A White Wedding Dress?

White, as a symbol of purity and innocence, goes back to ancient Greece and Rome, where priestesses and vestal virgins wore this colour. However, the colour also expresses joy and happiness, which is why church vestments at Easter, celebrating the Resurrection, are white. Hence, the white wedding gown advertises the bride’s happiness and joy, not necessarily her purity.

However, for the bride to wear white at her wedding is a recent tradition. According to most sources, it was not until the late nineteenth century that brides began wearing white wedding gowns in Europe. This tradition became very fashionable in Victorian times (circa 1840s–1900). Amongst upper-class Victorian ladies, the white dress showed off wealth socially. After all, as a white dress is very impractical, it was its own advertisement that it would only be worn once, on that very special occasion. These were, of course, times when most people only owned two outfits: working clothes and Sunday best. Hence, the wealthy alone could afford a creation that would only be worn on one special day. Slowly, however, despite its ostentatious beginnings, the white wedding dress gained in popularity and is today a firmly established tradition.

Before the white wedding gown, new brides were free to select any colour except red and black, traditionally linked with witchcraft and the devil. However, a widow marrying for the second time could choose to wear black at her wedding, provided she also wore a rose in her hair. Prospective brides did not rush out to buy something new for the occasion, but simply decked themselves out in their best finery. The following English rhyme advises which colours were considered suitable for the wedding gown:

Married in blue, love ever true,

Married in white, you’ve chosen right,

Married in red, you’ll wish yourself dead,

Married in black, you’ll wish yourself back

Married in brown, you’ll live out of town,

Married in yellow, jealous of your fellow,

Married in pink, of you only he’ll think,

Married in green, sorrow is soon seen.

In many parts of England, green was regarded as an unlucky colour, especially for a bride to wear. Green was seen as the colour of mean-spirited fairies, pixies, and malicious wood spirits and, therefore, was to be avoided at all cost. It was believed that these spiteful little beings resented anyone else wearing their colour and, therefore, take revenge. Already in ancient times, it was believed in many northern European countries that a bride wearing green was liable to be carried off by the ‘little people’ to their underground abodes.

Apart from the colour chosen, various traditions are also linked with the making of the wedding dress and the choice of material. Superstition dictates that the bride making her own wedding dress is most unlucky, as this presages a life of tribulations and nothing but hard work ahead. Similarly, a bride was not to try on the completed bridal ensemble before the wedding day. Should this, however, prove unavoidable, she was, on no account, to look at herself in a full-length mirror. This superstition stems from the belief that a part of oneself is caught up in the reflected image. Therefore, she would not be presenting her whole self to her new husband. Alternatively, to avoid the ill luck associated with looking at herself in a full-length mirror completely dressed for the ceremony, the bride could do so by not wearing one of her gloves. 

It was considered important that the wedding dress, on no account should be finished until just before the ceremony or she would incur bad luck in the future. Hence, a short length of hem could be left unfinished until the very last moment; a last stitch added to the bride’s dress just before she left for church was thought to bring her luck in the future. It was also universally acknowledged that the groom, under no circumstances, should see the wedding dress before his bride joined him at the altar. It was equally unlucky for bride and groom to see each other on the morning before meeting at church. The seriously superstitious even warned that the groom should resist the temptation of seeing his bride-to-be come down the aisle. 

Silk was the preferred material for bridal gowns in the past, whereas satin was considered unlucky. A velvet gown was considered too ostentatious for ordinary folk and, therefore, thought to lead the couple to poverty later in life. Some brides sewed a hair or a silver coin into their dress for good luck. Pearls, considered symbolic of tears, were not to be featured on any part of the dress and not worn at all by the bride. It was thought that for each pearl the bride wore, her husband would cause her weeping. Finally, a bride should always have her hair dressed and her veil adjusted by a happily married woman, as this happiness would transmit to the future wife.  

In modern times, most of these traditions have been forgotten or are purposefully ignored. Grooms select the dress with their young brides; the dress can be of any fabric and any style; and red, and even black, have become favoured colours at weddings for the mother of the bride, the guests, and even for bridesmaids to wear. Similarly, in bridal bouquets, most flowers are considered acceptable and depend on individual preferences and coordination with the bride’s ensemble – all symbolic meaning once attached to the various flowers a young bride held, lost and forgotten.


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