Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Wedding Wednesday (September 18, 2013) -- Whence The White Wedding Dress?

The photograph above is of my paternal grandparents on their wedding day -- July 21, 1921. My grandmother had an annoying habit of writing across the front of photographs, but this one is thankfully in the margin and, as always with my grandmother's annotations, does provide appreciated written information -- such as the location of the church where the marriage took place and the role if not the names of the other two people in the picture.  My grandparents, Arnold G. Tew, Sr. and his bride, Huldah A. Hasselbaum, are the couple in the center.

I previously posted a wedding photograph of my grandparents on their wedding day here .  I was struck then, as I am even more with this bridal party photograph, with the absence of color in the wedding garb.  All the participants -- including the bride -- are dressed in black and but for the flowers and the white gloves, one might think the folks were in mourning and the photograph was taken at a funeral.

A little bit of research reveals that white has not always been the traditional and popular color for the bride's gown.  In fact, in some cultures and times the color of mourning was white and not black.  For example, in medieval Europe through the late 1400s white was a mourning color and in Hindu culture white is still the color of mourning.

For those who thought (as I did) that white was the color for the bride to represent purity and virginity, it will come as some surprise that the ancient color of virginity and purity is actually blue! To see some evidence for this, Google images for the Virgin Mary and look at how often and prominently the color blue is used in depictions of Mary.

It is generally accepted that in Western European cultures the tradition for white as the color of the bride's dress began when Queen Victoria wore a gown of white at her wedding to Prince Albert in 1840 because she had a thing for white lace.  Before that time red was an especially popular color for a wedding dress in Western Europe.  When news and pictures of Queen Victoria's white gown spread, the affluent and the elite adopted the white wedding gown and it was thought that part of this phenomenon was the ability to showcase that the bride was so well off that she could afford to choose an expensive dress in a color that could easily be ruined by an accidental spill or any exuberant exertion on the part of the bride.  As Wikipedia says, 

By the end of the 19th century the white dress was the garment of choice for elite brides on both sides of the Atlantic. However, middle-class British and American brides did not adopt the trend fully until after World War II. With increased prosperity in the 20th century, the tradition also grew to include the practice of wearing the dress only once.

So, it was not at all unusual or symbolic in any way that my grandmother did not wear a white gown or dress for her wedding in 1921.  
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Image of the bridal party from a photograph in the collection of the author.  

For more information about the history of white as the color of a bride's wedding dress see, and
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Copyright 2013, John D. Tew
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