Do I Really Need That: The Bridal Finery Edition

Start talking about weddings, and chances are pretty much everyone gets the same initial image: a woman in a big white gown with a veil on her head.

Of course, you will be wearing something (unless you are having a full-fledged naturist ceremony), but what is actually necessary? What’s optional? What do you really have to wear on your wedding day?

Wedding gown. Any fairly formal dress worn by a woman when she’s getting married. Today it’s usually white with a train, but that’s a fairly new tradition…as traditions go. Once upon a time, as in pretty much any time before the late nineteenth century, only very wealthy brides wore white, and before that, the wealthiest brides showed off the family fortune by using the most expensive dye stuffs they could manage. During most of the Westward Movement in the fledgling days of the United States, the most popular color for wedding gowns was actually plaid. Well into the twentieth century, a bride over the age of about twenty-five would never have dreamed of wearing white because she was ‘too old’ for such a youthful, innocent color. A second time bride would certainly never have considered white as an option, because white was for virgins.

Now the rules have relaxed in terms of who wears white. As Miss Manners repeatedly admonishes us, the state of the bride’s hymen is not our business. I agree firmly with her. If you look your best in white, or you want to wear white to ‘feel’ like a bride, by all means have at it, no matter what the state of your pocketbook or sexual history.

Unfortunately, by making white open to every bride, there has been a certain touch of pushiness to make sure every bride wears white whether she wants to or not. So do you have to wear white?

The answer to that is a resounding no. Do you look better and feel more festive in red? Blue? Pink? Purple? Green? Houndstooth checks? Well, then wear it. Whatever you choose to marry in is a wedding dress or wedding gown, depending on formality. And for that matter, you don’t have to wear a dress. You can choose a skirt and blouse, an elegant pant suit, a bikini, or a barrel on suspenders (braces, for our British readers), if you so desire. Legally, it makes no difference whatsoever. In terms of taste, well, that’s a different matter, but I leave that up to your personal thought processes. You know best whether wearing a bright orange dress will horrify or delight your social circle more…and which reaction you prefer to elicit in the masses.

Matching shoes. Some brides like the polished look of shoes that match the shade of their wedding gown perfectly. If that’s what you want, then dyed to match shoes are prtty much your option. Go to it, and enjoy your seamless look. It’s classic and classy.

Just keep in mind that matching is optional. It’s also perfectly correct and kind of fun to match your shoes to the bridesmaids’ dresses, your flowers, or that perfect red dress you were wearing when you met the groom. Metallics are fine. Bright colors are unexpected and quite delightful.

Choose your shoes according to your taste and the level of formality you intend for the day. Just be sure to get shoes you’ll be comfortable in when standing for a long time, and for goodness’ sake, break them in well before the big day! You don’t want blisters on your feet all during your honeymoon.

Reception Dress. Unless you’re from a culture where the bride changing her clothes multiple times during the celebration is traditional, chances are you’ve heard of this (if at all) only during the last couple years. It’s become a strong fashion trend among those with…well, the money to do it. The concept is supposedly that the bride will wear something so elaborate during the ceremony that she needs something lighter (and often shorter) to dance the night away in. Of course in practice, that isn’t always how it works out. Just recently on a wedding planning show on WETV, I saw a bride talking about her wedding gown which was moderately elaborate, and her reception gown which was pretty much entirely composed of crystals on a fabric backing and weighed in at sixteen pounds. It may have been spectacular to look at, but that’s an outfit that would get awfully uncomfortable awfully quickly.

This dress is, of course, entirely optional. If you have the cash and the desire, then have at it, and have my blessings. If you lack either, then just forget the concept exists. You don’t need it.

Reception shoes. Unless you plan to change your dress, I heartily encourage you to choose comfortable shoes for the wedding that you can feel good in through the reception. It’s up to you, of course, but one important thing to keep in mind is your hem. If you wear three-inch heels during the ceremony, then change into flats to dance in, you’re suddenly going to have a gown that’s dripping over the floor where those three inches used to be, leading to the potential for disaster on the dance floor. Choose a heel height you’ll feel good in for the whole celebration, or choose two dresses if you want to change shoes drastically.

Veil. Once upon a time, in certain cultures, a veil was an important part of wedding regalia that could not be ignored. In Ancient Rome, for instance, all brides wore flame-colored veils. It didn’t matter how old or young, what economic status, how many times they’d been married, or what their personal taste might be, they all wore the veil. Veils continued on and off, here and there, for several centuries. Then veils fell out of common use for most women, and veils as wedding regalia also fell into disuse. Brides wore whatever sort of hat or head covering was common to their geographic location and social status.

Then came the Neo-classic style that sprang up at the close of the eighteenth century. Suddenly, veils became big fashion news again, along with draped fabrics and a sudden downturn in the amount of underwear women wore. Since veils were fashionable, women wore them for their weddings. The odd thing is, when veils went out of general fashion, this time brides kept wearing them.

What does this mean for you? Well, it means it’s entirely optional whether or not you wish to wear a veil. It has not ‘always’ been done. It also means that if you were concerned about it being a statement of patriarchal dominance, you can stop worrying and decide on your own preference. The veil at this point is merely an outmoded fashion statement that got weirdly entrenched in one aspect of life. You’re just as married whether you choose to wear one or not, and it doesn’t say anything about who’s in charge of the new household.

Going Away Outfit. This is something that has fallen out of favor in the last forty years or so. It used to be that when the bride and groom left the reception, they were expected to immediately start off on their honeymoon, so they needed to be in traveling clothes. After the cutting of the cake and the bouquet and garter tosses, the bride and groom would discreetly disappear to change out of their formalwear. Once changed, they would leave the reception in a hail of rice or rose petals, and head for the train station or airport in nice new outfits. The bride would usually wear a corsage to mark the occasion. I think in all my life I have seen one bride and groom do this.

These days, the bride and groom are often the last people in attendance at their own reception. More and more couples choose to spend the wedding night at home or in a local hotel or B&B, have brunch with the families and out of town guests the next morning, and then head off to wherever they may be going. In that case, why change into traveling clothes? Why go to the expense of a new suit for each of you?

On the other hand, if you plan to start the honeymoon right away and feel like adding a cool, retro touch to your celebration, there are far worse things that you could do. Just don’t forget that corsage!

6 Responses to “Do I Really Need That: The Bridal Finery Edition”

  1. Sarah September 14, 2008 at 5:44 pm #

    I love seeing what brides choose to wear on their feet. At a recent wedding I attended, the bride, a very nontraditional girl, wore the typical poofy halter style white wedding gown. But on her feet? 6-inch platform black moon boots. I absolutely loved it! So very her, and as she’s had them for a good decade, they also served as her “something old.”

    You couldn’t actually see them, by the way, unless she lifted her skirt a bit to show them off!

  2. De September 15, 2008 at 8:28 am #

    My very best friend wanted to wear her Chuck Taylors under her gown for her impending nuptials, but it was veto’d by the groom (I suspect out of jealousy..hehe). However, that did give us the chance to go Wedding Shoe Shopping (yay!).

    And as The Boyfriend and I get closer to our own wedding, it sounds more and more to me like my guests will be lucky if I’m wearing shoes at all ;).
    (I’m a shoes-off-as-soon-as-I’m-home kind of girl!)

  3. Nicola September 15, 2008 at 8:54 am #

    When I got married, our priest said that we could wear whatever we wanted. So if we fancied getting married in jeans and tshirt, he wouldn’t mind. Really it’s about you and your partner, not what you wear – so do what you want!

  4. Never teh Bride September 15, 2008 at 11:04 am #

    I skipped the veil, my shoes didn’t quite match, and I never changed out of them. I almost skipped shoes altogether, but waterfront property in Florida occasionally comes complete with sand spurs…little spiky ball things that stick in your skin. I didn’t want to risk stepping on one when walking down the aisle.

  5. La BellaDonna September 16, 2008 at 6:50 pm #

    NtB – oh, I know those sticky little stinkers! For what it’s worth, the Neoclassical bridal veil was generally a lace scarf, and seldom – if ever – worn over the face. It was just an elegant and very expensive fashion accessory of the period – when one reads Mrs. Elton’s reference to “Very little white satin, very few lace veils – a most pitiful business!” in Jane Austen’s Emma, Mrs. Elton is referring to the lace veils on the bonnets of the guests. The Neoclassical bride generally wore at least part of her hair up, and the lace scarf/veil was draped very simply over the bun to hang down each side. If the bride was married in a bonnet, she might very well wear the veil down over the brim; it might, or might not, extend a few inches down past her eyes, or past her chin – and her mother and her guests might be wearing a bonnet very like it. The veil, whether of the scarf variety or the bonnet variety, would certainly be worn again – and often; it was a very costly article of fashion. Funnily enough, although the Roman bride and the Neoclassical bride might both wear “bridal veils”, the Roman bride’s was totally different from the Neoclassical veil, since the Roman bride’s veil was NOT made out of or trimmed with either net or lace – in fact, it was flame-coloured – and here’s a link to a modern-day woman getting married in one, with an entire ancient Roman ceremony to go with it! http://www.boston.com/yourlife/weddings/featuredweddings/gallery/washburn042200?pg=3

    The first Neoclassical fashion plate I have been able to find which specifically describes the outfit as a “white wedding dress” and a “veil” is dated 1813, and shows a very pretty Neoclassical gown, with the veil draped over the bun. White was not a common choice for a wedding gown for centuries, but it was common, both before and after the Neoclassical period, when the bride DID wear white, for her bridesmaids all to wear white as well – including wreaths and white veils! This accounts for quite a few of the 19th century photos of “double weddings”, which weren’t necessarily any such thing.

    I would say the single biggest difference between modern wedding dresses and wedding dresses of other periods, is that only in the latter half of the twentieth century and later was a wedding dress expected to be white, and worn only once. The idea of a gown, however spectacular the occasion, being worn only once, would have been unthinkable to most women. Up to the early/mid-twentieth century, even white gowns were worn again (although without the veil, and any wedding-specific ornaments, such as orange blossoms).

  6. Lucy Elliott May 3, 2009 at 1:50 pm #

    One of my friends wore her cowboy boots beneath her wedding dress – perfect for dancing at their barn dance reception!! Lot better value than buying wedding shoes you’re only going to wear once!! xxx