by Emily Wiebe
The concept of a white wedding dress is very familiar in Western culture. Many assume this tradition originates from ancient times. Contrary to popular belief, the white wedding dress is a relatively recent phenomenon. The popularity of the white wedding dress was brought about by Queen Victoria who wore a white lace wedding gown in her marriage to Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg in 1840.
Prior to the 1840s, wedding dresses were made in many different colours and styles. Wealthy brides’ dresses were made using costly fabrics such as silk and velvet, and often included furs, lace, embroidery, and precious or semi-precious jewels. Due to the painstaking nature of fabric making, rich brides used great quantities of fabric to flaunt their wealth. Poorer brides wore their best Sunday dress. But for both wealthy and poor brides, the wedding dress was not a ‘once wear’ dress. It was re-worn many times throughout the bride’s life. Even Queen Victoria repurposed her famous wedding dress for multiple occasions.
Many believe that wedding dresses are traditionally white because white symbolizes purity and virginity, but this is not the case. Blue was originally the colour that symbolized purity because of its affiliation with the Virgin Mary. Instead, white was associated with wealth and privilege. White, due to washing techniques of the day, was impossible to clean thoroughly. This made any white garment necessarily a ‘once wear’ piece. Therefore white wedding dresses were seen as extravagant since only the wealthiest could afford to buy a dress they would only wear once.
After Queen Victoria’s marriage, white became the bridal go-to colour. But with the First World War, coloured wedding dresses gained popularity. The Great Depression furthered this resurgence of ‘Sunday Best’ wedding dresses. World War II continued this trend with rationing of fabric and other materials. By the 1950’s, especially influenced by Grace Kelly’s wedding dress, the white wedding dress had returned to popularity. It is still the most popular wedding dress colour to this day.