Readers might be surprised to discover that the traditional white wedding dress is a relatively new phenomenon, made fashionable by Queen Victoria for her wedding to Prince Albert in 1840 (though Mary Queen of Scots also a wore a white gown to her wedding in 1558). While the colour is now generally seen as a symbol of innocence and purity, 20-year-old Victoria wore white as a show of prudence, to impress upon her country that she would lead in a humble way. The young queen’s silk gown was also adorned with lace from the small village of Beer, and she felt that white was the best way to highlight the handmade pieces in order to promote the declining industry.
Before then, European royal weddings—and their bridal dresses especially—had been notorious for their colourful extravagance. In 1468, Margaret of York’s bridal gown was so laden with heirloom gems that she had to be carried into the church, while in 1816, Princess Charlotte’s silver lamé dress, embroidered with flowers and shells, is thought to have cost the modern-day equivalent of $2 million.
Even outside of aristocratic circles, Western brides have historically opted for dresses of more striking hues, with red generally being the most popular option. It’s a tradition that spans cultures and centuries. Below, Verve brings you a selection of the most memorable.
Muslim brides don long gowns and usually some form of hijab, other than that, details can vary greatly depending on their country of birth or residence. White dresses are probably most popular in most Muslim countries, however brides in India and its neighbouring Muslim nations are likely to don more colourful dresses—or shalwar kameez—adorned with gilded thread, while their hands and feet are decorated with henna. In the Middle East, rather than meet at the altar, the groom will usually collect the bride in advance to the beat of traditional Arabic drumming.
Superstition is rife in China and no colour brings more luck, prosperity or happiness than red. The red frock—or qipao or cheongsam—is slim-fitting and woven with colourful embroidery that’s predominantly silver or gold. Often the bride’s family will hire a lady who serves as a lucky charm to escort the bride as she makes her way to meet her groom carried in an ornate sedan chair. After the ceremony the bride may change dresses more than once for the banquet and further celebrations.
According to one tragic legend associated with India’s caste system, Hindu women born during a certain astrological period are destined for early widowhood, with the curse able to be broken by first marrying a tree then felling it. Any Hindu bride marrying a human, however, is likely to be draped in a sari that radiates with vibrant hues. The silk dress is accompanied by a jewelled headpiece, bangles and necklaces, with the bride also likely to be wearing fresh flowers and adorned with henna, too.
Sri Lankan Brides
Sri Lanka is predominantly Buddhist, with sizeable Hindu, Muslim and Christian populations. However, no matter the religion, traditional Sri Lankan bridal dresses are known for their glamour and vibrant colours, often complemented by a delicate veil. The bride’s silk sari is usually gold, cream or red, heavily embroidered and featuring a longer blouse and tunic-like ruffle around the waist. Their regal look is enhanced by jewellery such as gold chains, headpieces and bangles. Fresh flowers in the hair represent innocence, youth and beauty.
Traditional Japanese wedding ceremonies take place at Shinto shrines where both bride and groom sport customary kimonos. The bride will be top to toe in white—even her makeup—which represents her maiden status and purity. She must also wear a white headdress known as a tsunokakushi, said to hide her inherent ego, selfishness and the “horns of jealousy” that she harbours towards her mother-in-law!
White is generally the preferred dress colour for all three of the main Jewish denominations—Reform, Conservative and Orthodox—owing to its representation of spiritual purity, and, like many Christian weddings, often paired with a veil. Orthodox brides are expected to have hemlines to the ankles, a covered back and high neckline while Conservative synagogues ask for covered shoulders. Reform Judaism is generally the most liberal—though plunging necklines should mostly be avoided if marrying in a synagogue.
Nigerians see marriage not just as the union of two lovers, but the merging of two families, an attitude epitomised by their big, celebratory weddings that pulsate with colour and live music. Traditions vary throughout the nation, but it is common for brides to wear the fabric of her family’s tribe (similar to the way many Scottish families have their own tartan), completed with a head wrap known as a gele. Many Nigerians also opt for a Western style white dress—but if they do so will likely change into a more traditional number following the service. During the first dance, it is traditional for older guests to throw money at the couple to help them set up life together.