have similar source problems, but I can say with certainty that the color most commonly mentioned is not white, but red. It’s mentioned in Jewish weddings (Sharaby), Japanese weddings (Hirano and Monger, 241), Mexican weddings (Chrisman-Campbell, 113), Bengali weddings (Monger, 162), Hindu weddings (Chrisman-Campbell, 121), Chinese weddings (Ehrman, 126). I could go on.
The dress itself was generally a typical dress of the time and place: a sari, a lehenga, a kimono, or whatever, just done up to the nines with more embroidery, more layers, more lace, more flounce, more everything. Often the embroidery included symbols like pheasants or phoenixes, meant to suggest joy, longevity, and fertility. Sometimes the most distinctive feature of the bride was less the dress than it was the head gear or possibly some other accoutrement like the henna decorations on the skin (Sharaby).
Origins of the White Wedding Dress
The origins of the now ubiquitous white wedding dress lie in the 18th century. Wedding dresses had always been in many colors, but in Europe of the 1700s, silver and white were fashionable.
Catherine the Great was not yet known as great when she married Peter the Grand Duke of Russia in 1745. She wore a silver brocade dress embroidered with silver roses and a cloak of silver lace and the diamond crown of a Russian Grand Duchess (Massie).
In 1766, Princess Sofia Magdalena of Denmark married Crown Prince Gustav of Sweden in a silver and silk dress that still exists in the Museum of Swedish Royal History in Stockholm. I’ll place a link on the website because it’s worth a gawking look. Even though most of the ornamentation was melted down in 1774 for reuse, it is still gorgeously decorated (Museum of Swedish Royal History). But to modern eyes the most obvious feature is the hips. They are enormous. She definitely had to turn sideways to get through the door, and there was enough room down there to hide not just a wallet, a phone, and a snack, but also a 7-course meal and a widescreen TV.
Princess Charlotte married King George III of England in white trimmed with silver. But in Sir Joshua Reynolds’ painting of the scene, the bride is not the only one in silver and white. Her bridesmaids and guests look rather similar to my eye.
If you notice that I am describing only royal brides here, that is because sources on your ordinary bride are scarce, though I can say that Martha Custis wore yellow brocade when she married George Washington (Chrisman-Campbell, 39). Most brides just wore a nice dress, whether it was white, silver, or more likely some other color. A really blazing bright white would have to wait for synthetic dyes anyway, so we’re talking more of an ivory white here. And there was no reason not to have a cape or mantle in a different color, like Marie Antoinette, who had a 33-foot-long cloak of purple velvet, trimmed in ermine (Chrisman-Campbell, 17). Your ﬁnest dress might not even be the actual wedding dress. You might save that the finest for your ﬁrst public appearance as a wife, which if you were of high rank would mean when you were presented to the monarch, and if you were part of the teeming rabble, meant at a party after the wedding (Ehrman, 24).
If you were in white, it wasn’t because of the symbolism of purity and virginity and all that. It was white to demonstrate that you were rich and on top of the latest fads.
The style of the dress was often not the low-cut strapless affair so popular today. Georgian women knew about displaying their cleavage, but not in the morning, and by Anglican church law weddings had to be between 8 and 12 am. So in England the wedding dress was a day dress, not an evening dress, when cleavage was apparently okay.
The true wealth of the dress lay in the richness of the fabric, and no one, not even the Queen herself ever dreamed of wearing that rich fabric only once (Ehrman, 12). You would certainly wear it again, whether at court, or for Sunday best, or for special evening occasions, possibly after you altered it to be more suitable.
Up through the 18th century, we know about wedding dresses only if the wedding was painted or described in detail. Or in the very rare case that the dress itself has survived, like Sofia Magdalena’s. But starting in the early 19th century, we have fashion plates of bridal gowns. They show that gowns were often white, but not always, that veils existed but not always, and that the dress itself was just a stylish dress of the time. That’s why it was easy to wear again elsewhere, but also why the dress wouldn’t last. When the wedding was over, it was worn again, and made into other things, until it wore out just like any other article of clothing.
Queen Victoria’s Wedding Dress
The wedding of the 19th century occurred on February 10, 1840. The groom’s name was Albert. But the bride was Her Majesty, the Queen Regnant of the United Kingdom. I seem to mention them in almost every episode in this series.
Queen Victoria chose a white silk court dress with white lace and a white satin train. She did not trim it with silver or gold or any other color. She was not the first to do so, but white was by no means a foregone conclusion. She wanted to be married as a woman, not a head of state, so she rejected the crimson robe of state. On her head she had a wreath of orange blossoms with a lace veil from the back of her head (Ehrman, 56).
That lace, by the way, was no trivial affair. Victoria commissioned it from a town called Honiton in southwest England, known for its lace-making. Lacemakers were already under pressure from improved machinery, but Victoria’s wedding kept 200 women employed for 9 months (Chrisman-Campbell, 21). Or 400 workers for 3 months, according to another source (Van Dalen). Shall we just say a whole lot of people and time? Lace was as expensive a coveted as ﬁne jewelry (Chrisman-Campbell, 22).
Far from locking it up for preservation afterwards, Victoria continued to wear her lace for the rest of her life, up to and including her burial (Royal Museums Greenwich).
Wedding Dresses for Everyone Else
Victoria’s wedding dress was widely publicized, and since pretty much every young woman in or near the British Empire wished they were her, there was a mad rush to copy all her choices. White was now ﬁrmly entrenched as a wedding color. In 1849, Godey’s Lady’s Book was able to write that “Custom has decided, from the earliest ages, that tint 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” (quoted in Chrisman-Campbell, 22).
Which was false on every account, but lots of brides read and no doubt believed it.
Even so, there were a couple of reasons why the colored wedding dress survived. First, there were still plenty of brides who couldn’t afford not to be practical: they wore the nicest dress they had or could see themselves reusing. Second, if white is now symbolic, rather than fashionable, then it didn’t work for some brides. A woman getting married for the second or third time obviously couldn’t pretend to be an innocent virgin. Even some first time brides considered themselves too old for the symbolism of white. Harriet Joyce, an English lady’s maid, married for the first time at age 35. She wore purple (Ehrman, 96).
But a good marriage was still most women’s primary goal, and girls were indoctrinated young on how it would look. Dolls had been popular for millennia, but now some of them were recognizably dressed as brides because the white dress was symbolic.
Up until this point, no bride of any socio-economic status was visiting a bridal store to try on various dresses. There were no ready-made dresses of any type and certainly not wedding dresses. The prospective bride would visit her local dry goods store to buy fabric, lace, ribbons, and other notions. She then took it all to a dressmaker who would transform it into the gown of her dreams (Howard, 162).
Dressmakers were almost all small female-owned businesses because it was a good option for a single or widowed woman who had to support herself. By modern standards, the labor required to turn that rich fabric into a dress was seriously undervalued. In 1724 when Lady Jemima Gray got married in white and silver silk, the silk cost her 45 pounds. The poor overworked dressmaker got 16 shillings or less than one pound. Jemima also spent a whopping 131 pounds on lace. Admittedly that was for the whole wedding, not just the dress. But still (Ehrman, 26). The point is you weren’t going to get rich on dressmaking. But you could get by. See episode 4.9 on Elizabeth Keckly, for the story of a former slave who did exactly that.
The arrival of factory-produced ready-made dresses was a gift to consumers who would now afford more and get it quicker starting in the 1880s. But it was not an overnight sensation because 19th century the styles were all tightly ﬁtted. Good luck ﬁnding something that hugs your curves appropriately, as many of us 21st century shoppers still know today. You couldn’t even try it on in advance because we’re usually talking mail-order here.
The 20th Century Wedding Dress
But by the 20th century, styles were looser and ready-made was better. By 1911, you could buy your dress from a big male-owned department store, rather than a small female-owned dressmaking shop. (Howard, 162). So you’re happy if you’re a bride. Less so if you’re a woman of limited means and one marketable skill (Howard, 165). Comparatively cheap ready-made dresses meant that the white wedding dress was now in reach for masses of women who would never have chosen anything so impractical before. There were even hints that in the modern wealthy era, wedding dresses might become something you only wore once and then kept for an heirloom. But for many brides, the 20th century failed to live up to the hype.
Times were hard in World War 1, and then hard again in the Depression. A fabulous dress just wasn’t in the budget for large numbers of brides. During World War I, most brides just wore their best day dress, end of story (Ehrman, 104).
After the war clothes in general got looser, neater, more athletic, more practical. Wedding dresses followed suit, with some going knee-length (Ehrman, 109). After the stock market crash, white satin was more practical than you might think because it could be dyed a different color afterwards. And that ridiculous train? It could become an evening coat (Ehrman, 112). At the same time, the fairy tale wedding was getting more hype than ever because the celebrity and royal weddings were now on ﬁlm.
Perhaps the most publicized royal wedding was the one that had both true love and darker elements. When England’s King Edward VIII decided to marry Wallis Simpson, a twice-divorced American, he said “I have found it impossible to carry the heavy burden of responsibility, and to discharge my duties as King as I would wish to do, without the help and support of the woman I love” (Edward VIII).
Very romantic in a way. Very constitutional crisis in another.
Either way, the blushing bride did not wear virginal white. She wore a shade of blue that became known as Wallis blue (Ehrman, 121).
Movies played a role too. Very shortly after Gone with the Wind came out in 1940, you could buy a copy of Scarlett O’Hara’s first wedding dress for $85. (Howard, 165). The fact that Scarlett got married out of spite and was a widow within weeks did not seem to deter anyone.
Meanwhile, we were into World War II. The number of brides increased dramatically even as British cloth rations meant a traditional gown was completely out of the question. There were more weddings in Britain in 1939 than in any other year in recorded history (Chrisman-Campbell, 134). Couples raced to the altar days (or even hours) before deployment.
The result was that many brides wore regular clothes. Or their own service uniform. Or a borrowed or rented dress. Or if they had time to plan, some sewed a dress out of upholstery fabric, which wasn’t rationed (Ehrman, 124).
Over in America, cloth was not rationed and the American Association of Bridal Manufacturers was lobbying for zero restrictions. Not for any crass commercial reasons, no, no, of course not. But because a traditional wedding was so important to keeping up morale! Of course that was the reason! This is what our brave boys were fighting for, after all! Family, tradition, and the American way of life (Chrisman- Campbell, (140).
Even so, many war-time American brides did without the special dress because the wedding was moved up or back or whatever based on an uncertain deployment date (Chrisman-Campbell, 141).
By far the most meaningful war dresses I came across were the several references to brides who made their own dress out of the nylon parachute that had saved their ﬁancé, sometimes negotiating around the bullet holes as they worked (Chrisman-Campbell, 143). And I have to say, the picture I’ve seen made a gorgeous dress. I never would have guessed that it was recycled fabric.
The end of the war did not mean an immediate return to a time of plenty. In Britain, the rationing went on as they struggled to rebuild both their own country and the enemy’s country too. When the Princess Elizabeth got engaged in 1947 (two years after victory was declared), women from all over the UK sent her their cloth ration cards as a wedding present, so she would have enough for the dress they thought she should have. For context, 11 coupons were needed for just an ordinary dress. The number of coupons you got varied during the course of the war, but at its lowest point, each adult was getting only 3 coupons per month. And you had to have both coupons and the money. So you can see the hurdles a blushing bride faced (Imperial War Museum).
Elizabeth did indeed get married in a sumptuous white dress, but she also returned every donated ration card. She used her own ration cards. Plus 200 gifted to her by the government (Chrisman-Campbell, 135). It helps to be royal.
But even rationing came to an end eventually. The military uniform as wedding dress was out, the white dress was back, getting shorter or longer or leaner or pufﬁer with the fashion of the day.
Mid-20th century icons still followed the idea that a second time bride could not wear white because she was not a virgin and because Emily Post, the etiquette dictator, said so. Audrey Hepburn’s second wedding dress was a pink mini dress (Chrisman-Campbell, 159). Elizabeth Taylor’s 5th wedding dress was yellow (Chrisman-Campbell, 162).
Meanwhile the white dress had been busy colonizing the rest of the world. In 1925, a Western observer attended a Chinese wedding and bemoaned the fact that the impressive traditional robes had been replaced by badly made European clothing (Stirling, 2).
In 1951, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi of Iran married Soraya Esfandia-Bakhtiary in Tehran. She wore a white gown designed by Christian Dior. It weighed forty-four pounds and contained 20,000 white feathers. If you’ve followed the unrest in Iran over the past few months, you may be startled to realize that women in Iran have not always been required to cover practically everything. Soraya’s wedding dress had no sleeves and no straps either. In the picture I’m looking at, her hair is on full display (Chrisman-Campbell, 24-26). It is clearly a European vision of a bride.
Brides who were not from that heritage now faced a choice. You could look the way a bride was now supposed to look. Or you could ignore it in favor of your own traditions. Or you could do both. In 1920, when Princess Masako of Japan married Crown Prince Yeong of Korea, she had a white wedding dress with veil and train. And she also had jeokui or pheasant robe, which was the Korean tradition in cobalt blue with red trim and embroidered all over with pheasants (Chrisman-Campbell, 24). And one source says she had a kimono too (Japanese Princess). These cross-cultural weddings got complicated, but she was not the last to go this route.
The most interesting wedding I have personally attended was the one where the American bride married a man from India. For the ceremony, she wore your traditional white dress, he wore a gold and silver shalwar kameez, which is a long tunic over loose pants. All very interesting, and then at the reception that night, he came out in very spiffy black tie, while she wore a gorgeous gold and red sari with her hands and arms done in henna. It makes the wedding more complicated (and expensive I’m sure), but wow, it looked good.
The 70s were a time of social and economic upheaval, and designers began to look to every era for inspiration (Ehrman, 135). Why shouldn’t you have a Queen Victoria-style wedding dress? Or a medieval dress? It’s your wedding after all! There was no need to stick to the 70s dresses that were popular for ordinary days. A wedding day was no ordinary day.
By the 1980s the wedding dress was basically a fantasy creation, completely divorced from contemporary fashion. Certainly, the next royal wedding was a fantasy. In 1981, Prince Charles married Princess Diana, and she wore a white dress with the 25-foot train. Her bridesmaids spent hours practicing their moves with that train by tying a long dusting cloth around Diana’s waist (Chrisman-Campbell, 29). The result was magical, romantic, and feminine. And watched on TV by 500 million viewers (Ehrman, 154). Reality would only set in later.
The side effect of a dress that had nothing to do with ordinary occasions was that you couldn’t wear it for ordinary occasions. By the 80s, wedding dresses were one-use only, an extravagance that would have made even Queen Victoria gape (Ehrman, 156). It was more of a costume than it was a dress.
The 90s accepted bare shoulders, plunging necklines, a low-slung backs. Which somewhat negated the idea of white dress equals virginal purity. But that ideal had already been smashed. Many (but I hasten to add not all) segments of society would have been surprised if the bride was a virgin. But looking like a virgin was totally ﬁne. When Victoria Adams of the Spice Girls got married in 1999, she already had a child, but chose a white Scarlett-O’Hara type dress because she wanted “to look quite virginal” on her wedding day (Ehrman, 171).
When Angelina Jolie got married for the first time, she wore black rubber pants and a t-shirt with the groom’s name written in her own blood. I suppose that was meant to be romantic, but can I just say Ew. And ouch. By the time she married Brad Pitt, she had got tradition. Only it wasn’t tradition because traditionally it was far too late for her to wear the white satin and tulle veil. But she did (Chrisman-Campbell, 163).
The interesting thing is that marriage itself had loosened up. Divorce was easier. Cohabitation was common. Same-sex unions were acknowledged, even if they were not yet legally a marriage. And some brides, like the young Angelina Jolie, thought the wedding itself should loosen up too. But on the whole, wedding dresses have only become more entrenched. A purple, floral, or even black wedding dress would not have caused comment in the 19th century. Now they are almost always white. In the early 20th century hemlines on wedding dresses went up and down with the fashions. Now they are almost always full length. For whatever reason, when people get married they usually still reach for what the fairy tale says is tradition, even though that tradition is not actually very old.
Oodles of sources today, but my favorite was The Way We Wed by Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell. Visit the website herhalfofhistory.com for a transcript, pictures of many of the dresses mentioned today, and more sources. If you or one your ancestors had an unusual wedding dress, or hey, even a usual one, why not send me a picture? Post it in the comments below. Or on Facebook you can post it in response to my post about this episode at Her Half of History. On Twitter, you can do the same @her_history. I’m still an Instagram newbie, but some of you experts can no doubt figure out how to do it. In any case, come back next week when we finally get to the big event, the reason we got this dress: the actual ceremony.
Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice. 1813. http://www.gutenberg.org/files/1342/1342-h/1342-h.htm. Accessed 27 Dec. 2022.
Chrisman-Campbell, Kimberly. The Way We Wed : A Global History of Wedding Fashion. Philadelphia, Running, 2020.
Edward VIII. Abdication Speech. December 12, 1936. Transcript at https://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/kingedwardVIIIabdication.htm. Accessed 27 December 2022.
Ehrman, Edwina. The Wedding Dress : 300 Years of Bridal Fashions. London, V&A Publishing, 2014.
Hague, Rebecca. “Marriage Athenian Style.” Archaeology 41, no. 3 (1988): 32–36. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41730004.
Hersch, Karen K. The Roman Wedding : Ritual and Meaning in Antiquity. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2010.
Hirano, Akira. “Treasures of the Library: Japanese Wedding Ceremonies Old and New – Sainsbury Institute for the Study of Japanese Arts and Cultures.” Www.sainsbury-Institute.org, http://www.sainsbury-institute.org/e-bulletin/june-2020/japanese-wedding-ceremonies-old-and-new/#Hirano-June20-note1. Accessed 27 Dec. 2022.
Howard, Vicki. Brides, Inc. : American Weddings and the Business of Tradition. Univ Of Pennsylvania Pr, 2008.
Imperial War Museums. “8 Facts about Clothes Rationing in Britain during the Second World War.” Imperial War Museums, 2018, http://www.iwm.org.uk/history/8-facts-about-clothes-rationing-in-britain-during-the-second-world-war. Accessed 22 Dec. 2022.
Massie, Robert K. Catherine the Great : Portrait of a Woman. London, Head Of Zeus, 2016.
Monger, George. Marriage Customs of the World : An Encyclopedia of Dating Customs and Wedding Traditions. Santa Barbara, Calif., Abc-Clio, 2013.
Museum of Swedish Royal History. “The Dress of All Dresses – Livrustkammaren.” Livrustkammaren.se, 21 July 2021, livrustkammaren.se/en/home/royal-history/royal-histories/dresses-and-jewellery/the-dress-of-all-dresses/. Accessed 27 Dec. 2022.
Royal Museums Greenwich. “The Death of Queen Victoria.” Www.rmg.co.uk, http://www.rmg.co.uk/stories/topics/death-queen-victoria.
Sharaby, Rachel. “The Bride’s Henna Ritual: Symbols, Meanings and Changes.” Nashim: A Journal of Jewish Women’s Studies & Gender Issues, no. 11 (2006): 11–42. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40326803.
Stirling, W. G. “A Chinese Wedding in the Reform Style.” Journal of the Malayan Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society 3, no. 3 (95) (1925): 1–5. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41560442.
“The Japanese Princess, Who Could Have Been the Empress of Korea.” The Japanese Princess, Who Could Have Been the Empress of Korea, 2 Nov. 2012, gondoljvelem.blogspot.com/2012/11/the-japanese-princess-of-korea.html. Accessed 27 Dec. 2022.
Van Dalen, Brittany. “Honiton Lace – Historic UK.” Historic UK, 2019, http://www.historic-uk.com/CultureUK/Honiton-Lace/.