Sometimes I don’t wonder if the entire 20th Century can be laid at the feet of the Victorian era as one giant footnote. So much of what we do and think, particularly in Anglo-Western society and those countries influenced by it, can be traced back to Victorian attitudes either directly or as a reaction to them.

Wedding gowns are a perfect example. While we think of modern couples shaking things up by abandoning the time-honored white poufy wedding dress and changing up the traditions that seem to be as old as Western civilization itself, the fact is that most of what we associate with a “typical” wedding can trace its roots back about a century and a half.

There are a number of reasons, and theories, and I wouldn’t call myself an expert so feel free to delve into the many books and websites dedicated to these subjects to learn more. But here is the general overview as I understand it;

For starters, without getting into specific religious traditions there have historically been two kinds of weddings; the well-off custom event and the humbler one most people celebrated. A lot of what we now look back is of course the wealthier, fancier versions and this is particularly true the further back you go since history is more likely to record the goings on of the wealthy than the humble.

Before the Victorians brides pretty much wore whatever they felt would look good.Their best gown, obviously, and particularly for those with an eye to their social standing, attire that would signal their position. Furs, velvets and every color were acceptable but particularly for the wealthy and the aristocracy the wedding and the bride’s gown were a showcase of their wealth and so the fashion favored whatever was the most costly and rare in any given period. For example, many English royal brides before Victoria wore cloth of gold or silver-not something you’d ever catch a commoner in. Witness her cousin, Princess Charlotte’s amazing silver gown, currently at display in the Museum of London.

But in 1840 Queen Victoria wed Prince Albert and everything changed (well okay, everything started to change. She wore white not to signal virginity but at least partly as a patriotic gesture, the gown was made of English silk and lace to help revive the stumbling British handmade lace manufacture. As with many of her decisions it influenced her vast empire, thanks no doubt in part to the use of photography. Periodicals throughout the world covered the event (a decade later woodcuts of the royal couple’s Christmas Tree would go a long way towards creating the image of traditional Christmas as we know it). There are famous instances of white dresses before 1840 but generally speaking white was more associated with mourning than weddings. The color for purity was blue, and in the Middle Ages bride and groom alike would have had blue band on their attire. The symbol for chastity and purity was not in the color of the dress but often in the wearing of orange blossoms-a tradition which spread West from China and which Victoria herself also followed, donning a wreath of them in her hair.

The Industrial Revolution and rise of the middle class made for several changes; manufacture made things like a gown specifically for one single event much more accessible, likewise machine-made lace which was much less expensive handmade, and a white fabric was no longer an impossible-to-maintain nightmare. As before any brides used a dress they already owned and simply added the white veil, and others would dye a dress after being married in it. But while the white gown was becoming de rigueur the styles were still variable, until the 1940s most brides wore a dress that fit the current fashion. The 1920’s are a lovely example of this.

Around the 40s a new traditionalism sprang up (and not just in wedding attire) and suddenly the Victorian cut, that unmistakable “princess” silhouette with the full floor length skirt, bodice and petticoats, were all the rage again. The enormous publicity surrounding the wedding of Grace Kelly and Prince Rainier of Monaco in 1956 probably helped cement the look and for the next half century it became an article of faith that this was simply what a bride looked like and deviations, particularly ones that fit current fashions, came to be seen as a daring departure from tradition.

Ironically, it seems that one of Victoria’s reasons for choosing the dress style that she did was to avoid the push from her advisors to wed in her royal robes. She was already a ruling monarch, not a princess bride and it would have been a powerful political symbol of her status. But her match with Albert was more than that to her, it was a love match and like so many brides today she wanted her wedding to reflect that.

Now of course we have more traditions to choose from, and more mingling of cultures making sticking to one single fashion less inevitable. The institution of marriage had changed as well, and that is bound to affect the ceremony itself. Second marriages, older brides, same-sex ceremonies and cross-cultural unions have all shaken things up, and about time for it too-being able to choose exactly the wedding you want without it being a statement of anything more than your specific union is a good place to enter the 21st Century and start leaving those Victorians behind (unless you’re a steampunk, in which case go for it!).

~España Sheriff

Yipe! Volume 3, Issue 6, June 2011