Queen Victoria set two strong fashion trends during her lifetime: deep black for mourning and white wedding dresses. (Although black had been worn in the Western world for mourning since Roman times, Queen Victoria elevated it to another level.) Before her, royal brides wore wedding dresses in a variety of hues, with red being one of the most popular; while white dresses were reserved for women who were being presented at court.
Queen Victoria, in her wedding dress and veil from 1840, painted in 1847 as an anniversary gift for her husband, Prince Albert
© The Picture Art Collection/Alamy
Intent on making a statement, the fashion-loving Queen chose a non-traditional dress and flower crown for her wedding to Prince Albert on 10 February 1840, which she said was “the happiest day of my life”. The dress was made from Spitalfields cream silk satin with a flounce of Honiton lace at the neck and sleeves; and with its slim waist, full crinoline petticoat and lace embellishments, it’s still considered the “classic” wedding dress silhouette in the West today.
As accounts of Victoria’s wedding spread, other European leaders followed suit. The new dresses were conspicuously luxurious: laundering clothing was taxing in the 19th century and white dresses were hard to maintain. Unlike today, wedding gowns were worn several times during a lifetime; even Queen Victoria brought hers out for other events. As white dresses gained popularity for weddings, they gained new symbolism—the colour began to signify purity and innocence, in addition to wealth. White also looked good in early black-and-white or sepia-toned photography.
Princess Margaret and Antony Armstrong-Jones leaving Westminster Abbey on their wedding day
© Central Press/Stringer/Getty
However, it would take another few decades for white wedding dresses to be democratised among middle-class marrieds in Europe and the United States. Until then, many women simply wore their nicest dress on their wedding day. As society became more prosperous in the aftermath of the Second World War and clothing became cheaper to produce, the white, single-use, wedding dress—and lavish party to show it off—became a distinctive part of getting married.
Portrait of Rainier III, Prince of Monaco and Princess Grace on their wedding day on April 19, 1956 in Monaco
The portrayal of weddings in Hollywood, as well as the speed and ease in which people could see images of celebrity weddings, helped cement the notion that marriage demanded a white dress. In 1956, film footage and photographs of Grace Kelly in her wedding gown, made from lace, silk, pearls and tulle, quickly made their way across the globe. In 1981, 750 million people watched Charles, Prince of Wales marry Lady Diana Spencer in her ivory silk taffeta gown with 25-foot train by David and Elizabeth Emanuel. More recently, Kate Middleton’s Alexander McQueen by Sarah Burton dress and Meghan Markle’s dress by Clare Waight Keller for Givenchy inspired copies overnight.
Diana, Princess of Wales wearing an Emanuel wedding dress, with Prince Charles, Prince of Wales following their wedding on July 29, 1981
© Anwar Hussein/Getty
Kate Middleton post her wedding with Prince William on April 29, 2011
© Pascal Le Segretain/Getty
Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex, and Meghan, Duchess of Sussex after their wedding ceremony on May 19, 2018
© ANDREW MATTHEWS/Getty
And then there’s the tradition to close couture shows with a white wedding gown. Designers have long made wedding dresses for private clients and, during the first half of the 20th century, these gowns sometimes made the shows of the summer collections. Jeanne Lanvin’s white wedding dress, designed for the marriage of her beloved daughter Marguerite Marie-Blanche to the Count Jean de Polignac in 1924, is a poignant example. While the idea of closing a couture show with a white wedding dress may date to the 1940s or 1950s. In any case, by 1957 it had become a tradition—a Vogue article from April that year states that “spring’s Paris Collections… traditionally close with the presentation of a bride’s dress”. Some of these showstoppers, such as Yves Saint Laurent’s cocoon dress from 1965, have become iconic.
Today, even in cultures where white wedding dresses are not the norm, such as China—traditionally red symbolises luck and prosperity—some brides change into white dresses for official photographs. And although the white dress is sometimes replaced with a white trouser suit, the colour remains a top choice for celebrating a union.
Chinese actors Angelbaby and Huang Xiaoming on their wedding day
A few more recent celebrity weddings, however, could initiate a break with tradition. Reese Witherspoon’s blush-pink gown from her 2011 wedding increased the sales of pastel-hued wedding dresses in some of America’s established bridal boutiques; while on the runway, Adut Akech closed the Chanel AW18 couture show in a mint-green, two-piece tweed suit. Nearly 180 years after Queen Victoria’s wedding, the time may have come to bring some colour back to the big event.
Chanel autumn/winter 2018
© Stephane Cardinale – Corbis/Getty
Chanel autumn/winter 1987
© Daniel SIMON/Gamma-Rapho/Getty
Elizabeth Taylor on the day of her wedding to Conrad ‘Nicky’ Hilton on May 6, 1950
© Frank Worth, Courtesy of Capital Art/Getty
Swedish-born actor Ingrid Bergman (1915-1982) with her first husband, Petter Lindstrom, at their wedding
© Hulton Archive/Stringer/Getty
Heidi Klum wore two bridal gowns for her wedding to Tom Kaulitz
Look towards detachable jewellery to make the most of your bridal buys
Elie Saab designed two extravagant wedding dresses for his daughter-in-law