Many of us have shared the frisson of wearing and (to a lesser extent) witnessing a sumptuous bridal gown at a wedding. This sensual and visual statement moves audiences like film stars on the big screen. A gorgeous wedding dress suggests heroines from history and princesses from the pages of fairy tales. Which, then, begs the question, what is the origin of the wedding dress? Where does this rich ritualised symbol hail from? Nature and the natural world in the first instance. The preening of feathers by birds involved in mating rituals. The blooming of flowers to attract bees and other pollinators. A beautiful show via an outer garment can inspire the right kind of stimulated behaviour later on.
The bridal gown, as we now know it, is a relatively recent phenomenon. There is no record of wedding ceremonies and/or wedding dresses in the Bible. The origin of the wedding dress is not in antique times. Marriages in the ancient world were transactional, involving contracts or some other type of formalised agreement. The concept of romantic love was decidedly absent from the whole affair. Sex would play its part, but the official union of two people was not conceived as spiritual or romantic. Art and literary reimagining of these times have superimposed our own later cultural associations upon the past. Painters have included things like bridal gowns in their visual renderings of famous antique scenarios involving marriages, but these have no basis for fact in our historical understanding of the period.
Ancient Roman brides wore gowns of deep yellow, signifying the colour of fire and ripened crops. The marriages of the elite classes were celebrated as important social events, as they were the joining of powerful families. In Ancient Greece, Athenian brides donned violet or reddish robes and bit upon a quince fruit to symbolise the fertilising seeds of the pomegranate and the story of Persephone being bound to her new husband Hades. Chinese brides have sported black, red, green, yellow and some white gowns over several millennia. In Japan, a Shinto bride is expected to wear white.
In the West, the wedding tradition of the white bridal gown was instigated by European royalty. This fashion was firmly established by the middle of the 19C, following the marriage of Queen Victoria to Prince Albert in 1840. This marriage was said to be a love match despite the huge national responsibilities surrounding it. These days, white is clearly considered the colour of purity and white wedding dresses signify the virginal status of the bride. Our interpretation, in many instances, has evolved into a more spiritual understanding of what that purity actually represents in 2020. The origin of the wedding dress resides in royalty and its whiteness shimmers in history.
The elegant, the effusive, the famous wedding dress of Marie Antoinette, indeed, there is a great deal of razzamatazz around bridal gowns. The lavish indulgence in a wondrous wedding ceremony and celebration is, now, a well-established modern tradition. I have heard some say it is the one day of their lives they will be able to devote to a public celebration of their womanhood. It is a special day for brides and, even, grooms. It is hard to imagine a wedding without a bridal gown as the centrepiece.
Where does the rich ritualised symbol of the wedding dress hail from? Nature and the natural world in the first instance. The preening of feathers by birds involved in mating rituals. The blooming of flowers to attract bees and other pollinators. A beautiful show via an outer garment can inspire the right kind of stimulated behaviour later on.