The history of fashion. Part 3 – The Wedding Dress


A wedding is a very special occasion where the wedding dress is the focal point of the entire event. But where did this tradition begin? Did you ever wonder where the concept of the wedding dress originates?

When people think a wedding, the first thing that comes to mind is the white wedding dress. However, when you delve into the background of the wedding dress you will find that history paints a much different picture.  Although white seems to be the most symbolic color and dates back to the Victorian era, the truth is that the wedding dress was worn in an endless array of colors that date back to ancient times and are still in vogue today.

The Intriguing Background of a Wedding Dress.

Going back to Ancient times, the brides wore wedding dresses in an array of bright colors as vivid designs symbolised happiness. Moving on to the medieval era, bridal dresses were designed to be conservative since the bride was the symbol of an entire community.  This is because the union of marriage was more than just between two people, it was also a celebration of the union of two families.

If each family was involved in business located in two different countries, the bride was the symbol of the union of two businesses and two countries. For this reason, medieval brides dressed conservatively since they were the center of the union and looked upon as an emblem of unity.

During medieval times, if the bride was from an upper class family, the wedding attire was comprised of lavish materials such as silks, beads, velvets, and other upper end fabrics. At the same token, if you were from middle class upbringing, the wedding dress would imitate the style of the upper class but was designed with less expensive material.

This type of separatism marked the beginning of the wedding dress as a symbol of social status. The more well-to-do the family was, the more fabric was used to design the wedding dress, including elaborate sleeves, a long train, intricate designs on the bodice, and handmade lace. Medieval brides that were from poor families would wear their best Sunday dress they would wear to church as their wedding dress.

White wedding dressThe arrival of the white wedding gown.

By the early to mid-1800s, the style and color of the wedding dress began to change with 1840 marking the official year for the white wedding gown.  This was the year that Queen Victoria wed Prince Albert of Saxe and wore an extravagant white wedding gown.  At the time, this raised a lot of eyebrows but soon after, it started the white wedding gown trend and brides throughout Europe and in the United States started to choose the color white for their special day as well.

As the color white increased in popularity, the color was not considered a symbol of purity.  Instead, blue was the symbol of purity since it was symbolic of the Virgin Mary. However, the color white symbolised wealth and social status which made white the new trend for brides.  Since clothing was often washed using a washboard, white was a difficult color to keep clean and therefore was only worn once.  Only the rich could afford to purchase a dress that would only be worn once.

By the end of the century, the color white became the expected wedding dress color with various style trends applied according to what was in vogue. For a temporary period of time, the white wedding gown was replaced with the best Sunday church dress during the Great Depression. Most people felt that during this period, wearing an elaborate white wedding dress was inappropriate when there was much hardship.

At the end of the war, the white wedding gown once again became the most popular color.  Only this time it came back in a variety of different shades including off white, ivory cream, and other shades of white.

History of the White Wedding Dress.

Much to the surprise of many, the white wedding dress has never been the symbol of purity and virginity as many have assumed.  Instead, as a result of Queen Victoria’s marriage to Prince Albert, the white wedding gown is actually the symbol of wealth and flamboyance.  Since Queen Victoria’s wedding, any bride that could afford a white wedding dress would be married in this color.

If you ever want to explore how wedding dress fashions have changed, a visit to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London is well worth the trip.  This exhibit shows how white wedding dresses have changed with fashion trends from the year 1775 to the present day.  A trip to this museum will also abolish some of the long held assumptions you may have had regarding wedding attire.

Queen Victoria’s wedding dress was actually designed in an ivory color which has been carried over into the present day.  Many brides view the color ivory as nostalgic and romantic, in addition to being the symbol of wealth and status.

As the white wedding dress became the expected color the bride wears for her wedding, wearing another color at one time was thought to be daring and nonconformist. Except in countries like China where vibrant red is a very common color for a wedding dress.

However, recently when Vera Wang and Oscar de la Renta unveiled their wedding dress designs in an array of different colors, this was considered to be an extreme transition in the world of fashion. Many of the celebrities followed the trend such as singer Gwen Stefani who wore an extravagant wedding dress designed by John Galliano in fuchsia dip dyed colors.  Other celebrities such as Reese Witherspoon and Jessica Biel walked down the aisle in a feminine pink colored wedding dress.

The fifties.

The traditional white wedding dress waned during the Great Depression when most women wore their best dress to take their vows and wartime brides said their nuptials in their uniforms. Then the popularity of the white wedding dress returned after the war in 1956 with the marriage of Grace Kelly to Prince Rainer of Monaco.

This wedding was known as the “Wedding of the Century” with Grace Kelly wearing an extravagant fairytale gown design by MGM.  The wedding dress was made of ivory peau de soie and was designed with sleeves embroidered in Brussels lace and a fitted bodice.

The ivory wedding gown worn by Grace Kelly was also designed with a full skirt.  This brought back the nostalgic and romantic look of the Victorian era while upholding white as the traditional color for a wedding dress.  Many brides imitated the look and chose this as the preferred design for their special day in the prosperous era of the post war.

The sixties and seventies.

The 1960s and 1970s counter culture brought with it a new trend for wedding dress fashion.  Although white still remained the predominant color, many of the wedding dresses were designed as a mini dress such as the dress that was worn by Mia Farrow when she wed Frank Sinatra in 1966.  When Bianca Jagger married Mick Jagger in the early 1970s, she wore a white pantsuit and a large brimmed hat with not much else underneath the suit.  At the wedding of Priscilla and Elvis Presley, Priscilla wore a short wedding dress in baby-doll style with a large bouffant-style veil.

The 1960s brought even more outlandish bridal fashion trends when singer Lulu got married in a white maxi coat trimmed with fur and adorned with a white hood.  The maxi coat was worn over top of a mini dress and accessorised with high go-go boots.  This was a symbol that the white wedding dress continued to survive since it could be continually reinvented.

The eighties.

In 1982, the wedding of Diana Spencer to Prince Charles started a new trend that lasted for the remainder of the decade.  Diana wore a spectacular and extravagant dress styled from the Victorian era with a long train.  The dress was made of ivory taffeta and brought back Victorian styles with puffed sleeves, full skirt, and fitted bodice that every bride of the 1980s dreamed of wearing on her wedding day.

The nineties.

During the 1990s, simple styles that were slim and classy were in vogue with the trend set forth by Carolyn Bessette Kennedy.  At her wedding to JFK Jr. in 1996, Carolyn wore a Narciso Rodriguez white silk sheath designed in a sleek shimmery fabric void of any embellishments such as beads or lace.  Simple was in and many brides of the 1990s followed this fashion trend.

Wedding Dress Fashions in Different Cultures.

Japanese wedding dressAlthough the white wedding dress still reigns as the color of choice and the symbol of social status, getting married in other colors is commonplace for other cultures. In Western cultures, brides that take an interest in fashion trends have been getting married in different colored dresses for centuries. A colored wedding dress also allowed them to redesign the dress multiple times to keep in step with changing fashion trends and wear it long after they said their vows.  This was often the norm in place of buying a new dress for every new occasion that happened to come up.

In other cultures, the white wedding dress does not take center stage as much as it does in Europe and America.  In African culture, the bride wears a wedding dress made of a woven cloth.  The weave is representative of her native land and her family roots.  For example, a typical wedding dress may consist of the colors red, gold, and green woven together in a fabric.

The red color symbolises those who have given their lives in war times to protect others.  The gold is symbolic of peace and prosperity and the color green symbolises natural plant life in Africa.  If the pattern is designed in a zigzag pattern, this pattern is symbolic of the ability to overcome obstacles during the course of African life.

In Ireland, a wedding dress is commonly referred to as a Celtic wedding gown. Up until 1500, the color blue was frequently worn by Irish brides along with a blue veil adorned with a blue flowered headpiece.  Blue was the symbol of fidelity and purity and although the popularity of the white wedding dress has permeated fashion trends in Ireland, Irish brides still wear something blue.

The Celtic wedding dress is made of white deerskin and silk with white linen undergarments.  The sleeves are bell shaped with the bodice covered by a white deerskin vest that ties in the front.  The bride does not wear a veil and the wedding dress is often designed in an ivory or light yellow color.

In the Mexican culture, the bride’s wedding dress is designed and made by her family members while the groom’s family pays the expenses for the dress.  Many of the wedding dresses are designed in Flamenco style with a series of ruffles adorning the skirt.  Additionally, the bride wears a blue petticoat under the dress.  If the wedding is taking place in a church, the bride may add a bolero jacket to the dress to show respect for the dress code of the church and a mantilla veil over her head.

Brides that are of Native American culture typically wear a red wedding dress that is usually passed down through generations.  The style of the dress will vary according to tribe.  For example, if the bride is affiliated with the Cherokee tribe the wedding dress is white and worn with white moccasins.  The dress is made of material that other women in the tribe tear into rectangles or squares.

Indian wedding dressIn Eastern cultures such as China and India, the bride wears a red wedding dress or a dress designed in a combination of red and white colors.  The color red is a symbol of good luck and promise.  In Japan, the bride will often where a wedding dress in multiple colors and then change her dress to other colors multiple times throughout the festivities.

Overall, the wedding dress must stand out as a unique style of clothing.  Many fashion designers have stated that there is a distinct difference between the aisle and the red carpet and neither one should look like the other. The wedding dress should strike a balance between being traditional and timeless while defying fashion trends, according to notable fashion designers.

A wedding dress and a dress for the stage both have specific roles they must fulfill.  However, the approach and the design process are different, according to Gareth Pugh who has designed creations for Kylie Minogue and Lada Gaga.  Additionally, stage clothing must be comfortable to allow for movement during performance.  But when it comes to the wedding dress, the bride is not as concerned about comfort as she is with style and fashion.

The idea of dressing up in an extravagant dress for your wedding will always appeal to most and there will always be a market for the traditional white wedding dress.  However, more brides are personalising their styles as wedding designs continue to evolve.

Cross cultural and gay marriages are both examples of influence on the evolution of wedding attire. Plus, many brides are abandoning the white wedding dress in favor of color which is no longer considered to be taboo.  When it comes to modern fashions in wedding attire, the brides of today are fortunate to have a diverse choice of fashions, all of which are perfectly acceptable in the modern age.

10 interesting facts about wedding dresses.

There is a host of fun and interesting facts on wedding attire so, we will wrap up the article with a few intriguing tidbits.

  1. The veil worn by the bride originally represented her purity and virginity. However, in early times, the veil hid the bride from the Evil Eye and jealous spirits and was worn in a variety of different colors.
  2. In ancient times, each wedding guest would tear off a piece of the bride’s wedding dress as a symbol of good luck.
  3. White wedding dresses are uncommon in some Eastern cultures since it is the color of mourning.
  4. The phrase, Tying the Knot, originates from an ancient custom in Babylonia where threads from both the bride and groom’s wedding attire were tied in a knot to symbolise their union.
  5. Herbs were the precursor to the modern bridal bouquet when Roman brides carried herbs under their veils to ward off evil and symbolise fidelity and fertility.
  6. Wedding dresses of the orient are often embroidered with cranes to symbolise lifelong fidelity.
  7. Grace Kelly’s wedding dress was adorned with lace more than one hundred years old.
  8. Brides and grooms that marry in Denmark often cross dress to confuse evil spirits.
  9. More than 56 percent of brides use Pinterest to find a wedding dress design.
  10. The longest wedding dress train in the world is 1.85 miles.

About the author.

Micar Computers is a London based software development company that specialises in providing software solutions for the Apparel, textile and footwear  industries. Visit our products page to find out more about who we are and what we do.