Jo Wheeler - Photographer
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History of a white wedding dress

It all started in 1840, with a young woman called Victora...

a brief history of why brides choose a white wedding dress.

In no particular order, I'm looking at the background to various wedding traditions. If you want to learn about the bended knee proposal and engagement rings, click here.

Once a proposal has been made, one of the first things you'll think about is a wedding dress. That said in the 21st century, there are also wedding trouser suits and all manner of wedding attire that is straying away from the traditional white dress, but have you ever wondered why a white dress has been so popular for so long?

Historians will say that Queen Victoria who reigned between 1837 until her death in 1901 is responsible for the tradition of a bride wearing a white dress on her wedding day.

Before I get into the white wedding dress thing, here is a bit of history about Queen Victoria:

  • Alexandrina Victoria was born on 24th May 1819.
  • She was born without much fanfare as, at the time, she was 5th in line to the throne.
  • With the death of her father and the death of four legitimate male heirs, she became the next legitimate heir.
  • She first met her future husband Prince Albert a few months before her 17th birthday in 1836.
  • She became Queen in 1837, one month after her 18th birthday.
  • She proposed to Albert in October 1839 - as Monarch she had to be the one to propose - it was only their second meeting, but they had corresponded by letter in the intervening time.
  • They were married on 10th February 1840 with her wedding being the first of a reigning Monarch since 1554.
  • Both bride and groom were 20yrs old.
  • They had nine children,
  • She could speak many languages, including German, French, Italian and Latin.
  • Albert died aged 41 after only 21 years of marriage to Victora.
  • She never got over his death and it is said she had his clothes laid out for him every morning for the next 40yrs until her own death in 1901.
  • She never re-married and died a widow in 1901, aged 81
  • The time of her reign is known as the Victorian era.

So onto the whole white dress thing:

Up until the time of Victoria's marriage, most monarchs were married in royal crimson robes. There was the odd monarch who was married in white, but as most royal weddings took place at night with only a handful of guests, no one really got to see what the bride was wearing.

The Limes, Solihull Civil Wedding Photographer Queen Victoria wanted to be seen on her wedding day, not only by the many invited guests (about 300) but also by the people she reigned over. She was already a popular monarch and wanted to make the most of this.

So she opted for a white dress. At the time, white was seen to be a sign of purity, innocence and girlhood and the choice would only enhance her own purity and innocence.

Wearing white also had a practical effect – instead of somewhat blending into the background in her crimson robes, she became more visible to the crowds of well-wishers who gathered to see her bridal procession to St James Palace – although I don’t think she realised her choice of wedding dress would have such a positive outcome.

Our current Queen Elizabeth II is also aware that she needs to ‘be seen’ and always wears colourful outfits with a hat so she can be spotted in a crowd of dark suits.

White was also an extravagant choice as most people in the 1840s did not have access to laundry facilities and therefore keeping anything white was a challenge, let alone a wedding dress.

Wearing white was seen as a sign of wealth, but was not the colour of choice for wealthy brides. Wealthy brides of the time chose vibrant, bright colours to get married in, wearing their 'wealth' for all to see with their best furs, jewellery and embroidered heavy fabrics on display.

Poorer brides married in their 'best' dress that was also used for other occasions, sometimes a decent dress had to be borrowed from a family member.

After the wedding of Victoria, white became the colour of choice for brides trying to imitate her and thanks to the press coverage at the time of the ‘white wedding’ along with paintings and souvenirs, the white wedding dress became a tradition the world over because Queen Victoria was the head of the then British Empire.

Over 180 years later, a white (or cream) wedding dress is still the most popular choice of colour for a wedding.

It is also said that Queen Victoria asked that no one else wear white on her wedding day (is this why it is seen to be inappropriate to wear white to a wedding?) however, she dressed her 12 bridesmaids in white dresses adorned with roses. It is said that one of the guests commented that the bridesmaids looked like village girls - probably not meant as a compliment.

Queen Victoria’s dress was also simple in design, meaning the style was easily copied by those wishing to imitate her. Imitation still seems to be a thing today with royal brides’ dresses being copied to be sold to those wishing to wear a similar dress to the latest royal bride.

The train of Victoria's dress was 18 feet long (over 5 meters) and required all her 12 bridesmaids to carry it.

Queen Victoria did not wear any of her tiaras for her wedding, just a wreath of orange blossom which is said to represent chastity. It appears that when her daughters were married, they also wore orange blossom wreaths on their heads.

Victoria had the myrtle from her bouquet planted and a sprig from the bush was carried by Queen Elizabeth on her wedding and it is suggested that every royal bride since has had a sprig of myrtle from this bush in her bouquet.

Victoria's dress was made of cream satin woven in Spitalfields, the centre of the silk industry in London, along with a handmade Honiton lace veil.

Honiton is in East Devon and the village had been making lace since the 16th century where it was purchased and worn by wealthy of the world. The lace for Queen Victoria was woven into sprigs and motifs that were made separately and then sewn together to create the veil.

It is said that the original patterns for these were destroyed so they could not be copied. The veil was 4 yards (3.65 meters) in length and .75 yards wide (.68 of a meter).

The use of the veil also helped promote the Victorian idea of modesty and propriety and etiquette books of the time spread the notion that brides were too timid to show their faces in public until they were married.

Henley in Arden Wedding Photographer Queen Victoria recycled her veil many times for the Christenings of her children, grandchildren, jubilee portraits and finally, she was buried in white with her wedding veil covering her face.

There were no photographs of the actual wedding as photography was still 10yrs away from being advanced enough for the occasion, but it is said Victoria and Albert dressed in their wedding attire some 14ys later and had their photograph taken.

Since this tradition was established, over the years Hollywood movies have helped keep the tradition alive. But British royal weddings have also cemented the tradition and it would appear that for the foreseeable future, a white wedding will remain popular.