When you hear the words “wedding dress,” there's a good chance that the first things to pop into your mind are long white gowns and black suits; across the world, however, wedding-day attire can look quite different. Though white may be the most common wedding dress color for Western countries—all thanks to Queen Victoria, who wore a white lace dress to her wedding—bridal gowns in many other parts of the world are often designed in bold, bright hues with varying silhouettes.
Meet the Expert
- Jennifer Qiao is a co-founder of East Meets Dress, a bridal brand focused on creating cheongsams (qipaos) and áo dài for Asian-Americans looking for traditional Chinese or Vietnamese wedding dresses with a modern flair.
- Ogake Mosomi is a Kenyan fashion designer and a lecturer at the University of Nairobi, School of Arts and Design. Ogake has won Best Custom Made Bridal Gowns award at the 2018 Kenya Wedding Industry Awards and the Designer to Watch Award at the Kenya Fashion Awards in 2017, among other awards.
Below, we highlight traditional—and beautiful—wedding dresses from countries around the world.
In China, brides will traditionally wear a cheongsam, or qipao, a traditional Chinese dress made from silk featuring a mandarin collar. Jennifer Qiao, the co-founder of East Meets Dress, tells Brides that four main elements go into a traditional Chinese wedding dress: First, most Chinese wedding dresses are made from silk or brocade fabric. The fabric may also feature a phoenix, dragon, or perhaps both. “In Chinese culture, the phoenix and dragon represent the bride and groom respectively, and together, they symbolize good luck and a harmonious marriage,” says Qiao.
Color is another element brides consider when shopping for a traditional cheongsam (or qipao) to wear on their wedding day. In Chinese culture, the color red symbolizes good luck, happiness, and joy, so brides often wear red paired with gold jewelry on their wedding day for good fortune, says Qiao. The mandarin collar is perhaps the most signifying element of a traditional Chinese wedding dress. According to Qiao, “a mandarin collar is an unfolded, upright collar that goes around the neck and is typically two to five centimeters in height.”
The primary difference between a cheongsam and a qipao comes from linguistics. The term “cheongsam” is Cantonese and originated in Southern China while “qipao” is Mandarin and is used in the north, but both refer to the same traditional Chinese dress style, according to Qiao.
In addition to the collar, pankou (also called frog fasteners) are also featured on traditional Chinese wedding dresses. Pankou is the Chinese name for the knotted buttons seen on qipaos. Qiao explains that they can come in different animal or floral designs and are made from silk or satin wrapped around a stiffening material—such as copper—to hold the shape. While color and fabric, along with the mandarin collar and pankou knots, set traditional Chinese wedding dresses apart, some aspects of the dress have evolved over time. “While the sheath silhouette and the mandarin collar have remained the same, nowadays, the frog buttons are often decorative, and a zipper fastener is added to the back for more functional use,” says Qiao.
Moroccan weddings are known for vibrant colors, elaborate celebrations, and breathtaking bridal attire. Throughout the days leading up to the wedding—and on the big day itself—brides will wear various Moroccan kaftans called takchitas. Brides are assisted throughout the multi-day process by a neggafa, a Moroccan bridal specialist who assists the bride with various weddings tasks such as bathing during the hammam day. The evening before the wedding, the bride and their friends and family gather for a henna party. At this time, it is customary for brides to wear a green and gold takchita. The neggafa then adorns the bride's feet and hands with henna.
On the day of the wedding, the bride will traditionally wear a white takchita while arriving in the amaria, which is an elaborate platform the bride is carried into the ceremony on. A white takchita is comprised of up to five pieces with two being consistent among bridal attire: the tahtia, a simple but fine dress for the first layer; and the fouqia or dfina, an elaborate over-dress that often buttons up the front with the traditional sfifa and akaad closures. Often the dfina, or fouqia, will feature golden embroidery and designs. Bridal fashion in Morocco varies by region, with each having its own traditions, but the takchita remains at the center of each bridal look.
Vietnamese brides wear what is called an áo dài. The East Meets Dress website explains that there are five essential elements in this traditional Vietnamese garment worn for special occasions, especially weddings. First, the top garment of a wedding is a tunic which traditionally features a mandarin collar, long sleeves, and side slits that go down from the waist. The website adds that “this creates a front and back panel that grazes the floor, making it very similar to the Chinese qipao or cheongsam.”
What sets the áo dài apart from other garments, like the qipao, is that loose pants are worn underneath the tunic, which adds elegant movement to the overall look. Color is also important in an áo dài and brides will usually wear red, white, or pastel-colored áo dài’s on the big day. “For Đám Hỏi, the Vietnamese engagement ceremony, brides will traditionally wear a red áo dài, representing happiness, luck, and prosperity,” the website adds. More modern brides often wear colors such as green, white, or pink. For fabrics, a wedding áo dài is traditionally made from silk, chiffon, or brocade. Often, it is overlaid with gold appliqué or beading.
The most unique—and essential—accessory when it comes to Vietnamese bridal fashion is called the khăn đóng. Both the bride and their partner will wear the circular headdress during what is called Đám Hỏi, and typically the khăn đóng will match the áo dài they are wearing. The accessory is created by tightly wrapping a long, flattened piece of fabric, and each fold is placed to create a crown-like shape.
Indian bridal fashion is some of the most beautiful and intricate across the globe. Brides will wear either a lehenga or a wedding saree on the big day and for the events leading up to it. Color is very important for bridal clothing in Indian cultures, and brides actually avoid wearing the color white on their wedding day as it is a cultural sign of mourning. Instead, red is a popular color amongst brides because it symbolizes love, commitment, and strength. The color of a bride's saree or lehenga may also depend on their region and ethnicity. Peach, gold, yellow, and orange are a few other colors popular for brides on their wedding days.
Sarees are one of the most popular garments worn by brides, but across different regions of India, the ways to tie the saree vary. For example, at a Bengali wedding, a saree is generally draped looser and has fewer pleats, but at a Gujarati wedding, the saree is tied using a technique called Bandhej, which is when the fabric is tied in knots and dyed to create patterns. Brides may also choose to wear a lehenga which is made up of a sweeping skirt, a blouse called the choli, and the dupatta. Jewelry is also an important and symbolic part of Indian bridal looks, with each piece having an important cultural or spiritual meaning behind it. Placements of different pieces like the maang tikka signify that the bride is now married. Outside of jewelry and clothing, Indian brides traditionally have their feet and hands covered in mehndi—henna—to complete the look.
Nigeria has 371 distinct tribes, with each tribe having its own specific set of traditions and clothing as opposed to one overarching traditional garment. There are three main tribes in Nigeria, totaling 60% of the country's population: the Yoruba, the Igbo, and the Hausa. Nigerian weddings are large, boisterous affairs involving whole communities and typically span two to three full days. The wedding participants along with all attendees come dressed to impress for the engagement party, the traditional wedding where traditional garb is worn, and the white wedding where Western attire is worn. Below are descriptions of traditional wedding attire.
In the Yoruba tribe, brides will wear what is called an iro, a loosely fitting blouse, and a buba, a wrap-around skirt, made out of aso oke, a hand-woven fabric specific to the Yoruba tribe made from cotton. The crowning glory of the outfit is a gele, a head tie worn in simple to complex tying patterns, made also of aso oke. Geles are traditionally tied on the wearer's head, but pre-tied geles have recently come into fashion. Brides will also wear special decorative beads, an iborun, which is a sash that is draped along the bride's shoulder, and carry a traditional fan.
On the other hand, in the Igbo tribe, Nigerian brides will traditionally wear a top and a wrapper, a wide piece of decorative cloth wrapped around one's waist. The top can be a blouse or a smaller wrapper tied around the chest. Bridal clothing can be made from a variety of materials such as silk, damask, George, print, machine print, and lace. The defining feature of an Igbo bride's attire is chunky, orange coral beads, which are a symbol of royalty. These beads are worn as bracelets, anklets, necklaces, and as crowns. If a bride isn't wearing a coral bead crown, they might have the beads woven into their braids.
A Hausa bride is first decorated with lalli, or henna, in a ceremony called wuni attended by their close family and friends. The bride's feet and hands are covered, and while loved ones also get temporarily tattooed, none are decorated to the extent of the bride. On their wedding day, brides wear the atamfa, a combination of a blouse and skirt, a head covering like a gele, and a veil made of cotton or lace. The bride's veil is typically attached to their gele, and cotton veils drape down their back, while lace veils alternate between flowing over the bride's face and back. Each piece of clothing the bride wears is decorated in ornate patterns.
Ogake Mosomi, creator of the namesake brand Ogake Mosomi, explains that there are about 42 different tribes across Kenya, each of which has its own unique bridal traditions and clothing. Mosomi explains that, though it’s hard to summarize every tribe’s bridal attire, “some of the common features which cut across traditional bridal attire from the pre-colonial times included a variety of beaded jewelry and tassels made out metal, plastic, cowrie shells, bones, and horn and seeds.” She adds that it was once common for different clans within different tribes to differentiate themselves from each other through colors of beads, headpieces, and jewelry worn by brides. Mosomi says that this practice is still evident among the Maa-speaking tribes such as Maasi and Samburu.
After Kenya was colonized by the British Empire in the late 1800s, Mosomi expresses that Kenyans embraced Western culture. "Unlike many African countries, Kenyans embraced a lot of Western
culture, to the detriment of our rich cultural heritage...we are not flamboyant, and our wedding style is majorly Christian and quite modest and simple,” says Mosomi.
Having said that, many people in Kenya still keep traditions alive with traditional ceremonies that take place before the more Western-style wedding. For these ceremonies, Mosomi explains that “the bride and groom, and sometimes even their bridal party, will mostly wear matching modern 'African' looks which include printed fabrics (ankara, adire, and kente) from West Africa or embroidered kaftans in linen and cotton inspired again by Arabic and West African influences.”
A common trend is also mixing Western dress styles by embellishing them with an "African print." “Beads and feathers are still a huge part of accessorizing our looks, and this range from modern iterations to traditional heirloom jewelry passed down through generations and worn with contemporary versions of traditional garments,” adds Mosomi.
Peruvian bridal styles today have become much more westernized, with many brides choosing to wear a white gown for the ceremony and reception. However, traditional attire is not uncommon among couples who choose it solely for their wedding or incorporate parts of their traditions in a more Westernized wedding. Brides practicing the latter may have ornate, colorful patterns sewn at the bottom of their white, wedding dresses.
Color is key when it comes to Peru's traditionally two-day weddings. On their wedding day, it is custom for brides to opt for bright colors and eye-catching geometric patterns to wear to the ceremony. Peruvian brides in traditional clothing wear polleras, which are colorful and multi-layered woolen skirts. A bride can have up to fifteen other polleras as underskirts. In addition, brides may wear a wide hat adorned with cloth tassels and reflective materials. They, along with their partner, may also wear a unique poncho made solely for them to wear on their wedding day. The colors and patterns of the bride's clothing influence much of the decor, and the wedding cake is often decorated to match the bride's gown.