The most common symbol of a wedding is the white dress worn by the bride. We’re told it’s a long-standing tradition and that women have been wearing white wedding dresses from time immemorial. But in fact, that’s not entirely true.
Long ago, women wore their best dress for a wedding, and those dresses were often black. Those dresses were designed to be worn multiple times, as few women had the money to buy a dress that was only going to be used once in their lives. They typically avoided white because it was hard to keep clean and showed stitching errors very clearly.
Royal people had no such concerns, but nonetheless, white weddings didn’t earn the public fancy until Queen Victoria of England wore a white satin and lace gown in her wedding to Prince Albert in 1840.
Since Queen Victoria’s picture was seen all around the world thanks to engravings depicting the wedding ceremony, it may have been at that time when the white wedding dress became a fantasy ideal.
By the time the 20th century began, brides from wealthy British and American families began to dress in white wedding gowns after Queen Victoria’s wedding. That was also the time the white wedding gown began to be seen as a symbol of innocence and purity. However, white gowns were still out of the financial reach of many middle-class women.
That is, until World War II. Although silk, a popular wedding dress material, was rationed—the Army was making parachutes out of all the silk it could get—synthetic fabrics were being created as a part of the war effort, too. The bridal industry was actually able to successfully lobby for an exemption on silk rationing for the sake of wedding dresses because “that’s what the boys overseas were fighting for.”
That era also saw the beginning of the wedding dress as a single-wear purchase. The idea that a wedding dress would be worn once and then stored in a trunk or closet to be passed on to a daughter was also a very recent development.
At the end of the war, synthetic fabrics just as good as silk and much cheaper (and therefore accessible to middle class women) were in mass production, and the bridal industry swung into high gear, filling magazines with photos of women in white wedding dresses.
Surprisingly, even as the sexual revolution began and the conformity of earlier years ended, the tradition of the white wedding remained in the public consciousness. Even though it’s the 21st century and wedding traditions are changing, the white wedding gown as a symbol of bridal bliss is still alive and well.