Now that summer has finally arrived, that means one thing: Wedding Season.
White dresses, giant cakes, and the omigod-what-do-I-wear wardrobing crises that come along with being a guest.
But white dresses were not always the norm. In fact, in many cultures, white was considered a colour of death and mourning.
In the middle ages, most families did not have the funds available to purchase a new dress for their family members to wear for their weddings. More often than not, brides simply wore their best clothes, perhaps with some ribbon or braid sewed on for the occasion if they could afford it. For the nobility, weddings were about showing your family to their best advantage. This meant dressing to the height of fashion, with the most expensive cloth your family could afford. This meant layers of silk, velvet and fur, bright jewels, and bold colors. At the time the most popular colour for a bride to wear was blue, as it was seen to represent purity and piety, and a connection to the Virgin Mary. Red gowns were also popular, as it was felt that the colour red was representative of fertility.
There were, of course, a few exceptions. Mary Stuart wore a white gown for her marriage to her first husband Francis, the Dauphin of France. She was widely criticized for the choice because white was the colour of mourning for the French nobility.
It wasn’t until Queen Victoria that the white dress became the norm. Contrary to popular belief, the trend of the white dress was not strictly an updated representation of purity and virginity. It was, at its core, a show of status. White was a very difficult colour to keep clean, so most people at the time avoided wearing it unless they were of a high enough social standing that they would not have to worry about dirtying it.
In Victoria’s case, her choice of gown was more of a political choice than it was an aesthetic one. One of the major economic concerns of the time was the effect that the industrial revolution would have on the traditional textile production industry. This was of particular concern when it came to the production of lace. Until this time, all lace was painstakingly produced by hand, making it a luxury item that only the upper classes could afford. The invention of lace-producing machines caused massive job losses across the entire textile production sector. Knowing that her patronage would provide a much-needed financial boost to local producers, Victoria chose a large piece of fine English Horniton lace to be the centerpiece of her dress, and built the entire ensemble to showcase it.
Her plan worked, sparking a massive burst in popularity for handmade lace and English textiles. However a lot of brides still could not afford the luxury of a white gown, and many of those who could dyed them other colours so they could be re-used after their weddings.
Over time, the meaning of the white dress changed from an economic statement to one of of purity and virginity. The white dress has became the norm, to the point that if a woman wore a wedding dress that was not pure white — even if it was a shade as close as ivory — it was as good as declaring that she had premarital relations with her fiance, something that, during the mid-twentieth century, was generally frowned upon by society.
The strict white-dress tradition has been relaxed somewhat since the 1990’s, with shades of ivory and cream becoming more common. In recent years, designers have also been introducing colored options of blush, champagne, and pale blue to their collections, with some truly gorgeous results.
Traditions are meant to evolve over time, to be changed and broken. The most important part of a wedding is not the dress, but the celebration of the love between you and your partner. You should wear what you feel best represents you, and what makes you feel most beautiful. White may be the choice of the day for Western weddings, but love is a lot more than the color of your dress.