In Western society, it is traditional for a new bride to wear a white wedding dress at the ceremony, often with a matching veil. This tradition is a fairly recent development, however — until the mid-1800s, and even through much of the 20th century, wedding dresses were merely formal dresses that could be reused for any special occasion. The bride could wear any color except for red or black, which were associated with prostitutes and mourning, respectively.
The first famous woman to wear a white wedding dress was Mary, Queen of Scots — at that time, it was seen as a bad choice, as white was the official color of mourning for the French. In 1840, however, another royal figure wore white to her wedding — Queen Victoria, at her marriage to Albert of Saxe-Colburg. Queen Victoria's wedding photographs were widely publicized, sparking an interest in the white wedding dress throughout England and beyond.
White wedding dresses were a symbol of wealth. Because the dresses could not be washed or reused for other occasion, it was evidence that the bride's family could afford to spend money on an extravagant dress. Through much of the early 20th century, only a rich woman could afford to wear a white wedding dress; most women still wore dresses in various colors. Others wore white dresses which they would dye another color after the ceremony, so that it could be used for other occasions.
In the 1950s, however, white wedding dress became a mainstream trend throughout Western society. With the advent of television, society was bombarded with images of celebrities like Grace Kelly wearing white dresses to their weddings. The average American woman finally decided that it was time to splurge on an expensive white wedding dress for her own ceremony.
The white wedding dress is typically used as a symbol for virginity. However, the color white is also associated with innocence and happiness. Over time, as women from all stages of life are wearing white to their wedding, the white dress has lost the connotations of virginity, and is merely associated with a new bride.