Queen Victoria’s wedding, or why modern brides wear white

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Queen Victoria in her wedding dress by Winterhalter

When Jane Austen’s parents were married in 1764, the bride, Cassandra Leigh, wore a red riding habit to the ceremony. Cassandra was not being eccentric or making a fashion statement. Such dress was perfectly appropriate for a young woman from a genteel but not particularly wealthy family marrying a country parson.

Under such circumstances, the wedding dress was a practical garment, expected to be worn again on many occasions. This explained why black was a general favorite for the lower classes. As for the red wedding dress of the ever practical and thrifty Mrs. Austen, it too was used for many years, before being eventually recut as a riding jacket for her son Francis.

Bridal attire in 18th century France was much the same. White was a mourning color, and brides would wear it when they had recently lost a close relative. Otherwise, they dressed in their best finery, and color was a matter of taste and fashion.

But when in 1840 Queen Victoria married her first cousin, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, all of this changed. The wedding was of course a momentous occasion, both politically and in terms of fashion.

The bride wore a gown of white satin, trimmed with white lace matching her veil, and a crown of orange blossoms. The only spot of color was the beautiful sapphire brooch Albert had given her as a wedding present, clearly visible on this portrait by Winterhalter. To learn more about the ceremony, see Elena Maria Vidal’s remarkably detailed post at Tea at Trianon.

Queen Victoria was a trendsetter in this regard and soon white became de rigueur for wedding gowns, at least among the upper classes. In France, though, more practical colors remained popular for those of modest means. My grandmother kept all the wedding pictures of her family, friends and servants, and I remember noticing, as a child, that the latter were easy to identify because the brides wore black gowns, well into the 20th century.

As often, my personal tastes tend towards the 18th century, and I very much like wedding gowns in soft, cheerful colors. What about you?

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Wedding of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert


23 Comments to “Queen Victoria’s wedding, or why modern brides wear white”

  1. Elizabeth says:

    I’ve always found it so interesting that white wasn’t the traditional color of bridal gowns until Queen Victoria wore her dress – I guess in the US girls just grow up dreaming of that white satin gown they will wear on their wedding day. For me, I love the idea of either a soft blue decorated with beautiful off-white lace or a deep, dark green gown. I don’t know why the green, but I think it’s so rich and vibrant. Of course, my mother would gasp in horror at the idea of a dark green wedding gown, so mine was boring ol’ white. Ah well, maybe the dark green for another wedding ;)

  2. Having married in the age of pure white gowns for brides and watery Easter-egg pastels for the bridesmaids, I’m all in favor of the shift in colors for modern brides. I like the idea of brides in pink, red, or even formal floral gowns, and I love the black-and-white weddings that are so much in fashion.

    In America, most 19th c. brides continued to wear their “best” gown for their wedding, rather than a special white one. Some even had two bodices — a revealing one with a lower neckline for formal evenings, and a more modest version for the wedding, and general day wear to follow. Just like Cassandra Leigh’s red habit, they were wed in something they expected to wear many more times in the future. Makes much more sense than that one-shot all-white princess fantasy.

    All that said, I have to admit i do like the painting above of Victoria and Albert’s wedding. *g* Interesting how it looks as if all her attendants are also in white….

  3. Penny says:

    So the black wedding dress is the same for Yemenite Jews. I saw such a wedding dress
    at the Jewish museum here in NYC. It was pretty. I do not know why Jews wear white wedding dresses because the burial shroud is white. Must have to do with customs of
    whatever country they live in

  4. Gealach says:

    I really like it when women choose to get married in something different, I wore a blue dress for my own wedding. It’s surprising how many people think that wedding dresses have “always” been white. I also have a lot of old wedding pictures of family members, and far from everybody wear white.

  5. I’m of two minds about it. Although I really like the idea of a bride wearing jewel tones (thinking deep silk velvets for the Winter!) or pastel florals (thinking Spring silks and chiffons and organza), I think that white on white on white is pretty amazing looking!

    Now off to read Elena’s post you’ve linked! THANKS.

  6. Felio Vasa says:

    In India widows wear white & for marriage it’s red (sari). Greeks use & love their orange blossoms in their weddings.

  7. Catherine Delors says:

    Gealach and Tristan, I like pinks and other pastel colors for a wedding dress. In the painting of Victoria’s wedding, I find the blue of the dress to the right absolutely beautiful. Deep and soft at the same time.

    Felio, orange blossoms are lovely, and they smell delicious too!

  8. Lovely post, Catherine! And thank you for the link!

  9. [...] Catherine Delors skriver om drottning Victorias bröllop 1840, när hon startade ”trenden” med vita brudklänningar i England. [...]

  10. judith judson says:

    If white for brides only “came in” with Victoria, how come Mrs Elton, in Jane Austen’s Emma, sneers upon hearing of Emma’s wedding, “very little white satin, very few lace veils, Selina [her wealthy sister] would stare when she hears of it.” Are we to assume that little Vic took over a custom that the vulgar Mrs Elton promoted twenty years or so earlier? And we also know that Fanny Price’s bridesmaid dress (for her cousin Maria’s wedding) in Mansfield Park is white, with glossy spots…

  11. Jolene says:

    While white on its variants are modern mainstays, we’re seeing several noteworthy deviations. Vera Wang’s 2010 collection has a spring green gown and Maggie Sottero’s coral wedding dress has been popular in many bridal blogs. Of course, colored sashes, colored embroidery, ribbons and other accents is common. But the single biggest color trend in weddings is in the SHOES. Perhaps launched by Carrie Bradshaw’s bold and beautiful blue bridal shoes, brides are deliberately showing their sense of personal style with bright jewel toned heels worn with their white gowns. Colorful bridal jewelry is also in vogue. Me? I wore a raspberry chiffon mermaid gown at my 1st and only wedding. As a 35 year old bride, I chose what looked good on me, and accessorized with long white gloves and pearls. I encourage brides to do what feels right for them, and “anything goes,” as long as the rules of courtesy and thoughtfulness are observed.

  12. CathleenMarie says:

    I think the young virgin bride is beautiful in white as it is symbolic of her purity. In my opinion, it only works when the dress is modest, not a strapless party-style dress. If the older bride who has already developed her style chooses something that is more flattering or more in her character, I think it is delightful. One should always remember that it is the “bride’s day” and it should be what she wants to treasure in her memories.

  13. Catherine Delors says:

    I agree, Cathleen Marie. Some white wedding gowns are more immodest than virginal. The main thing is that the bride love what she wears, and loves looking back at it years later.

  14. SugarSkulls&Flowers says:

    I will be getting married soon and sience the day I said “yes” I imagined myself in so many diffrent colored gowns, and above them all, I like the idea of a black gown. Perhaps not all black but some of the color in the dress. Although in my family that would be a funeral color, I still want that color for my dress.

  15. Tell your family you have tradition on your side… :) Congratulations! :)

  16. Cassondra says:

    Growing up I always thought I’d have a white wedding gown (isn’t that what most little girls think of) but mine turned out to be pink and ivory. The bodice was pink with ivory lace and beading and the skirt and train was ivory and lace. Even my Grandmother loved it!

  17. Romantic Royal History & Wearing White Lace | Little White Dress Bridal Shop says:

    [...] you know that Queen Victoria popularized the use of white lace in bridal gowns at her wedding to Prince Albert in 1840? Instead [...]

  18. K.B. Owen, mystery writer » Blog Archive » Here Comes the Bride: Fashion Friday says:

    [...] to read more?  Try these sources:  historical novelist Catherine Delors‘ site, Victoriana Magazine, or Penny Inkwell‘s Tumblr [...]

  19. Patricia Stott says:

    I Love Queen Victoria and her times.
    I am excited that Kate Middleton is going to be wearing a replica of Queen Victoria’s wedding dress.

  20. wanda says:

    Most people assume Queen Victoria chose white because of “purity”. QV did not have “pure” intentions— she chose it cause it was most expensive (white fabric was hardest to create back then) and she wanted to make sure that commoners couldn’t afford her look.

    So when anybody gives you flack about choosing a different wedding dress color, just tell them you wanted to base your decision off your opinion rather than some 18th century snob’s. And if they try the “purity” significance angle, just send them a link to some history books

  21. [...] white wedding dress was supposedly brought into fashion by Queen Victoria, who reigned from 1837-1901. Up until that point, a bride would simply pick the very best dress she [...]

  22. mrs. brown says:

    I like it because it is wonderful

  23. thebackgroundartiste says:

    @ Wanda – “….18th century snob’s ” ???
    My dear, Queen Victoria was born, became Queen, and wed in the 19th century and died in the first year of the 20th century.