Gowns in Europe and The Western World

By | June 7, 2020

Today brides in Europe and the Western World usually wear a white wedding gown by default for their first marriage and those that do not often do so out of deviation. This style’s universality is quite recent and became a requirement only in the mid-19th century after Queen Victoria’s marriage to Prince Albert. Before that, brides only wore white when they could afford it, the wealthy and royal wore blue or gold, and those who were not wealthy or descended from a royal family donned whatever color their favorite dress happened to be.

The earliest documented case of a white wedding gown in western culture was in 1406 during Princess Philippa’s wedding to King Eric. She donned a white tunic lined with squirrel and ermine fur. In 1558, Queen Mary I of Scotland donned a white gown during her wedding to a future King of France even though white was a color for mourning among French queens. At the time, white gowns were not a symbol of purity, but instead of wealth and status since they were expensive and required a lot of maintenance.

During Queen Victoria’s wedding to Prince Albert, she donned an opulent light-colored dress decorated with orange flower blooms designed in mid-19th-century style- a snug bodice embracing the natural waist, and a large full skirt held over the body with petticoats and crinolines. Although Queen Victoria’s wedding gown is often referred to as white, it was more of an ivory or light shade of pink. Instead of a jeweled crown, Queen Victoria wore a wreath of orange flowers- a more vibrant account of what a common country girl might wear for her wedding- and this captured the hearts of many of her subjects. British people romanticized the relationship between Prince Albert and Queen Victoria very much as they thought it to represent an ideal of family bliss. As a result, many young brides endeavored to emulate her wedding gown as much as they could. There are no pictures of Prince Albert and Queen Elizabeth during their wedding, although some court photos taken 14 years later when the couple was in their mid-thirties are often confused for wedding portraits since the queen is seen wearing a light-colored gown, veil, and a wreath of blossoms. Still, depictions of Queen Victoria on her wedding day were widely circulated.

The advent of photography and wedding portraits significantly contributed to spreading the influence of the white wedding gown. Other than being the selection of a popular queen, white gowns looked beautiful and were distinctive in the sometimes muddy-looking sepia-toned or black and white portraits, often utilizing similar fabrics as found in high-end mattresses or furniture. They appeared unique and presented a beautiful background for showcasing the bride’s beauty. By 1849, women’s publications were already declaring that not only was white the best color for a wedding gown but also the most suitable choice.

Godey’s Lady’s Book once published that regardless of the material a wedding dress is made of, white was the most appropriate shade for brides since it epitomizes purity and symbolizes the unsullied soul she yields to her soon-to-be husband. Victorian models of weddings, romance, and virtue were rewritten to reflect the white dress as a sign of purity rather than wealth and credit. The influence of Queen Victoria’s mid-19th-century style wedding gown- the snug waist, the lace, and the full skirt over crinolines and petticoats- is still regarded as the most popular wedding silhouette. Although the gown Queen Victoria donned on her wedding was made like many of the dresses she owned, reflecting the mid-19th-century fashion, its otherness is now integral to what makes the idea of a wedding gown so unique.

Many brides from China participate in elegant photoshoots while donning a white wedding gown and sometimes even make trips to New York or Paris solely to take these pictures even if she decides to dress in a traditional Chinese outfit for her actual wedding.

Traditional African wedding ensembles are available throughout the continent. The Ndebele community of South Africa, famous for its unique ringed jewelry worn to make the neck appear longer, still dress their brides in a nyoga-a beaded train dangling from the shoulders to the ground trailing behind her in a graceful, snakelike motion. In urban regions and some pastoral ones like Fransfontein in Namibia, it is not uncommon for weddings to be planned based on the western model, with the bride wearing a sizeable white gown, the groom a black tuxedo and the groomsmen and bridesmaids in matching outfits. Like many other parts of the world, weddings have become a focal feature in Africa’s consumption.

Although what was once Queen Victoria’s global empire has retired into the rainy isles from where it came, the influence of the large white wedding dress she popularized continues to grow across the globe, from Fransfontein to Nairobi, Melbourne to Bangkok, London to New York.

The purpose of marriage, and its implication, has developed significantly over the past two centuries. It is no longer practiced as a business arrangement between families, and the majority of people seeking to get married today are mainly motivated by love rather than worldly objects. Consequently, spouses now play increasing roles as lovers, family members, and friends, providing us with emotional support, companionship, fulfillment, financial partnership, passion, and inspiration.