While many people consider the white wedding dress as synonymous with a traditional wedding, did you know that the practice of wearing this colour dress only became popular in the mid nineteenth century? In fact, it might surprise you to know that for most of history, most brides did not wear white!
However, since being made famous by a certain British Queen in 1840, the white dress has gone from strength to strength, and become the colour of choice for a diverse range of brides across the globe. In addition to becoming a famous staple of most modern weddings, the humble white wedding dress has also played a pivotal role in the influence of other trends and fashion throughout history.
Today we’ll be exploring in further detail the Victorian wedding dress, discussing how it went onto influence the classic American Western style of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century.
Read on to find out more about its journey, and what makes it quite so significant in the history of fashion and bridal wear.
The Victorian Era – At a Glance
The Victorian era was a period of great change in British history and is considered to be the period between approximately 1820 and 1914 - relating roughly, but not exactly, to the duration of Queen Victoria’s reign.
The advent of rapid industrialisation and urbanization transformed the landscape of the cities and towns in Britain, leading to increased pollution, overcrowded cities and the vast spread of disease. Despite this, the Industrial Revolution was leading the way for manufacturing and production and changing the market and culture of consumerism.
This provided a wealth of opportunity for lots of industries - including fashion.
A Brief History of Victorian Fashion
Developments in technology changed the way that clothes were contextualised and perceived, and this was especially true for the affluent classes who now access to a wider range of styles and choice. The nineteenth century also saw a huge expansion of the printed word which included domestic magazines and etiquette manuals, both popular formats amongst the educated, literate and wealthy women who would read them to catch up with the latest fashions, etiquette and homemaking standards.
Women’s fashion in the nineteenth century can be characterised by corsets, bustles and full skirts, emphasised by underskirts and voluminous petticoats. By the latter half of this period, a far less restrictive style had begun to emerge - with long, slim and body-hugging silhouettes that hinted at the natural figure being favoured.
Although clothes are an essential of everyday life, they were particularly important in the Victorian era as this were an instant visual identifier of someone’s class, social status, taste and wealth.
Given that this period was renowned for its class divide, there was a difference in the clothes sported by poorer women compared to those of a higher socio-economic status. This can be seen clearly in the formal attire of worn by wealthy ladies attending balls, dances, dinners, lunches and of course – the esteemed Victorian wedding.
A Victorian wedding – regardless of class- was a highly important celebration and held great cultural, social and financial significance for all parties involved. Marriage was emphasised as one of the most crucial aspirations, and girls were taught from a young age to find an eligible man, marry him and begin her role as a doting wife and mother.
As you can then imagine, marriage was a tradition entrenched and dictated by the gender dynamics of the period and played a fundamental role in Victorian society. It was also a part of the social mobility process of the time, as weddings presented the opportunity to elevate status or wealth by marrying into what was deemed as the “right” or “appropriate” family.
The wedding itself, and other related events such as the engagement, were also rooted in historic traditions, and this included the wedding dress. The wedding dress was a chance for the bride-to-be to dress up and look their best while showcasing their wealth to their fiancé and his family. Prior to the Victoria era, dresses were also used to symbolise certain traits. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, for example, teenage girls married in pale grey to symbolise fertility whilst older women opted for brown or black.
As was mentioned earlier, brides have not always donned white for marriage. Wealthy brides tended to opt for colours that were more difficult and expensive to make, such as blue or gold. Although a white wedding dress went on to be associated with virginity and purity, before it was simply seen as an impractical choice as it was hard to clean – not ideal for most working-class women would have re-worn their dress after the event.
What was the Victorian Dress Silhouette?
The archetypal early Victorian wedding dress had a fitted bodice, small waist and a full skirt made of gauze, tulle, organdie, silk, cashmere or linen. This was in keeping with the general shape of womenswear at this time which fulfilled the modest values Victorian England pedaled. This would have been dyed in one of the colours discussed previously, depending on the class and budget of the bride.
However – the popularity of non-white dresses decreased following Queen Victoria’s marriage to Prince Albert in 1840 where she wore – yes, you guessed it – an opulent white/ivory wedding dress designed in the style of the day. Already enchanted by her relationship with her Prince, this romantic bridal wear further captivated women across Britain, who suddenly all wanted to emulate the same look on their own special day.
This fashion for wearing white was further perpetuated thanks to the advent of photography and the dissemination of illustrated magazines that were read by ladies who were keen to keep up with the latest trends and expectations.
The Influence on American Western
Following this – this type of dress became increasingly popular. From 1849, women’s magazines were stating it was the best and most appropriate colour for a wedding dress. Although Queen Victoria kickstarted the trend for this colour gown, it’s popularity can also be attributed to other reasons. For example, it is considered flattering on all skin tones, and worked well in the black and white photography of the time – enabling the bride to stand out in photographs.
The shape of the dress also was sought after. The slim waist, lace and full nineteenth-century skirt layered over crinolines and petticoats was seen as a desirable shape in a wedding dress – and to this date can still be considered the most recognisable and classic silhouette for weddings all over the world.
The influence of Victorian fashion extended far and wide and can even be seen in the American Western style. The American Civil War (1861 – 1865) was taking place in the middle of the Victorian era, and textile production was developing at a rapid rate meaning clothes could be produced much more quickly than before. Complex patterns that used to take days when made by hand could suddenly be produced by machines with minimal labour – allowing eye-catching patterns like florals, plaid and paisley to become more readily available. This led to a recreation of the styles and shapes seen in Britain to travel across the Atlantic. This is demonstrable through the prairie wear or dresses sported by women living on the American frontier in which lace, full skirts and big sleeves were popular.
The influence of the Victorian wedding dress on American Western styles is an important event of fashion history and shows just how quickly fashion and trends caught on even in a period before the advent of technology and mass-media as we know it today. It also demonstrates the powerful influence that Victorian fashion had - something which can be partly attributed to the aesthetically pleasing and practical designs it pioneered.