An old poem tells us about the colour of the wedding dress and how it may influence the bride’s future: “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.”
Throughout times, cultures and social development the wedding gown is unique. Along with initiation (such as Baptism, Aqeeqah, Bat Mitzvah etc.), confirmation ceremonies and burial the marriage is one of the three great public occasions in a person’s life, and the only one at which the principals can fully appreciate the glory of their central role. For the bride, more than the groom, it is Her Big Day. Throughout history, women have tried to make their wedding dress special, to suit the festive occasion, to make the beautiful bride more beautiful and the not so beautiful at least splendid to look at.
At the beginning of the twentieth century with the arrival of the department store, almost every woman could realize her dream of being married in a “new” wedding dress. The white dress was gaining popularity and in 1890, Ladies Home Journal wrote: “from times immemorial the bride’s gown has been white”. It was not true, but it shows how accepted it was that a wedding gown should be white. Some brides, especially the frontier brides, wore dresses that were more practical and could be worn after the wedding.
It was Queen Victoria to put the wheels in motion by marrying in white.
After the war, prosperity made it possible for the large dream weddings inspired by the Victorian era to become a reality. Grace Kelly’s marriage to Prince Monaco garnered much publicity because of its grand fairy tale wedding. In 1956, watched by over 30 million television viewers, Grace Kelly’s marriage to Prince Rainier of Monaco was hailed the wedding of the century. Her wedding gown was a white high-necked, long-sleeved gown with fitted torso and billowing skirt made of twenty- five yards of silk taffeta, one hundred yards of silk net, peau de soie, tulle and Brussels rose point lace. She wore a Juliet cap decorated with seed pearls, orange blossoms, and a veil of 90 yards of tulle. Like Queen Victoria’s wedding before her, Princess Grace’s wedding set the trend for the next decade and big white wedding dresses were in.
At the top of the scale, royal princesses have always tried to be most princess-like on their wedding days. In medieval times, when royal marriages were of great political importance it was also necessary for the young bride to look magnificent to uphold the prestige of her country, to impress the bridegroom’s country with her own nation’s apparent wealth and, if possible outdo anything they could have afforded. To this end they used as much material as they possibly could, of the most costly, like velvet, damask silk, satin, fur and fabrics woven with gold and silver thread. Additionally, the dress would be sewn with precious gems - diamonds, rubies, sapphires, emeralds and pearls - so the bride would glitter and flash in the sunlight.
Of course, not many brides were princesses and most could not afford such expense. But, in order to look special, a bride would usually try to copy the dress of a woman of a higher social class than herself. For an everyday girl, clothes would normally be as sparingly cut as was decent, so a gown with flowing sleeves or a train was a big status symbol. In modern times with factory made materials, the symbol of the bride in her train has lost its original meaning, but become a tradition.
The “traditional” wedding garb as we know it today first appeared in the late eighteenth century. With the introduction of machine made fabrics and cheap muslins imported from India, and styles inspired by the classical world, by 1800 the white dress with a veil was definitely the one to wear. As usual with fashion, it began in London, spread to other cities and towns and eventually to country areas.
In the nineteenth century, even a bride who wore white would expect to wear her dress again. For the season of her “bride visits” when she would do the rounds of family, friends and acquaintances as a newly married woman, she would wear her bridal gown. A higher class bride would then adapt the bodice of the outfit (which was often made separately) and re- trim it for evening wear for another season. Queen Victoria herself removed the lace overskirt from her dress and frequently used it again - she wore it over a black silk gown for her Diamond Jubilee celebrations over 50 years later.
Until the 1920s wedding dresses were always in the style of the moment, if more elaborately decorated than usual, and more modest than the most daring fashion. In that decade however, there was a revolution in women’s clothing, and hemlines for ordinary wear rose from the shoe to well above the knee.
At first wedding styles followed suit, and brides showed their ankles, but as skirts grew ever more abbreviated, it was felt by some to be unsuitable for a church service, and many brides preferred full-length wedding gowns. This choice of following the fashion of the season or reverting to a long dress with a train led in the twentieth century to the development of a separate style in bridal wear. By the middle years of the decade, however, the influence of the “Swinging Sixties” designs of Mary Quant and co. were beginning to alter even the bridal profile.