Royal weddings, often billed to TV audiences as fairytales come to life, have long captured the attention of American brides-to-be.
17 million Americans watched the 1981 televised wedding of Charles, Prince of Wales, and Lady Diana Spencer while in 201123 million viewers in the U.S. watched the coverage of Prince William and Kate Middleton’s wedding. Each of these weddings has influenced bridal fashion in the years following the nuptials but no royal wedding has had more influence on the American wedding then one that took place before Americans were able to watch it live through the television.
It is almost impossible to imagine a wedding, whether historic or modern, without the traditional white bridal gown. This tradition though is relatively new in the history of the western wedding. The tradition of wearing a white wedding gown began with Queen Victoria of England at her 1840 wedding to her beloved cousin, Prince Albert.
At the time, white was not a common choice of dress fabric. In addition to being expensive, white fabrics were not as easy to keep clean. For those who made their own clothing, any faulty stitches or imperfections would be more likely to stand out in white. Most women had just one or two dresses they wore, one for every day use and the other for special occasions. That meant a woman’s wedding gown also functioned as the gown they wore to christenings, funerals, etc. The second dress could be any color, including black.
The Queen did not wear white to flaunt her wealth or reflect her purity. For Victoria, the decision to wear white was to show off the Honiton lace trim of her gown. During the mid-nineteenth century, England’s lace makers were struggling to work due to the effects of the Industrial Revolution. Featuring the lace on her dress was meant to draw attention to, and revitalize support for, the failing local industry.
Affluent weddings in the 1800s were often about political alliances and assertions of wealth and power. Queen Victoria famously married for love and her dress ultimately reflected that. She wore a romantic dress designed by the painter, William Dyce, and sewn by her personal dressmaker, Mary Bettons. Following the fashionable 1840s silhouette, Queen Victoria’s gown featured a décolleté bodice and a Bertha collar that drew attention to the sweeping lines of her bare neck and shoulders. To emphasize her figure, the bodice ended in a dropped V-shape, surrounded by deep pleats sewn into the waistband of the dome-shaped skirt. In her hair she wore a wreath of orange blossoms, symbolizing purity, and myrtle, symbolizing love and domestic happiness.
Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, the United States was still struggling to establish its own national identity. American women were less inclined to take up fashions started by an English Queen. About a decade after Queen Victoria’s wedding, Godey’s Lady’s Book, one of the first women’s magazines in America reported, “Custom has decided, from the earliest ages, that white is the most fitting hue, whatever may be the material. It is an emblem of the purity and innocence of girlhood, and the unsullied heart she now yields to the chosen one.”
And thus bridal fashion has been changed ever since.
Explore this history of bridal fashion from the 1800s to today at the Women’s Museum of California. The Big White Dress exhibit will be in the Museum gallery through July 1st.