History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

23 May 2007

Is she ... or isn't she? On White Weddings

I started thinking about this post five days before my May 19 wedding, realizing that I would probably be out of town when my turn came around again, so I wanted to get a jump on writing it. These days, last minute wedding plans include juggling one’s blogging schedule. At least Queen Victoria didn’t have to worry about that detail. However, she was an enthusiastic and passionate diarist, so I think her majesty might have enjoyed blogging, had it been invented at the time. The words of Lady Catherine de Bourgh [on her own musical talent], “If I had ever learned, I should have been a great proficient,” come to mind.

Since I chose to wear an ivory wedding gown (much better for brown-eyed redheads than bright white) I began to think about the concept of the White Wedding. On the one hand it could be argued that a 21st century woman north of her mid-30s is laughable in white, with all its virginal connotations; on the other hand, most of us should consider ourselves blessed to live in an age where just about anything goes.

Me in my wedding dress during a fitting

I remember reading the following chant in a book about various superstitions that my grandmother owned:

“Married in white, you will have chosen all right. Married in grey, you will go far away. Married in black, you will wish yourself back. Married in red, you’ll wish yourself dead. Married in blue, you will always be true. Married in pearl, you’ll live in a whirl. Married in green, ashamed to be seen, Married in yellow, ashamed of the fellow. Married in brown, you’ll live out of town. Married in pink, your spirits will sink.”

Once upon a time, before 1840, the white wedding gown was a rarity. Women were married in their best clothes, regardless of the color. Everything was stitched by hand, there was no such thing as “ready to wear,” and garments were costly. Most people didn’t have a vast wardrobe to choose from anyway. The wealthy, of course, had their finest garments embroidered or embellished in other ways with gold and silver thread, beading, and other intricate handwork, but no matter the lavishness of the decoration, the intention was for the woman to be able to wear the wedding garment(s) more than once, or at least get some future mileage from a permutation of the skirt, bodice, or robe.

The Jewish Bride (also called The Loving Couple) Rembrandt van Rijn, 1666

If women could afford to have a new dress made for their nuptials, white—which gets so dirty right away—would scarcely have been the practical choice. Except for that window of time that so many of us write about, from the late 1790s until the end of the Regency, white was not particularly fashionable. Possibly because it just wasn’t practical. Later in the nineteenth century, many brides were married in “separates”: they paired their skirt with a tastefully virginal (more on that later) bodice that showed no décolletage for the ceremony, and a daring, low-cut bodice which was appropriate for an evening reception. Look at several 19th-century evening gowns and you’ll see how “immodest” the necklines were, compared to day-wear. I recently read a fashion article in The New York Times which stated that the clavicle was “in.” During the 19th century, after six p.m., it never left.

It was Queen Victoria who eschewed the traditional silver royal wedding gown and instead was married in a white satin gown with silver Honiton lace ornamentation. The date was February 10, 1840 at the Chapel Royal in St. James’s Palace. Her headpiece—a long sheer veil cascading from a coronet of orange blossoms (which symbolized purity), completed the look that most brides would desire to emulate for the next 167 years (and counting). Although sleek and strapless shows off many a gym-buffed body (thank you Carolyn Bessette), turn to any bridal magazine today and you will still see photo after photo of poufy white dresses trimmed and embellished until they resemble a meringue.

Victoria and Albert's wedding

For the record, Prince Albert, to be thereafter known as the Prince Consort, wore skintight white knee breeches and his epauleted jacket was so festooned with medals and orders he would never get through Heathrow these days without a strip search.

A White Wedding, as the tradition came to be known in the 20th century, also not-so-tacitly connoted that the bride was a virgin. People still snicker about this, trust me. I attended a wedding not twenty years ago in which the bride was married in a pale pink confection, and the speculative whispers during the reception sounded like a nest of vipers had been imported into the catering hall.

I chose ivory because it suited my complexion. And okay, yes, because I dreamed of a White Wedding. I wanted the whole nine yards, and for a few moments last Saturday evening, it felt like my train was about that long.

Are you superstitious about what color you’d like to marry in? Given the rhyme above, and similar notions of the era, would you have some of your pre-Victorian characters (whether it’s the bride, her friends and family, and the groom’s family and friends) consider the psychology of color when they (or another character) wed and use it as a character trait?


Blogger Lynna Banning said...

Fascinating! I was married in a long rust velveteen gown my mother made for me. Second wedding; much happiness. First wedding I wore white. 'nuff said.

10:54 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Congratuations and mazel tov, Amanda. As for my wedding -- well, it having been 1969, it almost qualifies to be on a history web site. And I got married in a dark red, Pakistani mirror dress. And I wore a beaded headband I wove myself, on a little hippie loom...

11:48 AM  
Blogger Amanda McCabe said...

Great post! I lurk here all the time, and have been too shy to post, but I just had to say what a totally gorgeous gown. :) If I got married, I think I'd like to have pink. Not horrid Barbie pink, like something seen on Go Fug Yourself (or like my cousin made me wear as a bridesmaid at her wedding many years ago--still resent her for it!), but a pale shell pink. Or maybe, judging by Pam's and Lynna's comments, I should go for red...

12:01 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

the 1st I wore a white gown made by my Mom-beautiful with lace, pearl buttons, satin.
the 2nd I wore a short pink dress because I had been married before.

2:22 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

The posts are very interesting today ... some gowns mentioned are blatantly anti-tradition and a triumph of individuality and the others are a clear confirmation that in many ways when it comes to the classic original "reasons" for a white wedding, tradition is still going strong. I'm amused to admit that I'm heartened by reading both.

2:31 PM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

First, best wishes on the start of your "new" life. *grin*

I find the rhyme funny, as in many cultures the ideas of colour are so very different. In Morocco, for instance, the bride ALWAYS wears green for part of the ceremony (the first phase where the henna is applied to her hands and feet).

2:36 PM  
Blogger Victoria Dahl said...

Congrats to our newest Hoyden!!! So which was more exciting, your wedding day or your first blog with us? HAHAHAHA I admire your bravery in taking on blogging just before your wedding!

My heroine was married in 1841, so perhaps she would have worn white, though I never considered it. Actually, she couldn't have, come to think of it. She was quite unvirginal at that point. *snicker*

Pam, your comment cracked me up. "On a little hippie loom"!

5:31 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Victoria, you crack me up ... but since you asked ... I was more nervous about the blog! More guests, for one thing, since who knows who's liable to check out the blog from now till eternity! :)

I love Pam's "little hippe loom" comment, too.

7:41 PM  
Blogger Diane Perkins said...

Amanda, your dress is beautiful! What a gorgeous bride you must have been just a few days ago!

After not even thinking about it for years, I recently looked at my wedding photo and realized I was wearing a Regency dress! I must have lived during those times; I must have.

Seems to me I heard a Beau Monde workshop once that cited several references to white wedding dresses, not as tradition, perhaps.

5:40 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Congratulations, Amanda!

I was married on May 20, 18 years ago. :)

I am not superstitious. I wore white. It seemed like the thing to do.

7:27 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Yes, a little hippie loom. Because trust me on this, the past (at least the 60s) really is a different country.

Happy anniversary to Cathy, and a belated welcome from me to our newest Hoyden. I bought Too Great a Lady yesterday -- what a stunning cover, Amanda. It's next to Lord Sin on the big wide TBR shelf.

8:48 AM  
Blogger Kathrynn Dennis said...

Congrats, Amanda. Be sure and print your History Hoyden post today and the comment page to save in your wedding memory album!

A cyber toast to you and your new husband!

2:28 PM  
Blogger Keira Soleore said...

Double congratulations to you, Amanda, for the wedding and the first post. May you have a long, successful career in both.

3:16 PM  
Blogger janegeorge said...

Chiming in late... but wishing you many connubial felicitations!

You must have been a beautiful bride in ivory. (I wore ivory too, many moons ago.)

Here's to a long and happy marriage and a spectacular career.

7:15 PM  

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