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The History of the Wedding Dress and British Wedding Traditions

Updated: Nov 19, 2020

One thing to note is that the history of the wedding dress is much shorter than the history of marriage and weddings! So, How did the wedding dress become such a staple? I decided that I needed to look further into the wedding dress and its history. There are so many components that actually make up a wedding dress and how it became so popular in the first place. So, I figured I'd start from the beginning

At first, marriage wasn't a known celebration but more of a transfer of property, procreation, the tracking of bloodlines, and controlling women. The Bible never had vow exchange but more of a signing of a contract to formalize an agreement. This went on for centuries before anything changed. There were even marriage markets in certain parts of the world where brides would stand on a podium and be bid on. It never said what they were wearing but you can imagine that they would put these women in the best fabrics to have better luck at selling them off. According to historical writings, it was China that had the first recorded "wedding apparel", which was distinctly different from everyday clothing.

1.1 An early painted representation of brides at an auction by Edwin Long, Britain 1875

Eventually, when the marital contract started to show significance in relation to family, a lot of ancient wedding ceremonies in Rome, Greece, etc. consisted of brides wearing light colours. Although no one wore white, there are reports of veils and dresses being light colours like yellow, lavender, light red, etc. In many cultures, it wasn't what the bride was wearing but the symbolism of the bride going from childhood into adulthood by becoming a new wife and losing her virginity. They would dress the bride in beautiful garments to symbolize this importance but the actual ceremony itself meant a lot more than the garments.

In Eastern culture, there were many restrictions put in place by the start of the Han Dynasty, around 200 B.C. This dictated who could wear what based on profession, social status, gender, and occasion. Eventually, rules were lifted to slight degrees and women started wearing red and green for weddings while white wasn't actually known to be a colour to wear unless an individual was in mourning.

It was the same in Japan. Most brides would wear multiple coloured Kimonos throughout their wedding day. However, At a Shinto Japanese wedding, most brides would wear a mostly white ensemble known as a shiromuku.

1.2 A Shinto Japanese bride wearing a shiromuku 1.3 A Shinto Japanese couple

This outfit signifies pureness, cleanliness, and virginity and indicates the bride's willingness to come into the groom's family colour. This outfit was probably one of the first known white outfits in history-other than China that wasn't related to the "Wedding Dress".

When we think of bridal fashion, we tend to think of colours. White has been the preferred choice for brides in the West while red has been worn as the appropriate colour for traditional Eastern brides. We associate each colour with meaning; white suggesting purity, virginity, and new beginnings and red signifying life, luck, and celebration.

In medieval times during the 1400's , brides would wear hand-sewn dresses called cotehardie, which usually consisted of rich colours like reds, blues, and gold. They were usually made of satin, velvet, and silk, but brides in lower classes would usually adorn the cheaper fabrics like cotton, wool, and linen. Colours were usually darker to try and copy designs from the wealthy. It wasn't until the earliest record of a white wedding dress in Europe that it started picking up in popularity. That dress was worn by English Princess, Philippa when she wed Scandinavian King Eric in 1406. She wore a white tunic dress lined with Ermine and squirrel fur.

There were a few instances of other white wedding dresses as well like Mary, Queen of Scots in 1558, and Princess Charlotte when she wed Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld in 1816. When white dresses started to gain attention, women weren't obligated to wear them for royal weddings. It didn't evoke virginity or purity at the time; instead, it showed someones wealth and status as they were hard to keep clean and made of expensive fabrics.

1.4 English Princess, Philippa,1406 1.5 Princess Charlotte marrying Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld 1816

That all changed when Queen Victoria married her first cousin, Prince Albert in 1840. When the young Queen dawned her wedding dress, she opted for a pale champagne colour that was slightly off-the-shoulder and hugged the waist. Although her dress doesn't seem amazing when discussed, there were two reasons why her wedding dress became as popular as it did.

The first reason: She wore an orange blossom flower crown in lieu of a jewelled crown.

This action made her very popular among her subjects which helped them relate to her

on a more human level. This helped her gain popularity.

The second reason: The industrial revolution. When the Queen first got married, photos

weren't around, so paintings of their courtship were created instead. About 14 years

later, a picture of her was taken with Prince Albert where she was wearing what looked

to be a white dress, veil, and flowers. Her subjects saw her look thanks to advances in

technology and the spread of illustrated magazines and wanted to copy it. People saw

her love between Prince Albert as the ideal domestic love story and women did

anything they could to copy her look. That included getting a dress made in white.

1.6 1.7 1.8

1.6-1.7 Queen Victoria's Physical wedding dress and the depiction of her wedding day in a painting.

1.8 The picture of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert that started the revolution of the wedding and wedding dress.

With the industrial revolution seeing a rise in photography and specifically wedding portraits, this only continued the white-wedding-dress trend. "By 1849, women’s magazines were already proclaiming that not only was white the best colour for a wedding dress, but that it had in fact always been the best and most appropriate choice." (A Natural History of the Wedding Dress-Para. 24) By the early 20th Century Queen Victoria's wedding dress became the most recognizable "Wedding" silhouette.

Before Queen Victoria's dress, most women-both wealthy and poor would wear their wedding gown again because it was seen as absurd not to wear a piece of fashion again when it cost so much. It only became a "dress you wear once" by the mid 20th century. It's transformed so much that most brides will usually wear white unless they want to deviate and wear another colour of their choosing. Coming into the 20th century, white became a staple colour for a woman's wedding dress.

1.9 1920's 2.0 late 1800's 2.1 1960's

1.9-2.1 Weddings and wedding dresses changed over the past decades all thanks to the white wedding dress started by Queen Victoria.

All dresses aside, the meaning of marriage and what we expect from it has changed drastically in the past two hundred years. I also wanted to discuss British wedding traditions as it relates to Queen Victoria's wedding dress and the rise of the westernized wedding.

English Wedding Traditions

Most of the traditions we know of today came out of Britain but were also formed in other regions of the world and just carried over to other countries which include:

Giving Away the Bride- Dating back to the Middle Ages, when daughters were considered their father’s property and quite literally sold to the groom.

Something Old, New, Borrowed, Blue- started from an old English poem, “Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue, and a silver sixpence in her shoe”. Most of the lines are common at weddings nowadays but the final line isn't usually quoted but refers to wealth.

The Wedding Rings- This idea started in Egypt when the Egyptians believed that A. the round ring symbolized eternity and B. the ring sat on the left finger of the left hand because that's where they believed the ‘vena amoris’ (the vein of love) began, leading all the way to the heart.

Throwing Rice- Said to have come from Ancient Rome where people would throw oats or wheat grains at newlyweds to help bring them wealth and good fertility.

The Wedding Cake- Pies, buns, and cakes have played a part in British weddings for centuries when men tried to kiss brides over a mound of sweet bread rolls. The 1800-s had relatives leaving a pie under the bride's pillow and eventually it led to the cutting of the cake.

The First Dance- Traditionally, any opening dance number would kick off the start of a grand ball or party. It was custom for a male guest of honour to invite the lady of the house for the first dance. this eventually became a wedding custom with the father-of-the-bride dancing with her first (referring back to human property) followed by the groom.

The Bouquet Toss- during the 15th Century in Britain, a barbaric tradition consisted of wedding guests tearing and pulling bits and pieces off of the bride's wedding outfit, believing it would pass along some of her good luck to them. The tradition eventually evolved into the bride tossing the crowd her bouquet and running away from the wedding mob.

The Honeymoon- This specific tradition actually came to Europe through the traditional Viking (Scandinavian) wedding. The idea was that the Newlyweds would go into a cave for a month. "Every day, during 30 moons, a family member would visit them and bring them honeyed wine." creating the term Honeymoon.

As Always,


Sources Cited :

Phipps, Ciara; Reed, Claire. “Making Vintage Wedding Dresses: inspiring timeless Style”. The Crowood Press. Ramsbury, Marlborough. 2017

The Diamond Store magazine. "British Wedding Traditions Explained". August 9th, 2010.

M. Winner, Michelle. "12 Irish Wedding Traditions You Need to Know". March 18th, 2020.

Brennan, Summer. "A Natural History of the Wedding Dress". September 27, 2017,with%20ermine%20and%20squirrel%20fur. (Pictures 1.1, 1.2, 1.4)

Robert, Rebecca. "How to celebrate a Victorian wedding". January 15, 2019. (Picture 2.0)

Azazie. "History of the White Wedding Dress". August 27th, 2014. (Picture 1.6,1.8)

Baulch Klein, Margeaux. "Wedding Looks Throughout History". July 31, 2019. 20 (Pictures 1.9, 2.1)

Bellatory. "600 Years of Wedding Dress Styles". September 2, 2020.,waist%2C%20and%20a%20full%20skirt.

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