White has become an essential symbol of everything bridal, culminating, of course, in the requisite white wedding dress. Wearing white on one’s wedding day has been subsumed into a cultural narrative of timeless tradition; we associate the white gown as a symbol of the bride’s sexual purity before consummating her marriage, a color of hope and peace. In reality, the color white’s association with brides, and especially with the wedding gown, has much more to do with conspicuous consumption and spectacle than virginity. Renaissance wedding dresses were usually green, a symbol of fertility, and throughout the 18th and most of the 19th centuries, wedding dresses came in a wide variety of colors. Some were white, but it wasn’t the exclusively expected color for a bride to wear; purple, deep blue, brown, red, and gold were also popular colors. The white wedding first became a sensation, and was then quickly incorporated as a tradition rich with symbolism, with Queen Victoria’s 1840 nuptials.
Queen Victoria’s white gown and her attendants’ white formal attire sparked admiration and imitation in the upper classes; newspapers emphasized the elegance of the all-white wedding. The white formal wear of Victoria’s wedding was more of a show of extravagance White dresses were more obviously luxury items; dirt, stains and age show quickly on light, non-patterned fabrics. This trend would grow in popularity among the middle classes as mass-produced textiles lowered clothing prices. More brides could purchase ready-made white gowns from major retailers in the latter half of the 19th century, and so the white wedding gradually became the standard.
For most of the 19th century, the majority of American brides wore their Sunday best on their wedding day, a dress that was often worn several times throughout a woman’s life for special occasions. Early 19th century Americans typically had very few clothes, especially before the technology of the Industrial Revolution made cotton easier to harvest and spin, so a separate dress to wear on a single occasion was extremely impractical. Even by mid-century, the wedding dress was not worn exclusively for the wedding, and colored dresses were still very popular.
Clearly, the two dresses from the 1860s are much more elaborate and formal, even if one is darker in color. This reflects a change in the formality of the wedding ceremony. Several women’s magazine articles from the 1880s and 1890s are dedicated to creating elegant wedding decor (often including elaborate floral arrangements, intricately crocheted doilies, special lighting, and false walls to cover fireplaces and wood stoves). The purpose of these home decorative elements in the wedding were to remove the practical aspects of the home for the wedding. Early 19th century weddings usually took place in the church and included the entire congregation; exclusivity did not become an issue until home weddings grew in popularity in the postbellum era. This was a source of criticism and lamentation from the older generation that viewed these more private, but also more spectacular, ceremonies as excessive. An extravagant and romanticized wedding day was seen as a mockery of the marriage vows’ solemnity and poor preparation for the drudgery of running a household, the impending possibility of childbirth, and the responsibilities that came with the change in social status. The elaborate scenery (most periodicals offer suggestions for transforming a parlor into a romantic “bower” complete with trees, copious amounts of flowers, fairy lights, and flower-studded netting to cover the walls) and the obviously luxurious dress intended for single use sharply separate the wedding day from the life into which the newlywed couple is entering. The white wedding is another step toward specialty and luxury, but was quickly incorporated into a narrative of purity and tradition, so that by the turn of the century, nearly all brides wore white, even poor brides. For example, William Dean Howells’ 1895 novella The Day of Their Wedding follows a Shaker couple who escape from their celibate community with the intent of eloping. They have virtually no money, but the young bride Althea is able to purchase a white dress. Althea balks at the extravagance of purchasing a new dress strictly for the purpose of the ceremony, but her groom Lorenzo insists; he is well aware of the social standards and throughout the story, he convinces Althea to adhere to these expectations, in order to do things “right.” The white wedding was one of those assumed cultural standards to which all brides were expected to conform. Today, a non-white wedding dress is considered “alternative”; even Jessica Biel’s pale pink gown was seen as a daring and unique wedding gown choice, though such a color would have been commonplace in the 1820s. The mass-production and standardization of clothing through the late 19th century, compounded by the increasingly elaborate standard for wedding ceremonies, resulted in white being the one and only color for a bride.
1812 wedding dress: http://www.metmuseum.org/Collections/search-the-collections/80013183
1860 wedding dress: http://www.metmuseum.org/Collections/search-the-collections/80035678
1869 wedding dress: http://www.metmuseum.org/collections/search-the-collections/80005673