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Derek Coleman: White wedding dress is a fairly new tradition

January 9, 2019

Today is our wedding anniversary. It’s 10 years today since the beautiful Lori did me the honor of becoming my wife. It wasn’t a big wedding, there were not a lot of guests, but of course the bride did wear a gorgeous white gown. That’s traditional, but did you realize that it’s only a relatively recent tradition?

If we go back more than 2,000 years, ancient Greek brides wore loose fitting gowns of varying colors but had veils of yellow or red. These were said to represent fire and were meant to frighten away evil spirits that might curse the marriage. Rich brides also wore diamonds, which were thought to be the teardrops of the gods.

Moving forward in time, when Roman girls married they may have worn a white robe but other colors were used, too; it didn’t matter as long as the dress was fastened at the waist with a woolen belt tied using a special knot that only the girl’s new husband could undo. This is probably where we get the expression “Tying the knot,” meaning to get married. Over her dress the Roman bride also wore a head-to-toe veil called a flammeum that left her face exposed. Like Greeks before them, this too was bright yellow.

After the Roman Empire collapsed and Christianity spread through Europe, blue became the popular color for the wedding dress and especially the veil. This was because the Virgin Mary was usually portrayed as wearing that color and it was taken as a sign of purity. The common people during this time couldn’t afford fancy gowns though, and so they wore the best of their ordinary dresses, perhaps adorned with a ribbon or two if they could afford it.

During the early medieval times, the color of wedding dresses tended to reflect the status of the wearer. The peasants still wore the best they had, probably the same dress that they would normally wear to go to church. The nobility, royalty and those who were a little better off and could afford finery went for dresses in crimson, purple or blue. These were the colors that were hardest to produce and therefore they were the most expensive. There were some notable exceptions to this practice, however.

The first written mention of a white wedding dress in history was that worn by Anne of Brittany in the year 1499. Anne was twice Queen of France through marriages to two different kings and may have chosen the color as a form of protest because the marriage was arranged in order to secure her lands for France.

Thirty-one years later, Margaret, the daughter of King Henry VII of England married James IV of Scotland and both bride and groom wore white, edged with crimson. Later the couple’s grand-daughter, Mary, Queen of Scots, also wore white to marry the heir to the throne of France. These white wedding dresses were so unusual at the time that they were described in great detail in the chronicles, especially Mary’s, because at that time white was the color people wore when they were in mourning.

European tradition obviously crossed the ocean with the first settlers and in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts there are a couple of American 18th century wedding dresses. One, from 1742, has a floral pattern with green leaves and pink flowers that is topped off with a similarly patterned bonnet. The other dress is an ivory color and it too has a bright floral pattern. From the same era, Marie Antoinette, who married Louis, the King of France in 1770 and later lost her head on the guillotine, wore a silver gown for her wedding. She did not have a veil or anything on her very elaborate hairstyle and there is a story that the dress was made before she arrived, was too small and did not fasten properly at the back.

The 18th century changed into the 19th, and brides from richer and more powerful families tended to opt for either metallic colors, like the unfortunate queen of France, or for shades of red for their wedding gowns. The less well off, including those here in the United States, either wore their Sunday best, or, if they could afford a new gown, went for a colored one that wouldn’t show the dirt and that they could wear again. White was definitely not the color of preference, but all that changed in 1840.

Three years earlier, the 18-year-old Princess Alexandrina Victoria succeeded to the British throne as Queen Victoria. When she was 21 she married Albert, a German Prince, and, going against tradition and popular convention she chose a white silk wedding dress that was decorated with hand-made British lace. Many people thought her choice was to symbolize her purity but in fact it was done to make a political statement and in part to support the lace making industry, which was suffering from mechanization.

Victoria was young and considered beautiful, her new husband was a handsome prince and they were the trend-setting fashion icons of the age. Their pictures appeared in the world’s newspapers and suddenly white was the color every bride wanted for her wedding dress. It has been so ever since.

Victoria’s dress reflected the hooped-skirt style of the period and fashions have changed many times since then. In the 1920s, girls opted for slim styles, in the ’40s the war effort meant that many of them went back to wearing their best dress but this soon reverted to the, by then, “traditional” white. In the decades since then, styles have followed the fashion of the day and no doubt they will continue to do so, but it looks as if the popularity of the white wedding dress is here to stay.

As I said at the beginning of this piece, today is our wedding anniversary. We’ll probably have to postpone our celebration, because if all goes well, I shall be in St. Mary’s, recovering from knee surgery. Despite that, you can be very sure I’ll be thinking about the beautiful girl in the white dress who married me 10 years ago today.

Derek Coleman is a part-time writer who is a native of England and who now lives in Hurricane, W.Va. He can be reached at tallderek@hotmail.com.

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