When picking out a wedding gown, many women never consider a color other than white or some form of off-white. This is not precisely shocking, since white is a color that has been associated with brides quite literally for centuries.
On the other hand, white was not always assumed.
In Ancient Rome, white was pretty much a given, along with a flame-colored veil. It didn’t matter how old or young the bride was, her social status, or her personal taste. The wedding outfit was pretty much set in stone.
Eventually, though, the Roman Empire fell and things changed. Wealthy women wore the most elaborate gowns they could afford, including the use of the most expensive dyes possible.
The next mention of a white wedding gown comes from 1499 when Anne of Brittaney is reputed to have worn one for her marriage to Louis XII of France.
And again, white for weddings became an option, but by no means an expectation. Mentions of women wearing white for weddings begin to seriously resurface in the eighteenth century.
Hogarth painted The Wedding of Stephen Beckingham in 1729. Note the bride’s white gown and face-baring lace veil.
By 1743, a painting illustrating Samuel Richardson’s popular moral novel Pamela depicted the virtuous heroine wearing white and a demure little lace cap for her wedding.
By the end of the eighteenth century, white had become the single most popular color for fashionable ladies to wear, and thus the most popular color for wedding gowns. Well, at least for the young and (presumably) virginal. Even some royal brides started wearing white, including Napoleon Bonapart’s second wife, Marie Louise of Austria. Her gown for her proxy wedding to the Emperor was white embroidered with gold and silver leaves and Napoleonic bees.
Journal Des Dames et Des Modes showed its first white wedding gown in it’s pages in 1813:
proving that fashionable ladies were wearing white dresses for their weddings.
So what about the common assumption that Queen Victoria is responsible for white for weddings? Actually, white was already being worn by the majority of young, first-time brides who could afford a white dress. The change Victoria’s simple choice started was that the richest of the rich – including the royal – began to wear simpler white gowns with less gold and silver embroidery for their weddings.
And despite that change, the majority of brides did not wear white. In fact, for nearly forty years (1830 – 1870) the most popular color for wedding gowns in the American West was…
plaid, as illustrated by this wedding photograph of Margaret Tidd and her groom Samuel Brodhead in 1849.