“I wore a white satin dress, with a deep flounce of Honiton lace, an imitation of an old design. My jewels were my Turkish diamond necklace & earrings & dear Albert's beautiful sapphire brooch.”
While this description of Queen Victoria’s, recorded in her prolific journals1, doesn’t sound at all radical or unique, when she tied the knot with Prince Albert in 1840, it was unusual for a bride to wear white. Royal brides typically wore silver brocade trimmed in ermine and were bedecked in extravagant jewels, including the requisite diamond encrusted tiara. (In addition to her white dress, Queen Victoria opted for crown of orange blossoms, which symbolized fertility - and went on to have nine children).
She wasn’t the first royal to don an ivory gown, but she was the one who popularized the style that has become an enduring tradition honored by brides of every social status. “The concept of having a white gown that could only be worn for one day (unlike a gown in color which would be more practical for future events) was a wild extravagance that was largely unheard of before Queen Victoria,” reported Nottingham Evening Post2.
So, I’ve been wondering, if it wasn’t customary, what inspired Queen Victoria to wear white? And why did her choice have such an enormous, enduring impact on bridal fashion?
And what will Meghan Markle wear on her wedding day?
I’ll have to wait a little longer for the answer to that last question, but in the meantime, here are some interesting things I discovered about the first two.
The belief abounds that a white wedding dress symbolizes purity and signifies a bride’s virginity. But, the truth is, Queen Victoria chose to wear white because at the time of her wedding, she needed to assert herself as powerful monarch.
The queen was just 21 years old and in the first years of her reign over a struggling empire when she wed Prince Albert. She was still trying to establish her authority and demonstrate that she expected to be taken seriously. An article in the Santa Barbara Independent 3noted that:
As queen, she could afford not only to have a gown sewn for the sole purpose of dazzling her subjects on her wedding day, she could also afford to have a white one preserved, tended to, and protected. Thus, her gesture was one of exclusivity and affluence. She was flexing her royal sartorial muscle.
An episode of the Sunday Morning 4 magazine show mentioned the patriotic impact of the queen’s choice to wear lace, noting that the Queen also, “wanted to stimulate the English lace industry by advertising it on her dress.”
If you are thinking “what’s the big deal about lace?,” the dissertation Influence of ‘Victorianism’ on 19th Century Bridal Fashions by Lynda Dimond5 not only includes a deep dive into the immense popularity of lace in Victorian fashion and home decor but also provides fascinating social, moral and political context to explain the cultural significance of this development.
For example, in the decades immediately following the debut of Queen Victoria’s white bridal grown, there was an acceleration in industrialization which meant that the fragile, painstakingly elaborate, hand-sewn lace designs of the past could be recreated with machinery. As a result, lace became more available to the middle classes. It not only emerged as a defining characteristic of bridal gowns, but of women’s fashion in general, particularly for accessories such as handkerchiefs, gloves, fans and parasols.
Soon, lace was synonymous with Victorian refinement and, along with women’s fashion in general, a valuable part of the British economy.
Of course, the impact of industrialization went well beyond lace. According to Dimond, the advent of modern sewing machines during the Victorian era “revolutionized the dress-making industry” and “helped to make the middle-class woman’s dress as fashionable as that of the aristocrat.”
So, quite simply, many brides emulated Queen Victoria’s white dress because they could. Dimond discussed other cultural advances that made it possible for brides to replicate the dazzling white gown. Department stores, mail-order businesses and fashion magazines all first appeared mid-19th century, making women more aware of unique fashion features and designs they might feature in their bridal ensembles (and wardrobes in general). And mass production and the publication of sewing patterns made it easier – as well as more affordable – to do so.
But that’s the practical take on it. Surely, romance also played a part in brides’ desire to imitate the Queen, considering Her Majesty’s well-documented love affair with her groom. For more than a century and half, the relationship between Queen Victoria and Prince Albert has been something of a cultural obsession.
(Search “Queen Victoria” and “Prince Albert” on the ProQuest Platform and you’ll see what I mean. It turns up scads of gossipy historical newspaper articles, more in-depth biographical treatments, ebooks, and scholarly analysis – to call out just some of the content that is available on the subject.)
Many descriptions of the royal couple’s passionate union read like a fairy tale. Consider this 1934 article, “Queen Victoria’s Romance,” from the London-based Nash’s Pall Mall Magazine6 which described the young queen as “impetuous and spontaneous” “devoted to dancing and pleasure.” Of her then-suitor, Prince Albert, it was noted “His face was beautiful – it was said he was the most handsome prince in Europe. But the beauty was also illuminated by duty and virtue.”
In 1839, the two met and could only fall madly in love. The Queen proposed to the Prince (as Queen, it was on her to pop the question) on his second visit to Windsor, writing in her journal7 that she told him:
that it would make me too happy if he would consent to what I wished (to marry me); we embraced each other over and over again, and he was so kind, so affectionate; oh! to feel I was, and am, loved by such an Angel as Albert, was too great delight to describe! he is perfection; perfection in every way,- in beauty - in everything!.. I really felt it was the happiest brightest moment in my life.. Oh! how I adore and love him, I cannot say!!
Sigh. It’s enough to make a bride want to be a royalty on her own wedding day! For most of us – who aren’t Meghan Markle – the closest we’ll ever get is by walking down the aisle in a gown of white, inspired by Queen Victoria, whether we are aware of it or not.