White wedding dresses are, for the most part, standard in the Western hemisphere. But, it’s likely you’ve also seen some beautiful Indian or Chinese brides dawning glittering red skirts and veils down aisles, too. Up until contemporary brides began toying with the tradition, Indian brides have been wearing saffron red to their wedding ceremonies for centuries.
Whether you are an Indian bride-to-be or are just curious about the tradition, Brides spoke with sisters Niki and Ritika Shamdasani—designers and co-founders of Sani—about the origins of the tradition, what it means, and how modern brides can break with the tradition if they choose.
Meet the Expert
Niki and Ritika Shamdasani are the sister duo behind the fashion label Sani, which is the manifestation of their Indian heritage and American upbringing. Their label includes a range of Eastern to Western clothes, from bridal lehengas to bomber jackets, and is based in Delhi, India and North Carolina.
The History and Meaning of the Red Bridal Lehenga
Any Indian person will tell you that nearly everything in Indian culture is a symbol, and color is no exception: Yellow, orange, white, and green all have powerful symbols attached to them, for example. Of all those colors, red is likely the most prominent. A dominant color in most religious ceremonies, red has an array of positive connotations in Indian culture. “Every woman we speak to has their own take on why red is significant to them because it is such a rich and meaningful symbol,” says Ritika. “In our culture, it means new beginnings, passion, and prosperity. Red also represents the Hindu goddess Durga, who symbolizes new beginnings and feminine power.”
Always an auspicious color, red was first worn by Indian monks and hermits in the third millennium B.C., but wasn’t worn by brides until the Mughal Era in the early 16th century. With astrology so closely connected to the Hindu religion, red is also a symbol of Mars—the planet that rules marriage. Niki explains, “In Indian culture, the woman is the one who is leaving her house and going to the man’s house to be with his family. It’s a far bigger change for the woman than the man, so it is appropriate that she be the one commanding the most attention and wearing a bold color like red that symbolizes new life.”
Red Bridal Lehenga FAQs
Do I have to wear a red bridal lehenga?
Absolutely not—especially nowadays. “We’ve seen a lot of gold with our clients having interfaith marriages,” says Ritika. “That neutral color pays homage to traditional Western white wedding gowns but we’ve also seen a lot of baby pink and orange be especially trendy lately.” The color Indian brides choose to wear today is less about custom and more about expressing individualism, so feel free to break with tradition!
What are some other ways to incorporate red into my outfit?
If you decide red just isn’t your color, but still want to honor the tradition, the multitude of Indian bridal accessories lends itself to infinite options. “A lot of our clients don’t wear a red lehenga, but just wear a red dupatta, jewelry, or bangles,” says Niki. “I love when brides just wear red shoes, too,” says Ritika.
Should my reception gown be red, too?
On the contrary, most brides tend to stray from red for their reception outfits—this is your opportunity to represent your individualism as much as you’d like. “Most brides choose neutral colors or deep, royal colors for their receptions,” says Niki. “There aren’t any rules anymore, and red is definitely not the most popular reception color we see with our clients.”
Are there any colors I absolutely shouldn't wear?
As Niki said, there really aren’t any rules. But, because white is the color worn to Indian funerals, it’s a color we’d recommend staying away from both as a bride and a guest.
Can guests also wear red?
Just as most guests of Western weddings would be advised against wearing white, most guests of Indian weddings should stay away from red. But, the Shamdasani sisters confirm that the lines are getting increasingly blurred as fewer Indian brides decide to wear red. “We don’t know what color brides are wearing anymore when we go to a wedding,” says Ritika. “The most important thing is to make sure that the bride is [in] the spotlight, so I’d play it safe and advise against wearing red—just in case,” agrees Niki.
Alternatives to a Red Bridal Look
Red lehengas embedded with heavy gold embroidery, paired with matching floor-length veils draped over the head are traditional, but the status quo is changing in favor of modern brides and originality. Here are other colors to wear down the aisle if red doesn't suit you"
The second most popular color for Indian brides, the country’s royalty has historically dawned the earthy shade as a symbol of fertility and growth—it also looks great with traditional gold jewelry.
Younger brides are gravitating towards lighter pastels over royal hues for a more playful look. Plus, the shade looks beautiful when color-blocked with a red accent of roses in the hair.
For a neutral look that pairs well with gold jewelry, champagne is a versatile shade to opt for. If you want a dramatic look, you can get something heavily embroidered with gold or simply play up your jewelry—or both.
If you don’t want to stray too far from tradition, fuschia is a perfect shade that looks universally flattering on the mixed undertones of Indian skin. It’s a fun, playful shade for the bride who wants a more dramatic look.