Not All White

Furniture, Textiles and Fashion
July 7, 2014

This blog post focuses on your questions regarding colour, particularly white, in wedding dresses:

Maggie Craig:  Have recently been researching for a local history project in north-east Scotland, where a description of mid to late 19th century country weddings says that brides usually wore black, silk if they could afford it, because the dress became their (practical) Sunday best for years to come. I know – or think I know! – that white wedding dresses are comparatively recent but wondered if you had any comments on brides wearing black.

Susanna: What a great question! I am afraid I had to do a bit of research to come up with an answer. It does seem that, though the idea of brides wearing black is not very well documented, it has been associated with Scotland. This is perhaps in part because Jean Armour wore a black silk dress to marry Robert Burns in 1788.
Some sources implied that this colour choice resulted from Armour having already given birth to twins by Burns two years before they married. However, Naomi Tarrant, a leading costume and textiles historian in Scotland, believes this analysis might simply be the result of Victorian sentimentality. As you guessed, wedding dresses generally became a bride’s best dress – in fact, up until the 20th century no bride, regardless of her wealth, would expect to wear her wedding dress only once. Therefore, it is likely that if a bride wore a black dress, it was either an old dress re-dyed or chosen in that colour to withstand future wear as her ‘best dress’.
You are right that white wedding dresses becoming the dominant choice is relatively recent. While examples, chosen as demonstrations of wealth and connection to the court, exist in the eighteenth century, it is in the mid to late nineteenth century that they begin to take precedence and be expected of all brides, not just those that were best off.

White satin wedding dress trimmed with Honiton lace, 1865
White satin wedding dress trimmed with Honiton lace, 1865

E. Robinson: I went to the exhibition the other week and loved it – congratulations to all involved. I look forward to seeing the next exhbition you organise at the V&A. I was left with one question though:

As an 67 year old woman with three marriages under my belt (don’t get me started), I’d really like to know what your views on the feminist-based marriages that are becoming obvious in modern times are? In short, do we see a trend away from the white and symbolisation of virginity and purity in brides? This is of particular interest considering the volume of marriages taking place – just look at me!

Susanna: Thank you very much, I am glad that you enjoyed the exhibition.
As is the case with a lot of our cultural coding, it was only in the Victorian era that the associations of purity were firmly attached to white bridal wear. While Queen Victoria was not the first bride to wear white, she was the first royal bride to do so. At her wedding to Prince Albert in 1840, she set in stone this ideal of the blushing bride wearing a white dress and a veil. So, while white has always had associations with virginity and purity, the application of this symbolism to wedding dresses is actually relatively recent – although none the less embedded.
However, I think that modern brides are in a position to make their own decisions – either to reject wearing white, for the connotations it has held, or to wear it all the same, for the romantic ideal it represents. Equally, in the instance that you mention – of people remarrying, perhaps, as in your case, multiple times – there is room for reinvention. We have several examples of second marriages included in the exhibition. For instance, Sara Donaldson-Hudson’s mother did not want her to wear white to her registry-office wedding to Nicholas Haydon, who was divorced, in 1971. Instead, the bride wore the bright and bold Rajputana coat by Richard Cawley for Bellville Sassoon.

Rajputana wedding coat, by Richard Cawley for Bellville Sassoon, 1970
Rajputana wedding coat, by Richard Cawley for Bellville Sassoon, 1970

Jean Montpellier: In a world where so few brides do reach the alter as virgins, what place does the white dress truly have in today’s society?

Susanna:  The white wedding dress only truly gained its associations with purity in the Victorian period. Before that, and particularly in the late 18th century, white was selected for bridal wear as a symbol of status and wealth. At a time when garments had to be hand washed by servants, wearing white implied that both your wealth and wardrobe were extensive. Equally, these dresses were often decorated with silver thread, which was the most expensive. I would say that the symbolism of the white wedding dress has now, for contemporary brides, changed again. While brides in every other pre 20th century period would rewear their wedding dress, now bridal designs reflect the fact that this is a piece that will only be worn once. As a result, the designs have become more fantastical and further removed from everyday fashion. Arguably, while the eighteenth to nineteenth century bride chose white to show her social status, and then the mid nineteenth century bride chose it as a symbol of her purity, when a modern bride wears white she is aspiring to a romantic ideal and a resonating cultural image.

White silk wedding dress by Jasper Conran, worn by Lady Sarah Chatto, 1994
White silk wedding dress by Jasper Conran, worn by Lady Sarah Chatto, 1994



About the author

Furniture, Textiles and Fashion
July 7, 2014

I specialised in Fashion History on my Masters Degree and am fascinated by all things sartorial and the stories these pieces can tell. Before working on 'Undressed: A Brief History...

More from Susanna Cordner
6 comments so far, view or add yours


Thank you for this post. I was recently shown a photograph of my great-great-great-grandparents on their wedding day in 1869. She is wearing black, and looks very somber next to him. They were married in County Antrim, a part of Ireland with many connections to Scotland. So this may be further evidence of the trend described.

Hi Tim, so glad to hear that you found the post useful. Really interesting to hear of an example in Ireland; I imagine that such a choice might have been more common than first expected – no matter how sombre the results appear now!

Dear Susanna
Please could you tell me the designer of the Chinese wedding dress with the dragons and the pearls in the seams. I am an A level student. Thanks

Hi Darnisha,
The Chinese wedding dress was designed by the bride who wore it, which makes it all the more special. Her name is Lady Anna Oxmantown (née Lin Xiaojing). Hope that helps!

Hi Susanna,
I love learning about social history and the reasons for traditions. Thank you so much for this series of blogs – as someone who wont get to London for the exhibition (I live in North Queensland, Australia) this has been great reading.

On the colour of wedding dresses, my Grandmother’s wedding dress was baby pink, she was married in 1944/45 (I think) in Outback Queensland. She then died her dress black and wore it as a ball gown to the many ‘dances’ – as she called them – that she and my Grandfather attended. I’m not exactly sure why it was pink – the white=purity thing was quite the rage here too, so it could be either because of the rations and lack of white cloth out west at this time so they had to use what they could get, or it could be because her favourite colour was pink – she would have been very hard to budge on this if this is the reason.
Anyway, thanks again for a great and interesting read.

Hi Lara,
I have only just spotted your comment – thank you so much! Really glad to hear that you have enjoyed reading the blog so much. It’s also great to hear that it gives you a chance to learn about some of our objects from afar.
I love the idea of your Grandmother wearing a pink wedding dress, and the wear it went on to have on her dates to dances. I do think that, as rationing wound to an end, there was an emphasis on fun – and choice! – in fashion. So, while the white ideal did still stand, some brides made the most of the opportunity to have a new best dress in their favourite shade.
Thanks again!

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