Jennifer's Journal


Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Wedding Romance - The Bridal Gown

The marriage proposal has been grandly made and accepted with happy tears, and surely a kiss or two. Now what? Most brides-to-be begin at once to search for the perfect wedding gown. Few garments in a woman’s life will ever be as important.

The wedding gown has a long and colorful history. Marriage in the past was normally a practical or dynastic union rather than a love match. The parents of the bride or other authority figure decided whom she would marry, choosing a man who could protect her from harm while providing a standard of living not unlike that from which she came. His age and appearance were secondary; his appeal to the young woman he would marry had no bearing at all.

The gown worn for such a marriage was meant to reflect her social position; costly fabrics of silk, satin, damask and velvet established her status, and trims of fur, jewels and gold or silver braiding or embroidery added to the opulent impression. During the medieval period, rich colors such as red and peacock blue, indigo and purple came from costly imported dyes and so were reserved for the higher orders. Those lower made do with practical fabrics colored with domestic dyes in duller shades of brown, tan, gray, yellow, blue or green. Later, during the Georgian and Victorian eras, pale colors became popular symbols with the well-to-do who could afford to replace clothing that was easily soiled, while darker fabrics that would not show the Industrial Revolution’s grime were left to the less fortunate. In all cases, the gown of choice was the best the bride’s family could afford.

White wedding garments show up now and then in early history. Records indicate that Philippa, an English princess married in 1406, wore a tunic with an attached cloak of white silk edged with squirrel and ermine. Young Mary, Queen of Scots, scandalized French aristocracy in 1559 by exchanging vows with the Dauphin while dressed in a gown of her favorite white—that being the color of mourning for French queens at the time. However, the highlighting of such incidents in public records suggest white was an uncommon bridal choice.

Queen Victoria 1842
Note her  veil draped over her arms.
Myth tells us, and many sources proclaim it as fact, that the white wedding gown as a tradition began with Queen Victoria on her marriage to Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg in 1840. This is both correct and incorrect. Victoria did break with convention by declining to wear the heavy and outrageously expensive fabric woven with gold or silver thread that was reserved for British royal brides at the time. She chose, instead, to appear in the delicate, ultra-feminine mode that marked this Romantic Era. For her gown, she selected Prince Albert’s favorite lace that was handmade made in Honiton, England, and then had it draped over silk woven in British mills. According to documents in the British Museum, both fabrics were in ecru, rather than pure white, with the lace being darker than the silk. This is clearly shown in Winterhalter’s portrait of Victoria from 1842.

The gown was a public relations coup as it showcased British textiles, British fashion, British pride. But Victoria went further by allowing herself to be photographed in it numerous times, with copies freely dispensed to the press and public. It’s said that just one month after the wedding, the official wedding photograph of Victoria and Albert had reached the far corners of the British Empire. Because her gown appeared white in these black and white images, a fad for white wedding gowns was born. By the winter of 1840, a gown very similar to Victoria’s was depicted in Godey’s Lady’s Book in the United States. By the 1850s, such gowns had become a regular feature of the fashion magazine during the wedding season.

Another legend connected to white wedding gowns is that the color promises bodily purity, or virginity. This is false. The Victorians were fond of assigning hidden messages to many things, including colors. Blue stood for fidelity, for instance, and pink for love, while white indicated pureness of heart. Anything more personal would have been considered vulgar.

Wedding gowns today owe a remarkable debt to Victoria’s famous ensemble. Its low neckline, full skirt and sumptuous yet simple fabrics still inspire modern designers, and millions of yards of silk and lace adorn millions of brides every year in her honor. It’s the romance of the thing, you see; the impractical appeal of clothing dedicated solely to the display of female beauty.

A few more interesting facts about wedding gowns:

Shades of white are the most popular color, even today, though the gown may actually be tinted eggshell, ecru, ivory or champagne. It’s perfectly acceptable for any bride, even those celebrating second or third marriages, to wear this color.

A popular trend now is white with a tracery of black embroidery or a black lace overlay.

Other colors frequently used by designers are pink, coral, pale blue, pale green, or aqua.

75% of wedding gowns chosen today are strapless. Beyond the more contemporary and sexier look, the bodice represents the greatest fitting challenge in ready-to-wear garments. Strapless models require less alteration.

A wedding dress is the traditional finale for even the highest of high-fashion shows because it is the ultimate test of a designer’s inspiration and workmanship.

For more about wedding gowns see:

Note: In my book, PIECES OF DREAMS, Melly’s wedding gown is made of Oriental silk brocade shipped from far-off Cathay by the sea captain who was her childhood friend—and is also the twin brother of her prospective groom. The description fits perfectly into my story, but is actually a salute to my own wedding gown that was of cream-colored silk brocade shipped from Korea by a friend stationed at a military base there.

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