Bridal Party: Pomp, Power, and the Myth of Virginity
The DRESS. So serious a topic it deserves ALL CAPS, also known as an Internet scream.
After “congratulations/yay/oh sweetie that’s wonderful (mom)," the first thing most people asked me when I told them my partner and I were tying the knot was “what are you going to wear.” In my mind, the dress was the last thing I had to worry about behind, say, what meaningful things I would say to my person in front of my friends and loved ones, or how various elements of the ceremony would reflect what we mean to one another. And anyway, shopping comes easy for me, and, as I mentioned in my last post, I didn’t want to go into debt over a single weekend and I wanted a dress I could wear again for other occasions... such as cocktail parties. Or someone else’s wedding. That combined with the fact that I look like death warmed over in white pretty much ruled out the possibility of a months-long, painstaking search for an expensive white gown.
You can’t play croquet with a mallet in one hand and a cocktail in the other in a gown. Priorities, people! And frankly, white is a tough color to pull off, with or without tasteless jokes about a woman’s, ahem, “purity” included.
Oh hey! Speaking of perpetuations of antiquated notions of female sexuality, did you know that the Western tradition of white wedding gowns actually has nothing to do with virginity?
[WARNING I AM A HISTORY NERD]
Historically, weddings have been the ritualistic symbols of the exchange of property and the unification of power, and so brides from particularly wealthy families used their dresses as a way to show off their socioeconomic status.
English royals wore dresses made of woven precious metals and during the Italian Renaissance,brides had their dowries straight-up sewn INTO their dresses so that everyone could literally see what they were worth. Having no context for a dowry, I imagine golden grails dangling off gowns already dripping with rare jewels. Clanging brides marching off to their dutiful contractual consolidation of patriarchal power.
But let’s take a break from that last sentence and talk about where the white wedding dress came from.
In the pre-Industrial world, textiles were a crucial way to publicly show exactly how wealthy you and your family were. Elaborate weaving styles and rare colors made for excellent public displays of power. Before the advent of Clorox, white was an extremely difficult and expensive textile color to achieve and even more difficult to maintain. Wealth, power, and the color white therefore went hand-in-hand.
But the white wedding dress that launched a million brides was none other than Queen Victoria’s. While she wasn’t the first wealthy so-and-so to wear a white dress, she was arguably the most famous. Ironically, though, her choice of white wasn’t connected to a display of wealth, but instead as a show of dedication to her country during a time of widespread poverty. In a rare turn of double irony, she did that by spending a fortune on her gown. BY WHATEVER MEANS NECESSARY.
At the time, England’s traditional textile industries were being done in by the Industrial Revolution, which was laying waste specifically to the country’s handmade lace industry and creating an ocean of unemployed artisans.
[Okay, bear with me... the history interlude is nearly concluded.]
Queen Victoria was already Queen (rather than a princess about to become the Queen Consort) when she married and she needed to flex her Queenly muscle a little bit to show that she wasn’t just an ornament to someone else’s throne. She wanted to break from the royal tradition of gowns of woven gold and silver, to set herself firmly apart, but also to show her support of England’s economy and its artisanal heritage as its Head of State. And so she wore on her dress a large bit of handmade Honiton lace. It was decided that the best way to show off the lace was to have her wear a white dress.
And voilà. We have the modern tradition of the white wedding gown, born of a royal, trendsetting political statement.
Couple this with the fact that wealthy women used not only the materials, but the size of their dresses to convey the size of their fortune (the more powerful their families, the more physical space they took up with their dresses), and you get the propensity for ENORMOUS wedding gowns. It's a sort of textile version of "the higher the hair, the closer to god [honey]."
Eventually the Church[es] adopted the trend for christenings, confirmations, and baptisms, when children would get “married” to God. In the 20th Century, the white dress became THE garment for women to wear when making any vow during a religious ceremony, including marriages conducted by a priest or pastor.
On the one hand, I do like that Queen Victoria’s dress symbolically supported her country’s artisans and stood in protest to the economic decimation that occurred as a result of the Industrial Revolution, while at the same time letting people know that she was no King's ornamentation, but the leader of a nation.
But I also find it hard to get behind the idea that unchecked economic extravagance—the romanticizing of the royals, of class inequality by proxy—somehow has anything to do with the intimacy built with another person. And that's how THE DRESS is so often sold to women. That what they'll remember about the day—the most important part of their wedding—will be a piece of clothing used to denote wealth and power.
The whole dramatic white wedding gown thing is so often depicted in the media as a game of one-upmanship, yet another way for women to compete aesthetically with one another, to cash in on what the media bills as a woman's greatest asset: her looks. I mean, nothing says "hallowed complex commitment to another human" like a good ol' fashionedbride vs. bride showdown over an expensive dress to be worn once.
Original caption: "Frantic: women protect wedding gowns." I had no idea that gowns were endangered!
I fought no fellow bride for my super duper discounted purple dress from House of Hengst. Who has time for bride fighting these days?
So, the moral of this history interlude is simply this: feel free to throw off the weight of white if you like (emphasis on the "if you like")! There’s no philosophically deep reason for the color or the tradition of extravagance. Unless, of course, you’re a noble, royal, or textile fan-person.
Previously: Let's Get Married!
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