You Can Wear It Again: Wedding Clothes Past And Present

Wedding season has been going on for some time, but enough of it remains that hotels are still being booked to capacity and people are sweating in unfamiliar airports in order to spend a weekend witnessing one of the oldest continuous rituals in existence. Like most other long-lasting rituals, it seems at first glance unlikely that many of our ancestors would recognize our version of it, and one of the major reasons for that – though far from the only one – is the change in dress involved. The North American standard today is what a place like Indiebride would refer to as a cookie-cutter wedding; poofy white dress, tuxes, champagne, rented ballroom, embarrassing DJ who plays YMCA, even more embarrassing bouquet toss and garter removal. It’s true that there are a lot of them out there – one summer I spent as a caterer’s minion involved serving about three weddings per weekend, and most of them blended together pretty fast because so little about the basic template changed. However, enough people go non-cookie cutter to support a pretty large alternative industry (not to mention a lot of websites), and a common theme here is that the Big White Wedding isn’t even that traditional – the white wedding only started with Queen Victoria. Another criticism frequently leveled at the white dress is that it’s supposed to be an advertisement of the wearer’s virginity.

Well, yes and no. Queen Victoria’s white wedding burned itself into the world’s consciousness like few others, but she wasn’t the first bride out there to wear white; quite a number of women, mostly well-off but some not so much, had done the same before her. I’ve seen filmmakers criticized for having, say, a supposed bride of 1801 wearing a white dress, but that isn’t actually an anachronism. The main difference is that Queen Victoria’s wedding made white into the colour for weddings, whereas previously it had been merely one of a number of candidates. A bride might wear white because she looked good in it, or because being able to afford a white dress was something of a status symbol (keeping it clean would be a job and a half), or because it was the best dress she already owned.

As for virginity, it’s easy to see how that symbolism might have arisen after the fact, since white in the West is traditionally associated with innocence; witness the white clothes usually worn for baptisms. But this is strictly post hoc reasoning, though the idea persists; Miss Manners has often had to get rather sharp with readers who write in with indelicate questions about whether a certain bride is “entitled” to wear white. (The only real rule about wearing white at a wedding is: Don’t do it if you’re not the bride). But before white became the wedding colour of choice, virginity in brides was assumed no matter what they were wearing.

So what were wedding dresses (and, to a much lesser extent, robes for men who happened to both living in the middle ages and extremely wealthy) actually like? There isn’t really a definite answer to that except to say that they were almost never one-use-only as they are now; a common method for people who weren’t fabulously wealthy was either to wear the best clothes you had or make something new which you could wear afterwards. This custom reappeared, on and off – there are stories of late-Victorian fashions for wearing one’s wedding dress at dinner parties after returning from the honeymoon, and in Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, Newland Archer’s new wife talks about how she can’t wear her wedding dress at the moment because the the seamstress is making it over. The Archers in the story are wealthy and buying a new dress would be no trouble to them, so clearly the main factor here is not economy.

Economy was, however, a real factor in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s wedding; if you’ve read the series, you’ll remember how Laura gets married in her black “best” dress because she and her husband could not afford (and did not want) the “church wedding” his mother and sister were coming out to throw for them. Laura’s Ma offers to make a new wedding dress for her, but there’s no time to do that and Laura says that she’s happy with the black dress, which is still fairly new anyway. It’s not absolutely clear that Ma’s hypothetical new wedding dress would have been re-worn afterwards, but it seems very un-pioneerlike to just pack away all that good fabric forever after one day. (Laura’s black dress is presented as something dismaying, but in fact it wasn’t that uncommon for poor or pioneer brides to marry in black dresses, though they usually had some flowers and a veil to dress it up. The reason for this was that, as in Laura’s case, the “best” dress was black – because you could wear it to any occasion, including funerals, and be appropriately dressed).

Ma’s worries about Laura’s black dress weren’t unique to her; she quotes “Married in black and you’ll wish yourself back” and hopes that the black dress won’t be bad luck to her. Almost everyone has run into that particular rhyme at some point; it turns up in various nursery and folk-rhyme books and wedding histories, and is frustratingly hard to date. I haven’t found any occurrence of it pre-nineteenth century, though that doesn’t mean some version of it didn’t exist previously – there are a lot of mouldering pamphlets and advice books out there, after all. Anyway, here’s one version of it (from this page).

Married in white, you have chosen all right. [Is it just me, or is this rather underenthusiastic?]
Married in grey, you will go far away.
Married in black, you will wish yourself back.
Married in red, you will wish yourself dead.
Married in green, ashamed to be seen.
Married in blue, you will always be true.
Married in pearl, you will live in a whirl.
Married in yellow, ashamed of the fellow.
Married in brown, you’ll live out of town.
Married in pink, your spirits will sink.

Some of the associations here are obvious – black is a traditional colour of mourning, red was associated with prostitution, and blue has been linked to faithfulness for a thousand years at minimum. (In the ballad, “The Trees They Grow High”, the young wife suggests that if her husband should go away traveling, “Tie blue ribbons all around his waist / To let the ladies know that he’s married.” And of course, the “something blue” that many brides still try to procure.) Most of the others, I suspect, were derived from whatever happened to rhyme. What do you suppose happens if you get married in orange? “Married in green / Ashamed to be seen,” is interesting in light of the fact that green was traditionally the colour of fairies, and that women who wore green – particularly those close to making big transitions in life, such as marriage – were considered peculiarly vulnerable to being kidnapped by supernatural entities. (More about that later!)

The range of colours listed in the rhyme shows that these were at least occasionally considered as realistic; with the discovery of artificial dyes and the vivid new colours they could produce, a fashionable mid-nineteenth-century bride could just as easily show up to her wedding in mauve or royal blue as in white (though if she was wealthy enough it’s unlikely that she would have gone for black, since as I’ve mentioned, wearing black could often be a symptom of having to economize, and would she want to advertise that?) It was in the later nineteenth century that white really got the grip on the wedding dress industry which has lasted until this day; more efficient cleaning methods and the beginning of synthetics combined to make these dresses affordable, if not very practical. At the same time, they began consciously lagging in fashion. An 1850s bride, even if she had a wedding dress custom-made, would have had it made in the latest fashion of the moment. A 1950s bride, by contrast, would often wear a sweetheart neckline, floor-sweeping dress that was unlike anything in fashion at the moment and which she could never comfortably wear outside of her wedding. The impracticality of white was one factor in transforming wedding dresses into one-use-only items, but their distinctively throwback styles were another.

All of this has been about wedding dresses only, but there are a number of other articles which have an interesting history – or lack thereof; veils, crowns, and (don’t laugh) bridesmaids’ dresses. Stories about these will be coming soon. Perhaps the groom will even get a little attention, this time.

-posted by sonetka

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One Response to You Can Wear It Again: Wedding Clothes Past And Present

  1. Pat says:

    For couples whose hometown are different places, the common sense solution is the trend of double weddings – one for his friends and family, and one for hers.

    Making weddings important is and has always been the ability to share the celestial day but time and distance makes that difficult for all. It may be the only solution for some couples – to equalize the intimacy. With one large wedding, or two smaller weddings, everyone wins.

    Can double the pleasure be double the importance?

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