Fashion One-Oh-One - The Wedding Dress

fashion history wedding dress - Sandra Harris

A new series! And it's ALL about fashion. I'm so excited.

That's the beauty of blogging - you get to follow every whim and satisfy your own curiosity. AND I get to share it with you. AND you get to meet people like fashion historian Jacqueline of the Hourglass Files.

A couple of times a month she will be here talking about a fashion game changer - some design or style that caused a seismic shift in the fashion world in its day. 

Let's get started!

When Sandra asked me to write a series on fashion game changers, I knew immediately which dress I'd start with. Queen Victoria's wedding dress is one of the most influential dresses ever. More than 170 years later, brides all around the world are taking their style cues from her, whether they realize it or not.

Taking our fashion cues from Queen Victoria 

It's a common misconception that no brides wore white before Victoria did, but it was highly unusual. Most brides would wear their best dress or have a new dress made, which then became their best dress. Blue, pink, or the bride’s favorite color were very common. It was not unheard of for working-class women to marry in a dark shade of brown or black. For practicalities sake, white was not a popular color because it would show dirt and damage easily.

Queen Victoria's Wedding Dress, 1840, England, silk, from The Royal Collection via "Wedded Bliss: The Marriage of Art and Ceremony"

Queen Victoria's Wedding Dress, 1840, England, silk, from The Royal Collection via "Wedded Bliss: The Marriage of Art and Ceremony"

When Victoria married in 1840, she knew all eyes were on her. She had been queen for three years, and the enormity of the British Empire combined with the Industrial Revolution made the moment of her wedding special. The rise of the industrial printing press meant that news could be made available to a mass audience in less time.

"It's a nice day for white wedding"

- Billy Idol

What made Victoria's choice notable was that she forewent the traditional state robes and court dress of the monarchy. Instead, her white silk satin dress with handmade lace trim was definitely a fashion-forward choice. Its simplicity was elegant, and its silhouette followed the popular style of the day. Victoria’s white dress was modern and showcased British textiles.

"The Marriage of Queen Victoria, 10 February 1840" by Sir George Hayter, 1842, England, oil on canvas, from the Royal Collection Trust

"The Marriage of Queen Victoria, 10 February 1840" by Sir George Hayter, 1842, England, oil on canvas, from the Royal Collection Trust

White, a symbol for purity and nobility in the Victorian era, also indicated extreme wealth, luxury, and privilege. One had to be incredibly rich to afford a dress that would only be worn a handful of times before it showed signs of wear. Remember, during the 19th century, most dresses were custom made, and that did not come cheap. Even still, as word spread of Victoria’s wedding dress, upper-class women sought to emulate the queen.

The fashion of the white wedding dress took hold. Over generations, it transitioned from a fashion choice into tradition. While one's grandmother or mother may have worn white in order to follow Queen Victoria, younger women choose white because they wanted to follow their grandmothers and mothers. By the 1920s, white was firmly enshrined in North America as the traditional bridal color for “respectable” women. 

From fashion choice to tradition around the world

White continued to spread through all socio and economic backgrounds and across the globe as women coveted the Western-style wedding aesthetic. It’s not unusual to see white wedding dresses on every continent today. 

"Queen Victoria (1819-1901), Buckingham Palace" by Roger Fenton, England, 1889 copy of 1854 original photo, from the Royal Collection Trust

"Queen Victoria (1819-1901), Buckingham Palace" by Roger Fenton, England, 1889 copy of 1854 original photo, from the Royal Collection Trust

So a queen makes a fashion choice and the social media of the day (the newspapers) turn that choice into a trend. Then EVERYBODY'S doing it. (It wasn't as quick as H&M and Zara using twitter and Instagram and Pinterest. Now it happens so quickly there's a bit of whiplash as trends zoom around the world).

When I married I didn't wear a white dress- I wore a satin-y golden coloured evening dress. It just fit the casual style of our evening much better. But I certainly WAS aware that it was a choice to go with the flow (traditional white dress) or not. That's the power of a tradition.

If you are married, did you wear white?