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When Did a White Wedding Gown Become a Symbol of Virginity?

| June 6th, 2014
From left: Queen Victoria, Kim Kardashian, Grace Kelly, Kate Middleton
When Did a White Wedding Gown Become a Symbol of Virginity?

Amid the barrage of May 2014 Kimye wedding details to emerge, one seemed to set social media ablaze more than any other: Kim Kardashian’s white wedding gown, custom-designed for her by Givenchy’s Riccardo Tisci (groom Kanye West also offered input, according to reports). Chances are you either know somebody or you were that person who took to Facebook or Twitter to express shock or consternation: “She’s wearing white?!

Yes, and it’s time we moved beyond the self-righteous outrage. Over the years the white wedding gown has become perhaps the most recognized symbol of a bride’s purity, and yet that idea is far removed from its true origins. When Queen Victoria married Prince Albert in 1840, she chose to wear a white satin wedding gown lavishly trimmed in white lace; both fabrics were handmade in England and were chosen by the 20-year-old queen to highlight both her love of English lace and her country’s excellence in the craft.

The color also represented wealth and luxury: In more pragmatic times prior to Victoria’s wedding, white was considered impractical, and no matter how large or small the family finances, a bride typically wore the nicest dress in her wardrobe, also often known as her “Sunday best,” or the dress she wore to church. If a bride was lucky enough to have a dress made for her wedding, she didn’t choose white, but rather a color easy to wear for other important occasions thereafter.

From left: Bianca Jagger, Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy
Bianca Jagger, Carolyn Bessette

Victoria’s highly publicized wedding, however, changed that thinking. It became chic to wear white, while families also enjoyed the attendant pride that came with affording (or seeming to afford) a white gown for the bride. Of course, the idea of white as a symbolism for wealth is also exclusive to Western cultures; for centuries in Eastern cultures—China, Japan and India, to name a few—brides have worn red, a color that symbolizes both wealth and good fortune. If you’re seeking further theories to disprove society’s mythology on white wedding gowns, consider that in Japan, white, rather than black, is the color symbolizing death: In traditional families, a bride might still wear a white kimono, which at one point during the ceremony she will remove to reveal a red kimono underneath, the idea being that she has shed her former life with her family to join a new life with her husband’s family.

With the Kardashian-West nuptials kicking off the summer wedding season (roughly 35 percent of marriages will take place between June and August, according to The Knot), it’s the perfect time to ask: Does today’s bride think about a white gown largely as a symbol of purity? “I don’t think brides consider that relationship anymore,” says designer Reem Acra. “The idea of wearing white is really based in tradition more than anything else. From there the bride looks at a variety of ways to make her gown and her own wedding style unique.”

Indeed, a cursory look at some of the most notable wedding gowns of the 20th century reveals each to be representative of both its era and the bride’s personal style. When Grace Kelly married Monaco’s Prince Rainier in 1956, MGM costume designer Helen Rose crafted a peau de soie and lace gown that effortlessly combined Kelly’s sophistication with her newfound status as a bona fide princess; 15 years later, Bianca Pérez-Mora Macias was the ultimate stylish bride when she chose a white Le Smoking jacket and matching long skirt by Yves Saint Laurent for her 1971 wedding to Mick Jagger. And when Carolyn Bessette chose a minimalist bias-cut gown—designed by close friend Narciso Rodriguez—for her 1996 wedding to John F. Kennedy, Jr., its chic simplicity spawned a new era of wedding gowns influenced by ready-to-wear trends.

So when did the white wedding gown become synonymous with purity? While there’s no moment as clear as the fashion impact of Victoria’s dress, suffice it to say that over the years the influence of her gown was forgotten and instead became entangled with religious symbolism: In the Catholic church, for example, white has long been identified with ideas of purity, virtue and virginity. Think of the white robes worn by priests at Christmas and Easter, or the white lilies associated both with Easter and the Virgin Mary. The color’s religious symbolism ultimately was applied not only to the wedding dress, but also christening and communion dresses, other significant events in the churchgoing life that are closely associated with purity and innocence.

A dress from the Spring 2015 Reem Acra bridal collection
Reem Acra

As societal attitudes have evolved and relaxed, however, so has the mindset about the pure-white wedding gown. Acra points to the wide spectrum of white and ivory shades, from pristine-as-snow to deep ecru, as well as accents of other colors, as ranking high among a growing list of options for a bride embarking on her perfect-gown hunt. “Today’s bride is really savvy and knows herself; it used to be that the family, the mother or the grandmother played a large role in the choice, but today’s bride relies on her own sense of style,” Acra says. “She’s very attuned to the best shade of white or ivory to suit her skintone, or she might want a hint of color, such as blush, pink or blue. More than anything, it’s about expressing her own personality.” Acra notes that she sometimes favors using a shade of pink to line a bridal gown, “which gives the dress a fresh, light and airy feel.”

Ultimately, no matter how you choose to define the meaning of a white wedding gown, consider that the bride gliding down the aisle has formulated her own theory, one that might be based on family heritage, religious background, personal taste, her desire to be the center of attention, a demonstration of wealth, or any combination of the above. But almost 175 years later, do bridal designers owe Queen Victoria a debt of gratitude? Acra laughs. “Even if it wasn’t white, I think we would have found some other way to let brides know we’re there for them, for whatever they might need.”

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