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Why are Wedding Dresses White?

By Kathy Hawkins
Updated May 21, 2024
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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.

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Discussion Comments

By anon340710 — On Jul 04, 2013

We have been happily married over 25 years. We didn't spend a lot and I hate white dresses. The day was great. Only the important people in our lives were there and I wouldn't change a thing. My husband had a blue suit that he wore on other occasions. As long as love is there, nothing else matters.

By anon284229 — On Aug 08, 2012

I love my dress. It's blue, not white. And I only spent $400 on it. I respect women who plan on wearing an expensive white dress, but that is not something I place value on. A piece of clothing is not really that important to me. The memory of an exquisite red velvet cake on the other hand? Now we're talking!

By amypollick — On Oct 28, 2010

@Anon122506: I really, sincerely hope you're kidding. Really, I do. Otherwise, well, I can't even start to comprehend your way of thinking.

My husband and I have been married -- happily married -- for 14 years. Our wedding was small. We paid for almost everything, in full, before the wedding. I wasn't about to start my life with my husband thousands of dollars in debt over a wedding. My friends and family said it was an absolutely beautiful wedding, and they completely approved of us keeping it simple.

What you spend on a wedding has no bearing on how much you value your marriage. It's the time, effort, love, understanding and other important things you put into it that keep a marriage healthy. My parents were married by my great-uncle in his living room. No wedding gown, no tux, no big ceremony. They spent 33 very happy years. There were crises. There were bad times, but the marriage held.

If someone can afford a lavish wedding and an expensive dress, fine. So be it. That's a decision they make based on what they can personally afford. It's none of my business.

I understand the point you're trying to make. I do. And people shouldn't take their marriages lightly. A "throw-it-together" attitude toward the wedding does occasionally transfer to the attitude toward the marriage. I could give you an example or two. But the point isn't that they didn't spend much on the wedding. The point is that these couples in trouble didn't care much to start with. Their attitudes were poor going into the marriage, so they weren't interested in expending much effort. This points to a much deeper problem than how much the wedding costs. I could also tell you about some couples in trouble who spend a *lot* of money on a wedding. Or, look at a lot of celebrity weddings. Tens of thousands of dollars spent and the marriage lasts, maybe five years.

Bottom line: It's those intangible efforts you put into the marriage that makes it succeed or fail, not how much money you spend on the wedding.

By anon122506 — On Oct 28, 2010

The wedding gown is the most significant symbol in the wedding. It should therefore not be cheap. In fact, one should try to spend as much on it as possible without causing budgetary discomfort. Since a woman enters into her 'marriage' through the gates of her wedding, how she goes through that gate says a lot about how she will always conduct herself in her marriage as well.

Because marriage costs us something every day and we cannot just get by doing as little as possible, neither should we enter into it with that mentality.

Choose a budget and then add 2,500 to it so that it asks something of you. Don't try and make things easy: your life, your character. The very foundation of your marriage is resting on how you cheapen it or value it. Things of value should be paid for.

By anon119029 — On Oct 16, 2010

From what I have read, queens prior to Victoria had chosen to be wed in much more extravagant dresses than Victoria's choice of white. Tissue-thin silver, jewel-encrusted, fur-trimmed creations weren't uncommon to royalty. Dying fabrics at that time was more expensive than leaving them plain.

Queen Victoria's choice of white was actually quite frugal for the time period, not more expensive. She also incorporated some lace that she already had into the dress. As I understand the history, the new queen was making a political statement that she would not be extravagant and a drain on the treasury. It paid off with the common folk as well, because it made her seem more like a woman in love and less like a princess.

By closerfan12 — On Aug 03, 2010

I think that whether you get a designer wedding dress or a discount wedding dress, as long as you like it, wear it!

Your wedding day is supposed to be your special day, so you should wear whatever makes you feel the best, regardless of price, length, or even color.

By FirstViolin — On Aug 03, 2010

So to open up a little can of worms, what do you all think about short wedding dresses?

I personally have never been a fan; I really like the long, sweeping trains.

However, I know some people love them. Does anybody else out there have an opinion?

By naturesgurl3 — On Aug 03, 2010

Do you know that in China, they always wear red for their wedding gowns and dresses?

Red is a lucky color, whereas white is for funerals, and so is bad to wear at a wedding.

Most of the wedding dresses will also have gold silk sewn throughout to make patterns, sometimes of lucky animals (dragons, phoenixes); other times just of patterns.

I always think it's so fascinating to see the different associations that other cultures have with color!

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