Wedding in white

Queen Victoria set the white wedding trend in 1840

- April 26, 2011

"The Marriage of Queen Victoria" by Sir George Hayter.
"The Marriage of Queen Victoria" by Sir George Hayter.

As the clock ticks down to the royal wedding on Friday, speculation is rampant about the dress Kate Middleton will wear when she walks down the aisle at Westminster Abbey.

Will it be daring and unconventional, designed by Sarah Burton, creative director of Alexander McQueen? Or a vintage-inspired dress by lesser-known designer Sophie Cranston? The UK’s Daily Mail even suggests that 29-year-old Kate designed the dress herself.

Trend-setter Queen Victoria

But while there’s much ado about Kate’s gown, there can be no question about its colour (or lack of it). That decision was made for her more than 160 years ago by her fiance Will’s great great great grandmother.

A young and vivacious Queen Victoria set the precedent for the white wedding when she wed her cousin, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg, on February 10, 1840. She wore a white gown of English-made silk-satin trimmed with a deep flounce of Honiton lace, also made in England; it had a low neckline, fitted bodice and full-pleated skirt. A wreath of orange blossoms adorned her hair.

And, from then on, brides would forever say their I dos swathed in white.

Prior to Victoria, women’s wedding dresses traditionally followed the fashionable silhouettes and hues of their day. But not only had the 20-year-old queen decided to dress in white, she choose white for her 12 bridesmaids too. And, she really did design the dresses.

Her attire was considered shockingly restrained by royal standards. Where were the jewels, the crown, the velvet robes trimmed with ermine? But her gown was also surprisingly modern; you can find something similar in any bridal shop today. Costume designer Sandy Powell created an exact replica of the trend-setting dress for actress Emily Blunt in the 2009 movie The Young Victoria. The original, long since yellowed and extremely fragile, is due to go on display next March in a new permanent exhibition “Victoria Revealed” at the refurbished Kensington Palace in London.

'The most fitting hue'

Less than a decade after Victoria married her darling Albert, Godey’s Lady’s Book seemed to forget that women ever wore any other shade than white when they wed. “Custom has decided, from the earliest ages, that white is the most fitting hue, whatever may be the material. It is an emblem of the purity and innocence of girlhood, and the unsullied heart she now yields to the chosen one.”

What makes Queen Victoria’s adoption of white so intriguing is that she is so closely associated with black. Widowed at the age of 42, she wore black for the rest of her life as an expression of her sorrow. But she so loved the delicate white lace flounce of her wedding gown, that it was carefully removed and recycled. Photographic portraits of the queen taken at the time of her Golden and Diamond Jubilees show her with her wedding lace draped over the black dresses that marked her eternal mourning.

Dal News editor Marilyn Smulders is a part-time student in the costume studies program at Dalhousie. She wrote about Queen Victoria’s wedding gown for the class, Dress and Identity: From King’s Court to Mass Culture. 


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