Queen Victoria’s wedding dress was not necessarily the first of its kind, but it was unlike that which any monarch had worn before her. Dr. Jennifer Steadman, curator of the exhibition “Victorian Fashion Crosses the Pond,” believes:
“She wanted to be seen as his wife, so she didn’t wear the red ermine robe of state. She wore white. After that, all representations in Godey‘s and other fashion magazines picked up on that. The white wedding dress became the standard symbol for innocence and romance.” (Dunne)
Julia Baird, author of Victoria The Queen: An Intimate Biography of the Woman Who Ruled an Empire, puts forth another theory – that:
“Victora had chosen to wear white mostly because it was the perfect color to highlight the delicate lace.” (142)
The idea of a white wedding dress was not novel in 1840. While it was not the only acceptable color, white had already been a popular color choice for a wedding gown for centuries (Ginsburg). However, while the English silk and lace undoubtedly made Victoria’s gown magnificent, the color white was simple in comparison to previous royal brides, who typically wore silver or gold as a sign of their royalty (Wackerl 54).
In Agnes Strickland’s contemporary biography of the Queen, published in 1840, she wrote that Victoria was dressed:
“not as a queen in her glittering trappings, but in spotless white, like a pure virgin, to meet her bridegroom.” (209)
In contrast, The Royal Collection Trust is in possession of the gown worn by Princess Charlotte of Wales to her 1816 wedding to Prince Leopold Saxe-Coburg (Fig. 11). The empire-waisted wedding gown is absolutely dazzling, completely covered in silver and gold metallic threads. In fact, the dress worn by Queen Victoria to the Great Exhibition in 1851 was more glitzy than her wedding dress (Fig. 12).
For non-royals, the choice for a bride to wear a white gown to her wedding was a show of wealth (Brennan). In a financial sense, white formal garments were considered impractical for several reasons. For one, keeping a garment white after wear was very difficult (Baird 142). In addition, due to the high cost of textiles and labor, having a new dress made was very expensive. Therefore, when the average woman purchased a new dress, it was not to be worn for once, but many times (Brennan).
The majority of brides in the nineteenth century would re-wear or re-purpose the dress they were married in, so its cut and color needed to be suitable for many other occasions. Such a dress would have been referred to as their “best dress” (Brennan). As such, common colors were russet and brown (Fig. 13). Some women even had their best dress made in colors such as grey or light purple, so that it may be appropriate both to be married in and for mourning.