Now & Then: The History of the White Wedding Dress

The white wedding dress is still the most popular choice of even the most modern of brides.

The focal point of every wedding – even the most casual – is the dress.

Most feminists manage to turn a blind eye to the entrenched patriarchy behind most wedding rites. Even after decades of changing attitudes, the traditional long white gown symbolizing virginity is still the most popular choice of modern brides, by far. While early Roman brides wore white robes as a tribute to Hymen, the god of marriage and fertility, the white wedding dress is in fact a relatively recent phenomenon.

For medieval brides blue was the color of purity, not white. The wedded couple would wear blue ribbons, which evolved into our “something blue” tradition today. For centuries afterwards, brides wore bright colored wedding dresses to symbolize their happiness. Depending on their status and position, they’d incorporate expensive fabrics like fur, velvet or silk. White was considered the traditional color of mourning and therefore the last choice for a wedding dress.

The wedding dress responsible for the prevailing Western trend for long, white wedding dresses.

All that changed in 1840 when Queen Victoria wore a white satin and lace gown at her wedding to Prince Albert. The official wedding portrait was published around the world and her elaborate full-skirted fairytale white wedding gown became the first choice of Western brides, then and now, looking to be “princess for a day.”

Yoko Ono wore a white mini dress with a sun hat, over-sized sunglasses and white knee-highs for her 1969 wedding to John Lennon.

Traditional white dress fever dipped during the depression in the 1930s, when women settled for their “best dress” to get married.  Wartime brides in 1the 1940s got married in their uniforms or scraped enough fabric rations together to sew a simple dress.  The impact of Grace Kelly’s “Wedding of the Century” to Prince Rainier of Monaco in 1956, and her highly influential MGM designed gown made of ivory peau de soie, some with a fitted bodice and Brussels lace embroidered sleeves, inspired a return to the full-skirted romantic looks of the Victorian age by women in the prosperous post-war era.

Bianca Jagger’s gender bending wedding pantsuit was both chic and shocking in 1971.

The counter culture 1960s and 1970s ushered in an age of unorthodox wedding dresses, notably minidresses worn by such celebs as Mia Farrow at her 1966 wedding to Frank Sinatra and Yoko Ono at her 1969 wedding to John Lennon. When Priscilla Bealieu wed Elvis at the Aladdin Hotel in Las Vegas, the commercial wedding industry – and its tendency towards cheese – was born. Her big bouffant veil and babydoll-style dress perfectly matched the glitz of the wedding setting. When Bianca Jagger wed Mick in St. Tropez in 1971 wearing a large floppy hat and a white pant suit with – outrageously – nothing underneath, it seemed as if wedding attire would never be the same again.

Princess Diana’s fairytale dress reignited a trend for big wedding dresses that lasted throughout the 1980s.

And yet, in 1982, Lady Diana Spencer’s wedding to Prince Charles showcased another fairy-tale bride complete with a grand white Victorian-styled dress. Puff-sleeved with a fitted bodice and full-skirted of ivory taffeta, it inspired a generation of meringue-like frocks and royal wedding recreations across the U.S.

Carolyn Bessette’s sleek and sexy Narciso Rodriguez wedding gown.

The nineties saw a return to sleeker, less complicated styles. Carolyn Bessette Kennedy, the “it” girl of the  1990s embodied the simple yet classy look in the Narciso Rodriguez bias-cut silk sheath she wore in 1996 for her wedding to John F. Kennedy Jr..

Rocker Gwen Stefani’s unique pink and white dress showed classic with-a-twist wedding style.

In 2002, No Doubt singer Gwen Stefani embraced a classic style with a unique twist in her custom-made silk faille wedding dress Galliano for Dior gown with a fuchsia dip-dyed skirt.  The dress garnered accolades among critics and brides-to-be alike, making various best celebrity wedding dresses of all time lists. Stefani donated the wedding gown to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London in 2011, cementing its place in wedding dress history.

Want to catch up on some more fashion history?

Now & Then: The History of Shapewear.

Now & Then: The History of the Sneaker.

Now & Then: The History of the Statement Outfit.

Now & Then: The History of Flared Pants

Now & Then: The History of the Ballet Flat

Now & Then: The History of the Breton Shirt

Now & Then: The History of the Platform Shoe

Now & Then: The History of the Pencil Skirt

Now & Then: The History of Skinny Jeans

Read more Now & Then articles here.

Rowena Ritchie

Rowena is EcoSalon’s West Coast Fashion Editor and currently resides in San Francisco, CA.