Princess Dian wore a full-skirted dress of ivory silk taffeta Photo: From Reader's Digest
White wedding gowns are a relatively recent phenomenon, before which almost any colour dress was acceptable, including black if the intended bridegroom was a widower. In early Celtic cultures, red was the bridal colour of choice, worn to invoke fertility; early Christians preferred blue, which was symbolic of truth and purity and used in depictions of the Virgin Mary, either for the whole dress or as a band around the hem. Right up until the late 19th century, most ordinary women were married in their ‘Sunday best’, which, adapted if necessary, could be worn again. Grey was much favoured as both modest and useful, and brown was not uncommon; white was usually just too impractical.
The white wedding dress as we recognise it today is a tradition started by Queen Victoria, who wore white to her own wedding to Albert of Saxe-Coburg in 1840. But white wedding gowns, worn as a token of the bride’s purity and innocence, were worn by royalty and the wealthy long before then: Henry IV of England’s daughter, Princess Philippa, is reported to have worn a tunic and mantle of white satin, edged with velvet and ermine, at her marriage to Eric of Pomerania (modern Scandinavia) in 1406; Anne of Brittany, daughter of Francis II, Duke of Brittany, wore white at her third marriage in 1499 to Louis XII of France; while in 1572, Margaret of Valois is said to have married Henry of Navarre in a dress trimmed with white ermine, topped with a blue coat with a 1.5m (5ft) train. Mary, Queen of Scots wore white for her wedding with the Dauphin of France in 1558, flouting the French custom that white was only to be worn in mourning for French royalty. (Ironically, her husband died two years later.)
The bride’s wedding veil has several different associations. It may have evolved as a symbolic protection from malign spirits, in particular the Evil Eye. It also implies a bride’s submission to her future husband, the man to whom she allows the privilege of lifting the veil. It has also been seen as a representation or development of the Anglo-Saxon ‘care cloth’ that was held over the heads of both bride and groom. The Saxon cloth was itself related to the Jewish chuppah, a square vestment held over the heads of the couple, and to the linen canopy that is traditionally used in Catholic wedding ceremonies.
Flowers carried and worn are bridal essentials. A floral crown was once de rigeur for both bride and groom. The blooms were carefully chosen for their meanings – orange blossoms for fecundity and roses for love, and combined with herbs: rosemary for remembrance and sage for wisdom; garlic would be added to ward off evil spirits. The crowning of the bride with a coronet of gold or silver, sometimes entwined with flowers, is still observed in Eastern Orthodox weddings. The buttonhole worn by the groom is the remnant of his crown and also dates back to the custom of a knight wearing the colours of his lady to signify his love.
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