Myth Information – Queen Victoria was the first bride to wear white

English illustration of wedding dress from Ackermann's Repository, June 1816

English illustration of white wedding dress from Ackermann’s Repository, June 1816

Weddings didn’t used to be a big thing. In the 18th century, weddings were usually held in the morning. They consisted of a solemn religious ceremony followed by a wedding breakfast for everyone in attendance at the church – maybe a dozen people. Brides wore their best dress and although white wedding dresses have survived from the 1700’s, they are rare. Most Georgian wedding gowns  are made of anything but white silk: yellow taffeta, brocade green twill, cotton calico…

By the early 19th century the white dress was in fashion – they were the ‘little black dress’ of their day and could be found on the ballroom floor as easily as at the breakfast table. A woman’s best white dress, in cotton or silk, was often used as her wedding dress. Royal brides however, wore gowns that more closely resembled court wear – ornately embroidered in silver thread and having long trains.

Queen Victoria and Prince Albert on their wedding day, February 10, 1840

Queen Victoria and Prince Albert on their wedding day, February 10, 1840

When Victoria married Albert in 1840, it was expected she would wear something regal. Instead, Victoria wore an elegantly simple dress of English-made cream silk with a honiton lace flounce, trim, and veil. Instead of a tiara, she donned a wreath of orange blossoms. The hand-made lace would have cost a fortune even in 1840, and there was a train 18 feet long, but with these exceptions, any middle class bride might otherwise aspire to wearing a silk wedding gown just like Victoria’s.

The white dress went from ‘probable choice’ to ‘mandatory wedding garment’ and the colour given significance. By 1849 the American publication Godey’s Lady’s Book was proselytizing: “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.”

About Jonathan

Jonathan Walford is a fashion historian and co-founder of the Fashion History Museum in Cambridge, Ontario. The FHM maintains a collection of nearly 12,000 artifacts dating from the mid 17th century to the present. Jonathan has authored various books and museum catalogues, including The Seductive Shoe, Shoes A-Z, Forties Fashion, 1950s American Fashion, and Sixties Fashion.
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9 Responses to Myth Information – Queen Victoria was the first bride to wear white

  1. Lizzie says:

    Thanks for this history lesson, Jonathan. I recently saw an exhibition of wedding attire at the Charleston Museum, and was surprised at all the pre-1840 dresses that were white. Great explanation.

    • Jonathan says:

      It’s really after 1840 that white dresses stop being used for anything but weddings, so Victoria got the credit for something already in existence — I could say the same about Chanel and the LBD…

      • Jessamyn says:

        I just can’t get behind even a modified version of the myth that Victoria was responsible for the white wedding dress. There are a number of fashion plates of wedding dresses in 1820s and ’30s publications — all white. It’s clear from references in period stories and novels that white satin was already a wedding cliche (e.g. “In short, the wedding was a very proper wedding; plenty of white satin and orange-blossom…” _The Flirt of Ten Seasons_, 1832).

        And white dresses remained extremely popular for many things other than weddings after 1840 — Morning dresses in percales and jaconets, young ladies’ daywear in tamboured muslins, seaside and watering-place dresses in piques and marseilles, and of course ball-dress — I’ve been looking at a large number of late 1850s and early 1860s fashion plates and descriptions of ball-dress lately, and by far the majority are primarily confections of white tulle, tarlatan, or other sheers, sometimes over colored silk underlayers but often all white.

        Really the only thing I see coinciding with Queen Victoria’s white wedding is a rising middle class eager to claim the trappings of their “betters,” leading to an ever-increasing number of white dresses purpose-made for weddings rather than weddings in “best” dresses of any color… a former luxury item trickled down, by the 20th century, into an expectation at every class level.

        • Jonathan says:

          I agree. I was trying to emphasize that right before Victoria white dresses were worn for any and every event, and after Victoria, white dresses were rarely worn for anything but weddings. Formal dresses made in white for other events, such as balls or presentation were usually trimmed or underlaid with colour or metallic embroidery. I am sure there are exceptions to the rule, but they are rare. Any white evening dresses I have seen from the late 19th century began life as wedding dresses and were altered into evening dresses the following year (as referred to in Age of Innocence.) Of course there are also informal dresses in white too, such as morning robes, but they are made in serviceable cottons and linens. As well, there are still dresses being made for weddings that are not white (I can think of several blue dresses from the 1860s and grey dresses from the 1870s that I have seen over the years that were made specifically for weddings.)

  2. The earliest documented white-for-a-wedding that I’m aware of is Philippa of Hainault in 1328, although I don’t think it was all-white.

    Blue was very popular in the 18th and early 19th centuries as the Virgin’s colour – there do seem to be quite a lot of blue-and-silver or blue-and-cream brocades associated with weddings from the 18th century.

    I’m not so sure that white dresses became exclusively wedding-wear post 1840, there seem to be a lot of documented instances of white dresses, although thinking about it, the vast majority of these are cotton and lace, obviously summer dresses, rather than formal silk gowns, so therein lies the distinction.

    • Jonathan says:

      I should have clarified that its really formal all-white dresses (which usually means silk) that become wedding dresses. There are still colour trimmed white dresses made for evening or seaside wear, and silver embroidered white dresses worn for presentations, and of course serviceable cotton and linen morning dresses, although they are most often printed.

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  4. I was about to say that Victoria’s choices may have popularised it amongst the aspiring middle classes rather than set it as a fashion for all; but Jessamyn put it much more eloquently. I tend to agree. The fashions of the wealthiest, with metallic trim would have been beyond them though I came across a tantalising snippet [which source I lost when I had a big data crash] of ‘muslin flocked with gold threads’, presumably unwashable, and I imagine may have been made from some of the gold extracted by the avocation of ‘drizzling’ [which Prince Leopold was said to do, after Princess Charlotte’s death] of old braids. It was an 1820s reference IIRC.
    Laura Ingalls married Almanzo Wilder some time around 1880? in her best dress which was black. By then the rhyme of what colours meant had been written, and somebody mutters about ‘married in black, wish yourself back’. I suspect that most people married in their best right up to the modern consumer era when credit cards took the waiting out of wanting, and the pleasure out of leisure.

    • Jonathan says:

      Metallic embroidered muslin is washable – I have done it myself. Ironing is a bugger, but it washes well.

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