Queen Victoria and the White Wedding Dress

This blog post focuses on your questions about the connections between Queen Victoria’s wedding and the popularity of the white wedding dress:

Cassidy: I have two questions! For the first, I’ve been doing a lot of research lately on early 19th century women’s dress, and it’s struck me that for the most part during the 1800s and 1810s, the dress itself is so much less important to being fashionable than the accessories, and a white dress was frequently chosen for everyday and relatively formal wear as a backdrop for colorful spencers and ribbons. I’ve also seen quite a few fairly plain white cotton gowns with wedding provenances. Do you think that white gowns might have been chosen not just to show off status, but also to be readily integrated into the wardrobe afterward?

For the second, I was wondering how you can tell that attitudes regarding the meaning of white changed with Victoria’s wedding. That sort of thing is so interesting to me!

Susanna: Hi Cassidy, glad to hear you find it so interesting as obviously we do too! I think that you’re right. In the late eighteenth century certainly descriptions of what an aristocratic wife wore for her wedding often spend as much time describing her jewellery as her dress, so they were vying for importance. White gowns certainly leant themselves easily to a future position in a wife’s wardrobe, as they could be dyed a more practical colour or, as you have suggested, kept in their original colour and accessorised. Equally, muslin and white fabric were hugely fashionable in the period you mention, and so their wear was not exclusive to wedding dresses. As any bride of that period, regardless of her wealth, should and would rewear her wedding dress, a smart one would have it made in a grand but adaptable style, in order for it to have stylish longevity beyond the big day.

Hand-coloured engraving by Jules David featuring wedding and day dress designs by Popelin-Ducarre and Plé-Horain. Published in Le Moniteur de la Mode, 1851-2

Hand-coloured engraving by Jules David featuring wedding and day dress designs by Popelin-Ducarre and Plé-Horain. Published in Le Moniteur de la Mode, 1851-2

With regards to your second question, allow me to explain a little further how we can tell that the association between bridal white and purity was cemented in British fashion after Queen Victoria’s wedding. The modest bride in her white wedding dress features regularly in the literature – for instance, the work of Charles Dickens – and art of the Victorian period.

Fashion plate from  Le Moniteur de la Mode, mid 1840s

Fashion plate from Le Moniteur de la Mode, mid 1840s

Equally, at this point, print media and newspapers really begin to take off, and descriptions of Society weddings, and the appropriateness of either the match or the clothing, would often make their way onto such pages. With print media also came commercialisation, and fashion plates and adverts sold the public the image of the white dress, lace veil and orange blossom sprig ideal that still lingers today. Queen Victoria stated that on her wedding day she would make her vows as Albert’s future wife, not as the monarch. In reflection of this, she chose to wear a white satin court train, bordered with orange blossom, instead of the crimson velvet robe of state. This romantic gesture, demonstrated in her choice of clothing, and the image of Queen Victoria as an adoring and innocent bride, really captured the public’s imagination, and cemented the connotations for good.

French fashion plate by Laure Noël & Paul Lacouriere. Wedding dress, day dress and girl's dress by Madame Hamin. Paris, April 1870

French fashion plate by Laure Noël & Paul Lacouriere. Wedding dress, day dress and girl’s dress by Madame Hamin. Paris, April 1870

This image and ideal spread quickly. Their wedding was the subject of many paintings, such as ‘The Marriage of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, 10 February 1840′ by George Hayter, 1840-42. Newspaper reports, affordable prints and souvenirs ensured that all levels of society were exposed to this model of romantic propriety. While coloured wedding dresses were still common, the majority of the illustrations of blushing brides on fashion plates, Valentines cards and sheet music from then on were depicted wearing white. As a result, if a bride was marrying for the first time, and could afford it, a white wedding dress became the norm.  

Daniel Milford-Cottam: Hi – with greatest respect, I have a small point to make: Queen Victoria was not the first royal bride to wear white – that title probably belongs to Philippa of England who is documented as wearing white satin to be married in October 1406. (do see various sources such as Bonoure and Buxum: A Study of Wives in Late Medieval English Literature by Sue Niebrzydowski; she references W. P. Baildon’s 1915-16 essay on Philippa’s trousseau which quotes contemporary sources (in Latin).)

Susanna: Hello Daniel. Thank you for bringing this up. We were aware of this. Our personal specialist areas, and the content of the exhibition, focus on fashion from the eighteenth century onwards. However, the exhibition’s curator Edwina did research this matter.

In Ann Monsarrat’s And the Bride Wore…The Story of the White Wedding (London 1973), citing Archaeologia, vol. 47, she states that the princess was wearing ‘a tunic and mantle with long train of white satin worked with velvet, furred with pured miniver and purfled with ermine; and the sleeves of the tunic also furred with ermine’. The implication is, therefore, that the train of the dress was white, not the entire bridal attire. Other royal brides before Victoria will have included white elements in their wedding wear, but she is, to our knowledge and research, the first in British history to dress in it entirely.

If, however, the source you referred to does state and translate from its primary Latin sources that the sleeves and, particularly, the tunic were also white, please do share it with us, as we and other scholars will be grateful for the clarification.

Equally, however, the exhibition, and so our blog, focuses on the developments of the white wedding dress in Britain. While Philippa was from England, she married Eric of Pomerania at the Lund Cathedral in Scania, Sweden. It was of long standing and on going tradition that a royal bride from a foreign country had to, upon entering the country in which she would marry and probably make her marital home,  dispose of her clothes from her homeland. These clothes would be replaced by a trousseau and wedding wear prepared for the bride in the country she was entering. Therefore, if Philippa did marry in all white at this time,  that decision will have been made by officials or family from her new husband’s home as a reflection of the culture, fashion and traditions she was entering, and not of those she had to leave behind from her upbringing in Britain.

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