In Catalyst Wedding Co. editor Liz Susong's weekly column devoted to the feminist bride, she dives headfirst into the crazy history behind common wedding traditions we may take for granted. Liz investigates here.
Have you ever seen a little girl dress up as a bride for Halloween, or heck, just for Tuesday morning? I can picture her ensemble: a white lacy dress, clip on veil, plastic pearls, white gloves, patent leather shoes, and maybe even a little pocketbook. One thing is for sure: she’s dressed all in white. How else would you identify her as a bride? Otherwise you would be like, oh how cute, that little girl is dressed up as a nice middle-aged church lady.
That word—bride—paints a very specific image in our collective mind. We picture a beautiful, young woman with a heart of gold, a feminine grace about her, all of her hope and joy accentuated by that stunning white gown as she walks elegantly down the aisle toward her slightly older and financially stable groom who will one day soon be the adoring father to a brood of blonde brats. I know, that last part doesn’t sound as great to a lot of women. Maybe that’s why I know some who bought their wedding dress before they found their life partner—HEYOO.
But in all seriousness, would we honestly fuss over and throw money at weddings as much as we do if it weren’t for that iconic image of the bride in white? Like, if you just had to pick a dress out of your closet—maybe something you bought in the past few years, and certainly something you would wear again—would you give a hoot about seat covers?
And historically, that’s exactly what brides did. “Throughout most of history, the expense of clothing precluded the wasteful luxury of owning a dress that could be worn only once,” wedding historian Susan Waggoner writes. So most women wore their best dress in whatever the fashionable color of the time was, but definitely not white—dry cleaning wasn’t a thing, so white was just too risky.
And then came Queen Victoria. Prior to her wedding in 1840, no royal bride had worn a white dress since 1499; rather, they might wear a silver gown under “fur-trimmed, jewel-encrusted robes”—a truly royal costume. But not Vicki. “For the first time, a queen had married in an ensemble that [people] could imitate,” writes Waggoner. Cue the British empire sensationalizing this royal wedding in all of their colonies—and here we are, 177 years later, watching Say Yes to the Dress and arguing in online forums about whether a woman who isn’t a virgin should be allowed to wear white at her wedding. Dare I go on?
Between celebrity worship culture and the ability to mass produce cheaper clothing, the white wedding dress is ubiquitous. So ubiquitous that I, a free-thinking secular woman, never even thought about wearing a color other than white to my wedding. I cared more about the ethical production of the dress, whether I could dance in it, and if I could afford it, but I mean…can you even have a wedding without a white dress? Yes. Yes, you can even. And I’d like to introduce you to a few of the unicorns who did.
AC of Maryland got married just two weeks ago in a black dress: “Wearing white was never an option," she says. "I DO love white wedding dresses, but I have wanted a black wedding dress since I was younger.” Obviously this is a woman who is willing to break the rules. “Fierceness comes out with color,” she laughs. Lena of Georgia had a Hindu wedding and says she never even considered a white dress: “If you know anything about Indian weddings," she says, "you will know that it's all about color color color!”
Leah, a master of colorful design and the owner of Color Pop Events, bought the white dress as expected, but then: “I realized over the next couple of days that the dress was kind of bumming me out," she says, "and a lot of that had to do with the fact that it was white. I'm just not a very traditional or a very plain person by nature.” And so she purchased a second dress on sale at Nordstrom with a pattern of cascading purple flowers on a cream background. “The minute I saw it, I knew it was ME.”
Ariel, the baker behind Pook’s Baked Goods in Ohio started by hand-making bridal gowns, which got her thinking about her future wedding. “For me, clothing—and especially my wedding dress—is a direct reflection of myself," she says. "I'd rather reflect my life in color and show my personality than wear something that doesn't.” Her tea-length wedding dress also exhibits a vibrant floral pattern. “Above all, whatever you wear on this day should make you feel special, but should also be an extension of yourself.” Justin and Danny, free from the bridal pressures placed on women, selected their suits by allowing their style and personalities to take the lead: “We wanted to wear suits that complemented each other, that weren’t stylistically over-the-top, and stayed true to our personal style: simple but sharp, clean, and timeless.”
Vanessa, the owner of the Oakland shop Bridal Marché wore a red lace dress to match her 1950s theme. “I never was opposed to a white dress; I actually really wanted one," she says. "But the minute after I booked the wedding, I opened Etsy, and the red dress was on the front page. I immediately bought it.” And wow was her wedding stunning. And yet she says, “I will admit, a small part of me still wants that wedding with a white dress. The simplicity of the white somehow creates such a visually romantic look. And I'm such a sucker for romance.”
Even for couples who do not feel compelled by the white dress per se, the color white can remain significant. Take Nora, for instance, who eloped in the same pair of white overalls her mom wore when she eloped in 1977. “She passed away a few years ago and I knew I wanted to wear them to honor her, both as my mom and as the strong and independent woman she was.” Andrea and Stacia both elected to wear white suits to their wedding. When asked, "Why white?" they responded: “It was a no-brainer. We thought about beige or a standard, black suit briefly, but a bride wears white. We are women getting married, and traditionally, women wear white.”
Maybe there is something just a tiiiiny bit magical, such that even the coldest-hearted feminist cannot deny, about that white dress. Amber Marlow, a photographer in New York City, embraced “the princess wedding” as an act of self love after a hard childhood and an unsuccessful first marriage. “I wanted to be beautiful," she says. "I never totally felt I could be for whatever reason, and since it was my second wedding, there was talk among a few of my family members about me wearing something more ‘subdued.’ I considered wearing a sleek black dress (which is way more in keeping with my personal style), but embracing the traditional style felt more victorious. I even topped it with a hand-beaded cathedral veil that a friend let me borrow.”
Amber reclaimed the white dress as her own, but for others who have experienced a little bit of life—maybe they've been knocked down once or twice and brushed themselves off again—a white wedding dress feels a little too hopeful, a little too youthful, a little too out of touch with the realities of, well, marriage. Aileen of Washington, D.C., elected to wear a beautiful blue dress at her wedding, explaining: “I knew I didn’t want to wear a white dress. The whole virginal thing is just silly—we have a two-year-old.” Meredith and Nikki agree that neither of them considered a white dress for their wedding, both choosing to wear a svelte black dress, instead. Nikki says, “This was the second time around for both of us, which also comes with some freedom to do your own thing. We weren't twenty-somethings.” When asked whether being a same sex couple freed them from the white wedding dress tradition, Meredith says, “It had more to do with where we're at in our lives—older, more confident, and more free.”
Whatever that white dress symbolizes for you, remember that you are valuable, you deserve happiness, and all the colors of the rainbow are at your disposal for your own, unique self expression.