For most of western history there hasn’t been any such thing as a wedding gown. People usually just got married in their “church clothes.”
Until recently, people didn’t own that many clothes. And for the most part clothing was simple and often home made. Weddings also weren’t terribly important, unless you were of nobility or your family was very wealthy. Marriage was considered important, but weddings were simple and quick.
Historically, though, weddings were often more than just a union between two people. They could be a union between two families, two businesses or even two countries. Many weddings were more a matter of politics than love, particularly among the nobility and the higher social classes. Brides were therefore expected to dress in a manner that cast their families in the most favorable light and befitted their social status, for they were not representing only themselves during the ceremony. Brides from wealthy families often wore rich colors and exclusive fabrics. It was common to see brides wearing bold colors and layers of furs, velvet and silk. For the affordable, brides dressed in the height of current fashion; with the richest materials money could buy. The poorest of brides wore their best church dress on their wedding day. The amount and the price of material a wedding dress contained was a reflection of the bride’s social standing and indicated the extent of the family’s wealth to wedding guests.
Prior to Queen Victoria’s debut of her white (actually off white) wedding dress in 1840, gowns were rarely white and often of bright and lavish colors for the affordable. Wealthy, fashionable brides followed this royal trend-setter, though many still opted for other colors.
Often wedding dresses were adapted to the styles of the day. For example, in the 1920s, they were typically short in the front with a longer train in the back and were worn with cloche-style wedding veils. This tendency to follow current fashions continued until the late 1960s, when it became popular to revert to long, full-skirted designs reminiscent of the Victorian era.
Today, Western wedding dresses are usually white though “wedding white” includes shades such as eggshell, ecru and ivory.
In the 1890s, the industrial revolution ushered in inexpensive, factory-made clothes. White wedding dresses were suddenly in the department stores, in advertising, and pretty soon in weddings everywhere.
The Great Depression and WWII brought a near halt for wedding dresses for almost a generation. They were still made, and desired, but often shared between sisters, friends, and neighbors. It remains an interesting practice to use mothers, grandmothers, and often great grandmothers wedding dress for weddings today.
The brand new, single-use dress didn’t truly become standard in the United States until after the war. The huge number of weddings that took place as soldiers came home and the huge growth of the middle class gave birth to the wedding industry as we know it today.
Many people assumed that the color white was intended to symbolize virginity, though this was not the original intention,
it was the color blue that was connected to purity, piety, faithfulness, and the Virgin Mary.
We at Iowa Bridal Preservation, just last week received three gown for restoration. One will be worn in an upcoming November wedding. the three gowns were warn by the brides great grandmother, and both of her grandmothers. Once restoration is complete she will choose which one to wear and the other two will be displayed as a symbol of marriage within her family. What a wonderful way to evidence the importance of marriage.