Bridal Party: Pomp, Power, and the Myth of Virginity

The DRESS. So serious a topic it deserves ALL CAPS, also known as an Internet scream.

Michael standing in a purple dress, holding a cocktailAfter “congratulations/yay/oh sweetie that’s wonderful (mom),” the first thing most people asked me when I told them my partner and I were tying the knot was “what are you going to wear.” In my mind, the dress was the last thing I had to worry about behind, say, what meaningful things I would say to my person in front of my friends and loved ones, or how various elements of the ceremony would reflect what we mean to one another. And anyway, shopping comes easy for me, and, as I mentioned in my last post, I didn’t want to go into debt over a single weekend and I wanted a dress I could wear again for other occasions… such as cocktail parties. Or someone else’s wedding. That combined with the fact that I look like death warmed over in white pretty much ruled out the possibility of a months-long, painstaking search for an expensive white gown.

You can’t play croquet with a mallet in one hand and a cocktail in the other in a gown. Priorities, people! And frankly, white is a tough color to pull off, with or without tasteless jokes about a woman’s, ahem, “purity” included.

Oh hey! Speaking of perpetuations of antiquated notions of female sexuality, did you know that the Western tradition of white wedding gowns actually has nothing to do with virginity?


Historically, weddings have been the ritualistic symbols of the exchange of property and the unification of power, and so brides from particularly wealthy families used their dresses as a way to show off their socioeconomic status.

English royals wore dresses made of woven precious metals and during the Italian Renaissance,brides had their dowries straight-up sewn INTO their dresses so that everyone could literally see what they were worth. Having no context for a dowry, I imagine golden grails dangling off gowns already dripping with rare jewels. Clanging brides marching off to their dutiful contractual consolidation of patriarchal power.

But let’s take a break from that last sentence and talk about where the white wedding dress came from.

In the pre-Industrial world, textiles were a crucial way to publicly show exactly how wealthy you and your family were. Elaborate weaving styles and rare colors made for excellent public displays of power. Before the advent of Clorox, white was an extremely difficult and expensive textile color to achieve and even more difficult to maintain. Wealth, power, and the color white therefore went hand-in-hand.

photo of a long, silver dress that looks old and fancyBut the white wedding dress that launched a million brides was none other than Queen Victoria’s. While she wasn’t the first wealthy so-and-so to wear a white dress, she was arguably the most famous. Ironically, though, her choice of white wasn’t connected to a display of wealth, but instead as a show of dedication to her country during a time of widespread poverty. In a rare turn of double irony, she did that by spending a fortune on her gown. BY WHATEVER MEANS NECESSARY.

At the time, England’s traditional textile industries were being done in by the Industrial Revolution, which was laying waste specifically to the country’s handmade lace industry and creating an ocean of unemployed artisans.

[Okay, bear with me… the history interlude is nearly concluded.]

Queen Victoria was already Queen (rather than a princess about to become the Queen Consort) when she married and she needed to flex her Queenly muscle a little bit to show that she wasn’t just an ornament to someone else’s throne. She wanted to break from the royal tradition of gowns of woven gold and silver, to set herself firmly apart, but also to show her support of England’s economy and its artisanal heritage as its Head of State. And so she wore on her dress a large bit of handmade Honiton lace. It was decided that the best way to show off the lace was to have her wear a white dress.

And voilà. We have the modern tradition of the white wedding gown, born of a royal, trendsetting political statement.

Couple this with the fact that wealthy women used not only the materials, but the size of their dresses to convey the size of their fortune (the more powerful their families, the more physical space they took up with their dresses), and you get the propensity for ENORMOUS wedding gowns. It’s a sort of textile version of “the higher the hair, the closer to god [honey].”

Princess Di in a massive white dressa black and white photo of a bride in a long white dress with a train

Eventually the Church[es] adopted the trend for christenings, confirmations, and baptisms, when children would get “married” to God. In the 20th Century, the white dress became THE garment for women to wear when making any vow during a religious ceremony, including marriages conducted by a priest or pastor.

Queen Victoria in a white wedding dress next to a white confirmation and baptism dress

On the one hand, I do like that Queen Victoria’s dress symbolically supported her country’s artisans and stood in protest to the economic decimation that occurred as a result of the Industrial Revolution, while at the same time letting people know that she was no King’s ornamentation, but the leader of a nation.

But I also find it hard to get behind the idea that unchecked economic extravagance—the romanticizing of the royals, of class inequality by proxy—somehow has anything to do with the intimacy built with another person. And that’s how THE DRESS is so often sold to women. That what they’ll remember about the day—the most important part of their wedding—will be a piece of clothing used to denote wealth and power.

The whole dramatic white wedding gown thing is so often depicted in the media as a game of one-upmanship, yet another way for women to compete aesthetically with one another, to cash in on what the media bills as a woman’s greatest asset: her looks. I mean, nothing says “hallowed complex commitment to another human” like a good ol’ fashionedbride vs. bride showdown over an expensive dress to be worn once.

brides-to-be fighting over a dress

Original caption: “Frantic: women protect wedding gowns.” I had no idea that gowns were endangered!

I fought no fellow bride for my super duper discounted purple dress from House of Hengst. Who has time for bride fighting these days?

So, the moral of this history interlude is simply this: feel free to throw off the weight of white if you like (emphasis on the “if you like”)! There’s no philosophically deep reason for the color or the tradition of extravagance. Unless, of course, you’re a noble, royal, or textile fan-person.

Previously: Let’s Get Married!

by Michael Braithwaite
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13 Comments Have Been Posted

White Wedding

This article is very interesting, said one history nerd about another. I am left with one question though: how did white get tied to the notion of purity? Was it linked to dying fabric, where one drop of dye matter changed white cloth into something else? (The only 'pure' white fiber i can think of is wool - not really wedding gown material.)

White wedding (dress)

I think that the connection between wealth and purity and women of lower socio-economic class and 'loose morals' would link the two.

Wedding dress

I deeply appreciate your historical interlude:D This was very interesting! When I think of how heavy my wedding dress was (there was no way I could play croquet, and frankly, I didn't have much room for cocktails either - yours is clearly the more sensible choice), I wonder how it would have been had it been over-strewn with jewels and the occasional gold brick;)

Sincerely, one who has had her veeery expensive dress that she for certain would sell for at least half the price bunched up in a bag in the loft for over six years without even sending it for a dry clean (and you don't want to know how heavy it rained that day...). I sometimes feel sad at the thought of all the lovely fabric that is just lying there and getting ruined, which is of course what I get for choosing white. I never wear white, so I can't even use it to sew myself a party dress. Traditionally, one would use the fabric over again for the children's baptism dresses, but I don't have children (and wouldn't baptise them anyway). It does feel like a waste - but it was very pretty!

I am LOVING this series.

I am LOVING this series. Can't wait to see what's next.
Maybe somewhere along the line you can answer why on EARTH people are supposed to save the top layer of their cake to eat on the 1 year anniversary. That just seems gross. And weirdly ritualistic for no apparent reason.
Then again, the whole wedding hubbub seems weirdly ritualistic and gross to me. I very much like your take on it all.

An even more troubling tradition...

Thanks for this - it's a great historical truth that many people don't know. I think the clothing manufacturers had a lot to do with popularizing The Special Big White Dress idea. I was interviewed for a magazine story about the Big Black Dress which is an idea that just hasn't seemed to catch on.

But, I must add (with apologies to all who feel this is a beautiful tradition) in my mind being 'given away' by your father is the most troubling wedding tradition. It's the most direct echo of the ancient (and current) idea of wife as property handed from father to husband.

No need to apologize for the

No need to apologize for the history. I love it. Absolutely fascinating. I look forward to reading more!

I agree! No being given away

I agree! No being given away for me. It's off-putting how ritualized it all is.

Wonderful article! A lot of

Wonderful article! A lot of modern traditions spring from Victoria and Albert (engagement rings, honeymoons). Perhaps you could examine how women have gone from looking "pure" on their wedding day to the present where the goal is to look sexy and flaunt your literal assets. Something I don't understand is why women are determined to wear the white dress, but then go for the tanned skin (if they aren't naturally tan) on their wedding day. It all clashes so strangely.

My mom was supposed to sew my

My mom was supposed to sew my wedding dress (a sort of Audrey Hepburn a la War and Peace sheath dress), but she got sick. So I ended up borrowing a very poofy civil-war era style ballgown, complete with hoopskirt, crinoline, and corset. I hated it. So totally not my style.

In the years after my wedding, I've come to the conclusion that if I had it to do over again -- time travel or vow renewal or something -- I would not wear a new and expensive white wedding gown. I would wear red or fire-orange, because I look awesome in warm vibrant colors. I would not wear something long, I would wear a tea-length dress. And if I could, I would get it from a second-hand store and donate when I'm done with it. The saving grace to my wedding dress disappointment, in my mind, is that I do not have an expensive dress that I now must figure out what to do with. I'm really glad about that.

There's a trend in wedding dresses and wedding photography that I've seen in the past few years -- "wreck the dress," wherein brides burnt/ soak/ otherwise ruin their dress in a dramatic (and beautiful) fashion, all captured on film. Usually with the bride wearing the dress.

Every defense I've read of "wrecking the dress" says something about how it's a unique and stunning memory, and by ruining the dress you're making the statement that this is your one-and-only wedding, the only marriage you will have. I'm pretty sure no second marriage bride ever has been tacky enough to wear their first wedding dress to their second wedding, but that's not even really what bothers me. What bothers me is the wastefulness of it, and as I read your explanation of the intersections of wealth, power, and politics in creating the current wedding dress trends, I found myself wondering if this "wreck the dress" trend is another means of showing off wealth and power. After all, who burns an expensive dress but those who can afford it?.

More photos, more $

And those who can afford to pay for another photo shoot.

"I'm pretty sure no second

"I'm pretty sure no second marriage bride ever has been tacky enough to wear their first wedding dress to their second wedding" Allow me to pipe up and say that my mom was one of them. The thing was that she made her own dress, and she got married rather hurriedly to her first husband, who turned out to be a total flake. So eight years later when she married my dad, she saw no good reason to let a perfectly good dress which she still fit into go to waste. I personally don't see any problems in reusing a wedding dress, especially a handmade one, so long as it's still in good condition.

Recycled wedding gowns

Reusing a good dress was the first reason I ditched the white gown and bought a party dress instead! I grew up poor, and the idea of paying thousands of dollars for a dress I'll wear once was just completely beyond my understanding. I even tried looking at gowns a little bit - they all look nearly identical. Boring!

So I had a kicky 50s style gown made for me in blue and green and I think I get to feel good about every bit of it: Colors I love, a shape that looked really good on me, all the money went straight to the person who made it. It cost a good deal less than the cheapest white gown I could find, and I have a new party dress. It's awesome.

It's about time!

YES! I've been telling people for years that white had nothing to do with purity. White was definitely difficult to maintain - think about their methods of cleaning clothes back in the day - it was certainly reserved for the rich, who could afford to NOT wear a dress more than once.

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