While a white dress might seem synonymous with weddings, that isn’t the case. Not only do many brides outside of Western culture don different hues for the ceremony—in China and India, for example, red is the most auspicious shade—but the white dress is also a (relatively) newer development in the Western tradition itself.
“The modern custom of brides wearing white—we think it’s been forever, but it hasn’t,” says fashion historian Cornelia Powell. “And, like anything in history, it happened because of the magic of timing.”
Meet the Expert
A former associate fashion editor at Vogue and member of the Costume Society of America’s Board of Directors, Cornelia Powell is the author of several books and published essays, including “The Legacy of Windsor Brides” and The End of The Fairy-Tale Bride: For Better or Worse, How Princess Diana Rescued the Great White Wedding. She lives in North Carolina.
If you’re beginning the hunt for your wedding-day attire, it can be helpful to know the full story behind this popular—but by no means required—tradition. Why do brides wear white? Read on to find out.
The History and Meaning of the White Wedding Dress
Throughout most of history, marriages were more about family, business, and political alliances than they were about true love—which meant lavish celebrations for weddings were typically reserved for nobility, who provide our clearest windows into times past and likely influenced the rest of society. “Certainly most bridal gowns trace their roots to royalty,” confirms Powell. Though there are some instances of rulers in Ancient Egypt, Rome, and Greece donning white pleated linens for celebrations, it was, for centuries, largely customary for brides to simply wear their best dress for the occasion.
The first white wedding dress on historic record was worn by Philippa of England, who married Eric of Pomerania in 1406 and went on to become the Queen of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden. But the concept didn’t really become fashionable until Queen Victoria’s 1840 wedding to Prince Albert. “If you were showing off your wealth for a wedding, the tradition before Victoria was to be as showy as possible in your fashion,” says Powell. “Gold and silver were considered especially opulent.”
Though she’d worn luxurious robes of red, gold, and ermine for her 1837 coronation, Victoria’s wedding was a different matter. Truly in love with her betrothed, she opted to put his masculine ego ahead of her role as the ruler of the British Empire. Though sumptuous in its own way, her white lace gown was an unexpectedly demure choice. Especially because, in lieu of a crown, she donned a wreath of wax orange blossoms.
“She was a bride to her husband, as opposed to a queen to the lesser-status fellow she was marrying,” says Powell. “It began a tradition of the heart.” Still, this more romantic approach to wedding-day attire didn’t catch on entirely on accident. Victoria also married on the cusp of the Industrial Revolution. There was a growing middle class in England, eager to display their newfound wealth, and they took their cues from their young queen, whose wedding-day images were distributed in magazines and newspapers everywhere.
“It was this point in time where she really could inspire, and weddings could be more of a family event,” says Powell. “By dressing less like a queen and more like any other wealthy young maiden, Victoria made her wedding more of the people. It was less about, ‘Oh, that’s what all those wealthy people do,’ and more, ‘We can all have a taste of this.’”
What also helped: Victoria pushed white wedding dresses onto her daughters and daughter-in-law, Alexandra, who went on to become queen herself in 1901. And because Victoria’s family was the first royal family to be heavily photographed, their images—and therefore their fashion choices—were even more heavily circulated.
While Victoria is largely credited with bringing the white wedding dress into fashion, it didn’t become a full-fledged Western tradition until after WWII. Up through the more conservative 50s, wedding dresses tended to mimic the cut and styles of everyday clothes. But as fashion grew more risque, casual, and gender-fluid in the free-wheeling 60s and 70s, a white dress represented a nod to older eras and customs. “So much was changing in street fashion—women were wearing pants! So donning a gown didn’t represent your day-to-day wardrobe,” says Powell. “And so the white gown came to stand alone as a dress of ceremony and ritual, and not as a dress of fashion.”
These days, white wedding dresses are a mixture of both fashion and tradition, with styles mimicking—and heavily influenced by—what appears on red carpets and in runway shows. Still, the custom of the gown being worn only once and standing apart from a bride’s regular wardrobe remains relatively firm—so much so, in fact, that many brides choose to preserve the garment as an heirloom for future generations.
White Wedding Dress FAQs
Do I have to wear a white wedding dress?
Definitely not—and that goes for white garments as well as dresses overall. What you wear on your wedding day is an entirely personal decision.
Do I have to be a virgin to wear a white wedding dress?
Also a hard no. A bride’s sexual behavior before and after her wedding day is a private matter, and the thought that the color of her wedding day attire should connote “purity” in this realm is outdated, old-fashioned, and quite frankly, no one’s business but her own.
Can I wear white if it’s not my first wedding?
Absolutely! Whether it’s your first marriage or your seventh, your wedding day attire should reflect whatever makes you feel the most special in the moment. Whether that’s a poufy white ball gown or a casual floral jumpsuit, rest assured that as long as it feels right to you, it’s the right thing to wear.
Can I wear white if I’m pregnant or have children?
Yep! As mentioned above, a woman’s sexual behavior is no one’s business but her own, and it has no bearing in the hue of her wedding-day attire.
Can I wear a white wedding dress if I’m eloping?
Yes! Your wedding is still a wedding, no matter how many people attend. If a white dress is important to you, go right ahead.
Can I wear a white wedding dress for a courthouse wedding?
While the media has popularized white suits at courthouse weddings, they’re definitely not your only option. If you feel more bridal in a dress—even a floor-length one—then consider that route completely appropriate.
Should my reception dress also be white?
If you are planning on a second look, wedding reception dresses are typically less formal and easier to dance in, but there are no rules here! Wear whatever makes you feel like celebrating.
Is it okay for guests to wear white to a wedding?
While every bride has their own opinions on this, and white bridesmaid dresses are becoming increasingly popular, it’s best to err on the side of caution on this one and avoid the hue.
Alternatives to a White Wedding Dress
While white, floor-length dresses are the most common option for Western weddings, they are by no means the only option. Here are a few alternative approaches to consider:
- A blush gown. Pink hues have become increasingly common in bridal attire over the last decade, and are the perfect option for someone looking for something more feminine.
- A champagne gown. This subtle tweak can be interpreted as a darker shade of cream, and still strikes a formal yet celebratory note.
- A jumpsuit. Perfect for the bride who likes to have fun with fashion.
- A suit or tuxedo. There’s something very powerful—and very cool—about this twist on wedding formal wear.
- A short wedding dress. Calling all flirty brides! Midi and above-the-knee lengths are a playful way to go—and give you ample opportunity to show off your shoes.