Royal Wedding – Why do brides wear white?

When Meghan Markle steps out in her wedding gown this Saturday, it will be a historically significant moment, relayed across the globe and replayed countless times over the coming decades. It is no wonder, therefore, that media speculation has mounted to fever pitch as everyone wonders: What will Meghan wear? Will she fly the flag for British design? How much will her dress cost? Everyone agrees on one point – it will be a traditional ‘white wedding’.

Arguably, one of the most memorable moments in the history of Royal Weddings occurred when Lady Diana Spencer stepped out of her carriage onto the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral in that voluminous gown designed by David and Elizabeth Emanuel. It was a beautiful dress of ivory silk taffeta and antique lace – but OMG it was so badly crumpled. Elizabeth later admitted, ‘I was horrified really, because it was quite a lot of creasing… I actually felt faint’. But the bride smiled and shook out the dress to reduce the wrinkling. Despite this setback, when Diana walked down the aisle she was the epitome of a fairy-tale princess. Thirty-six-years on, this dress remains iconic.

In April 2011, Kate Middleton looked stunning in a wedding dress of ivory satin and lace designed by Sarah Burton, creative director Alexander McQueen. Burton, admitted that key challenges lay in the fact that ‘it had to be a dress of historical importance and one which had enough presence for Westminster Abbey, and yet it needed to be modest’.

Undoubtedly, designing Meghan’s wedding gown will be a challenge as the dress will need to reflect her laid-back style. The Evening Standard wonders how she will ‘bridge the gap between contemporary cool and palace-worthy attire’. Speaking to Harper’s Bazar, American designer Vera Wang predicts that Meghan will go for ‘neither full blown royal wedding like Diana or Kate, and neither narrow, sensual and more sexy–I think she’ll go somewhere in-between that feels a tad more modern’. But Wang agrees that the dress will be a shade of white.

Queen Victoria is attributed with popularizing white weddings. She dazzled in a gown made of white silk and lace, when she married Prince Albert in 1840. However, the trend for white weddings started some decades earlier.

Catherine Tylney-Long, of Wanstead House, was the richest commoner in Regency Britain

In 1812, the heiress Catherine Tylney Long dazzled in a cutting-edge, all-white wedding outfit, when she married William Wellesley Pole. They were the celebrity couple of their era – rich, sexy, notorious – and they wed in a blaze of publicity. Newspapers reports were like a spread in Hello magazine, focusing on the bride’s remarkable ensemble. Catherine’s gown was made from delicate Brussels point lace. Over this she wore full-length pelisse jacket made from shimmering satin with a luxurious sweep of soft white swans feathers swishing at her ankles. Her headdress was ornamented with two ostrich feathers and a long lace veil.  The Morning Chronicle remarked on the enormous cost of Catherine’s outfit: ‘the Lady looked very pretty and interesting… The dress cost 700 guineas, the bonnet 150, and the veil 200’.

During the early nineteenth-century, white weddings were a relatively new trend reserved for the rich or the aristocracy. This is hardly surprising as the total outlay for Catherine’s ensemble was more than the average labourer earned in twenty years. Most women simply got married in their best gown regardless of the colour. But Catherine’s wedding outfit captured the public imagination, making white wedding dresses desirable across all classes in society. From this moment onwards, brides increasingly wore white as a symbol of romantic love and purity.

John F Kennedy’s marriage to Jaccqueline Bouvier in 1953 shows the universal appeal for white weddings

Catherine’s Regency wedding was a defining moment in the history of British weddings, setting a standard that remains popular today worldwide: the bride’s white wedding dress, the groom’s top hat and tails, the church ceremony, and the fine carriage to transport the newlyweds. Perhaps this formula had been used before, but never with such pomp or publicity.

 

There are no surviving images of Catherine in her ground-breaking outfit, but luckily a similar version was reproduced by BBC costume designers for this famous scene in Pride and Prejudice. It is a pared down copy of Catherine’s ensemble, without the elaborate detail of the Brussels lace, the luxurious sweep of swansdown, and the trendy ostrich feathers in the headdress. It provides a good indication of how Catherine and William would have looked on their wedding day, demonstrating just how glamorous they were.

Despite this bright start and some glorious years at Wanstead House, Catherine’s marriage was ultimately doomed. The shocking twists and turns of her life kept the nation enthralled for decades. It culminated in a high profile court case with widespread repercussions. You can read Catherine’s shocking story in in my bestselling book, The Angel and the Cad

I’m sure that Meghan and Harry will fare much better in their marriage! The very best of luck to them.

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