Friday, September 7, 2012

A nice day for a white wedding? Not so fast.

           Today’s topic has been provoked by a recent conversation I had with some friends. Every once in a while, you might hear someone say, under the guise of being a traditionalist, “you shouldn’t wear white to your wedding if you’re not a virgin!” My goal here today isn’t to bash people who like white weddings (despite my personal dislike of the custom), but to examine how thoroughly modern it is, as well as look at alternatives given by our medieval ancestors.

            It should be no surprise that for the vast majority of people throughout history, they just couldn’t afford to buy a dress for only one day. Therefore, peasant or working-class brides simply wore the best dress they had. If they had some wealth, they could afford to buy a new dress for the wedding, which would continue to serve as their dress for attending church on Sundays or for other special occasions. As a result, brides up to the 20th century wore a wide variety of colors, dependent on personal taste and the cost of the dye.

            Everything started to change in the 19th century with the wedding of Victoria, already a reigning queen, to Prince Albert. She wore a brilliant white dress, which would have cost a lot of money to produce at that time, thus being a display of wealth and privilege. Interestingly, the white dress was a flagrant violation of tradition in 1840, as white was not considered a color for festive occasions; indeed, in some places, such as France, white was a color of mourning. But soon enough, the elites of Victorian Britain copied the fashion and made use of it in their own or their daughters’ weddings. A few years later, Godey’s Lady’s Book, the most popular and widely subscribed magazine in America, published an article about Victoria’s wedding, saying:

“Custom has decided, from the earliest ages, that white is the most fitting hue, whatever may be the material. It is an emblem of the purity and innocence of girlhood, and the unsullied heart she now yields to the chosen one.”

Late Victorian couple with dark, perhaps even black dress.
It was largely an invention, but sure enough, women across the country took it as gospel, and the white wedding dress became the ideal, even if the average American household couldn’t afford it yet. (We are, after all, talking about the same Godey’s Lady’s Book that single-handedly brought the custom of decorating Christmas trees to the United States. The sheer influence that women’s periodicals have over a culture is frightening, but a subject for another article.) White was still limited to wealthy or upper middle-class families until after World War II and America’s ascendancy as a superpower. By the 1950’s, the bridal industry had dug in and successfully dictated precisely what every wedding “needed” to have: from diamond rings to uniform black tuxedos, multi-tiered cakes, and string quartets playing the same four songs everywhere. It was the perfect scheme to make as much money from newlywed families as possible with the least amount of effort or creativity on their own part.

I wouldn't blame any woman for wanting to be like a princess for a day.
Nevertheless, one could argue that by now, these customs have been handed down for three or four generations and can legitimately be called “traditions”. After all, the Latin word traditio means “to hand over”. Furthermore, with the British royal family renewing white’s popularity on global television every few decades (the wedding of Prince Charles and Diana in 1981, the wedding of William and Katherine in 2011), white isn’t going away anytime soon. I wouldn’t argue that the white wedding is a bad thing. If you want to have one, don’t let a bully behind a keyboard, such as myself, stop you from having the wedding of your dreams or simply doing what’s familiar to your parents and grandparents. But by no means should true traditionalists impose rules which were invented wholesale by ladies’ magazines and obsolete etiquette books. Nor should a traditionalist warp a joyous occasion such as marriage by requiring a woman’s dress to serve as a status update for all her friends and family in attendance on her sexual history. Let’s instead look at the opening words that the priest gave at the beginning of the marriage rite according to the Use of Sarum (the ritual most commonly used in pre-Reformation England):

“Brethren, we are gathered together in the sight of God and His angels, and all the saints, in the face of the Church, to join together two persons--to wit, this man and this woman, that whatsoever they may have done aforetime henceforth they may be one body, yet two souls, in the faith and law of God, to the end they may together attain eternal life.”

            It is, furthermore, interesting to note that the bride and groom were eligible to receive the special nuptial blessing at Mass regardless of whether the woman was a virgin, had children out of wedlock, or even if she was married before, just so long as she had not received the nuptial blessing at a previous marriage.

            So what would these Sarum brides have worn to their weddings, if not white? Our primary source would be in paintings of weddings in the Middle Ages, which are most prolific toward the end, or the early Renaissance. Here’s one by the 15th century Dutch painter Loyset Liedet. It depicts the marriage Renaud de Montauban and Clarisse who, though fictional characters, are dressed in clothing normal for the upper class at the time the painting was made. It looks like the bride is wearing a gold and red damask dress lined with brown fur, over a blue underdress. The groom is dressed in a red jacket, black hose, and those really long, pointed shoes which were all the rage in that century. 

            Below, we have a period representation of King Henry V’s (of Shakespearean fame, “cry God for Harry, England, and Saint George!”) marriage to Catherine of Valois. Catherine is decked in gold, and Henry is dressed to match.

            This illustration, though probably from the Victorian period, also depicts the wedding of Henry V and Catherine, and shows that the Victorians were quite aware that medieval wedding garb would not be typically white. 

            This one below is perhaps the most famous wedding portrait of all: the Arnolfini Wedding, by Jan van Eyck, dated to 1434. In truth, some scholars argue this portrait depicts a betrothed, not a wedded couple. In the Middle Ages, betrothal was a rite in itself that was nearly as important as the marriage. In any case, the woman, wedded to a wealthy Italian merchant, is shown in green with white fur lining and a blue underdress. The man is wearing a purple tabard, also lined with fur, and a black tunic underneath. (Cute dog as well.)

            Raphael’s Wedding of the Virgin depicts Blessed Mary in both red and blue. Blue has always been associated with the Virgin, even today, but red is fascinating since in contemporary culture, a red wedding dress would suggest a woman of loose morals among traditionals. This is, of course, certainly not Raphael’s intention. In fact, there are many paintings of Saint Mary in red.

            Here’s one by Gerard David, dated about 1500: the Wedding at Cana. I’m not an art historian so I could be mistaken, but I believe the bride is on the left, draped in gold damask, a black cloak, and white angel sleeves. The Virgin is at the top, wearing red. (Edited to add: a friend remarked to me, after I posted the article, that the Virgin would likely be the figure in the back with the halo. Good observation. It does make me wonder who the woman in red is supposed to be, then.)

            It’s obvious that brides and grooms wore a vast assortment of colors, dependent upon their wealth and social status. And yes, there were occasionally white dresses as well. (The first recorded instance is Anne, Duchess of Brittany’s white dress in 1499. It was, however, her third wedding and by then, she had become the richest woman in Europe.) But if there were an ideal color, it would seem to have been blue. The cult of the Virgin Mary was universal throughout Christendom in the Middle Ages, and as the model for all medieval women, they would naturally want to sport her color if they could afford it. Blue, though not as expensive as white, was still quite pricey for a full dress, so brides often wore only a blue ribbon; hence the old folk adage to wear “something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue”.

            Therefore, to all you prospective brides out there, virgins or no, I encourage you to add some medieval flair to your big day and sport some color. They need not even be period or "ethnic" dresses, for I’ve recently seen some in contemporary styles that are beautiful as well. You might even feel so bold as to flaunt tradition, just as Vicky did in 1840, and wear red.


  1. Nicely done HK. Let's hope folks are emboldened by your last sentence and picture.


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  3. Awesome stuff. Just read it to my wife, sister, and a good friend.

  4. Godey's Lady's Book, huh? Who knew.

    It's not totally surprising that people have come to think of white wedding dresses symbolizing virginity. White dresses have been used for a long time to symbolize girlhood and purity, especially for Catholics. First communion dresses, baptism gowns, May crowning, etc. I think even pagan customs like May poles required white dresses. So thanks for clarifying that this is not a custom that has also been associated with weddings until recently. Why people think information about a woman's virginity or lack thereof should be in the public domain is whole other question.

    1. Baptismal gowns make sense. They're related directly to the white alb.

      Don't know about the First Communions. Before Pope Saint Pius X, the standard age for both Confirmation and First Communion was around 12 to 14 years. Granted that's still young, but much closer to adulthood by pre-modern standards. I think the picturesque, cutesy ideas we have about First Communion are pretty modern.

      The May crowning is a tradition from 18th century Italian piety that spread elsewhere during the Victorian period, although May has been associated with Mary for much longer. I suspect the white dresses would have been instituted sometime after the white wedding went in vogue.

  5. Isn't the person at the back dressed in black and a white headdress and a halo St Anne?

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