The Bride Wore Chartreuse: Why (Most) Wedding Dresses are White

Valentine, schmalentine. While true friendship deserves its own holiday, instead it’s romantic love – vicious, vicissitude-heavy, venal love – to which St. Valentine’s day is devoted. Bah! Even those of us happily, madly situated in love aren’t crazy about V-Day, with its odor of anti-feminism and costly obligation.

In this season of wintry wedding-planning before June’s bridal stampede, consider this a Valentine’s post of inversion: have brides always worn white? What other colors do brides from other times and places don? What color-taboos still apply to wedding-wear (if any)?

The picture above is a gorgeously hand-colored photo, circa 1911, of a Kazahk bride rounding a yurt. I can’t tell you much more about it than that, but as an outfit it’s stupendous, towering, infinitely special – the very qualities a wedding day ought to embody for a bride and groom. I positively love it.

Queen Victoria first popularized the white wedding dress in Euro-circles at her 1840 marriage to her first cousin Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg. The couple married for love, an unusual (but no doubt welcome) byproduct of a carefully crafted strategic alliance. In response to the uncle that first introduced them, Victoria wrote a letter of thanks: “for the prospect of great happiness you have contributed to give me, in the person of dear Albert … He possesses every quality that could be desired to render me perfectly happy.” Bedizened in white Honiton lace on her wedding day, her face wreathed in orange blossoms, the young Queen’s attire was shiningly simple and pure white.

The symbology of this move isn’t so remote from what a modern imagination might guess: pure white suggested a clean, unsullied start to a young virgin’s future. In contrast to the brilliantly colored trappings and jewels royals in many cultures often wore, emblems of their realm’s wealth, Victoria and Albert chose a blanker canvas to mark the start of their union.

The populace rushed to imitate Victoria’s whim, making it a widespread standard. As early as 1849, Godey’s Lady’s Book – the Good Housekeeping of 19th-century America – issued a pronouncement that thousands of European brides were already following: “Custom has decided, from the earliest ages, that white is the most fitting hue, whatever may be the material. It is an emblem of the purity and innocence of girlhood, and the unsullied heart she now yields to the chosen one.”

A popular folk saying confirms the rightness of white for brides, along with adjudicating the rest of the rainbow for the occasion:

Married in White, you have chosen right,
Married in Blue, your love will always be true,
Married in Pearl, you will live in a whirl,
Married in Brown, you’ll never live in town,
Married in Red, you will wish yourself dead,
Married in Yellow, ashamed of your fellow,
Married in Green, ashamed to be seen,
Married in Pink, your spirit will sink,
Married in Grey, you will go far away,
Married in Black, you will wish yourself back.

Image by Nick Bartoletti, Flickr

The Scots nursed a particular horror of green at weddings, pinning green garters to an unmarried elder sister to shame her at her little sister’s wedding. Why the ban on green is difficult to pin down, but – ruling out the bewitching of fairies, who often jealously guarded green as their color exclusively – one plausible answer lies in the saying “give her a green gown”. As The Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (1898) coyly defined it: “A tousle in the new-mown hay. To ‘give one a green gown’ sometimes means to go beyond the bounds of innocent playfulness.”

Then again, the purity of white cuts both ways. For the contemporary French, a “white wedding” indicates a marriage in name only, an unconsummated, administrative matter cut off from the real community. (Much like the sham-marriages of Chinese closeted gays.) Similarly, when the Italians “go in white” (andare in bianco), they mean they’ve failed to score – in love or in its more fleeting variant, sex.

The rest of the world doesn’t blanch for their big day. Chinese couples swaddle themselves in red, a lucky and auspicious color, and the color spills over into rituals that follow marriage, like red-egg-and-ginger parties. One month after the birth, parents welcome guests who bring hard-boiled eggs dyed lucky red with ocher – much like the hollering, lustily healthy red face of an infant.

All across Asia traditional weddings offer a panoply of every gorgeous, deeply saturated shade possible: pistachio, hot pink, gold. ABC’s slideshow Weddings from Around the World gives a lovely, wide-ranging sampling of traditional wedding garb. Broadly speaking, the idea is full-bore spectacle, a brilliant display of wealth on a unique, hopefully auspicious day. Indian brides bedeck themselves so thoroughly in colorful detail, a common variation of “tying the knot” is haath peelay kar diya, “to get one’s hands yellow”, a reference to a Hindi bride’s lavish henna tattoos.

Bridal hand mehndi (natural tones) by madaboutasia on Flickr

Globalization, of course, is rapidly draining the world’s weddings of all color, as brides rush to clad themselves in white (much as traditional Saudi grooms do on their wedding days, in an all-male ritual involving both families).

Still, color pops up all over the Western wedding, even if it rarely daubs the bride herself: practically any color is allowed for bridesmaids, setting the palette for the entire affair. Bridal go-to site TheKnot offers wedding-planning tips by color, spanning the entire rainbow (including copious, and quite smart-looking, black). In their largely successful quest to conquer the color-universe, PANTONE has teamed up with formalwear brand The Dessy Group: palette-building for exacting brides, made radically simple.

Blowing fat ruby-red Cupid’s kisses to you, you and especially you: here’s to your happy Valentine’s day and mine.

6 thoughts on “The Bride Wore Chartreuse: Why (Most) Wedding Dresses are White

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