It’s wedding season at Buckingham Palace, an event that should set every devoted romance reader’s heart aflutter with anticipation.
Infrequent as they are, royal weddings have had an outsized effect on the way women marry for the better part of two centuries.
Here’s a shocking little secret: until that doyenne of 19th century England Victoria married her Prince Albert, white was hardly the preferred wedding dress fashion. Prior to Victoria’s ascension to the throne, in fact, British and American wedding dresses could be any color. If you could swing having a dress specially made for the occasion, you most likely chose blue, which symbolized fidelity and purity (think of the phrase “true blue”).
There was even a poem describing how your choice of wedding gown color would influence the course of your marriage:
Married in white, you will have chosen all right.
Married in grey , you will go far away.
Married in black, you will wish yourself back.
Married in red, you’ll wish yourself dead.
Married in blue, you will always be true.
Married in pearl, you’ll live in a whirl.
Married in green, ashamed to be seen.
Married in yellow, ashamed of the fellow.
Married in brown, you’ll live out of town.
Married in pink, your spirits will sink.
Another popular color choice was silver, but most brides among the plebian classes simply wore their best dress, regardless of color. For most of history, imitating royal fashion was both transgressive and beyond the pocketbooks of most women.
In 1840, Queen Victoria and rising incomes changed everything. Although she was not the first royal princess to don a white gown for her wedding – that honor belongs to Philippa of England, in the fifteenth century—Victoria’s selection of wedding finery has had an outsized influence on wedding fashion. Although her choice of wedding gown was considered shockingly plain at the time, history has had the last laugh: white, ivory, eggshell, and other variations on the theme remain by far the most popular and traditional color for wedding dresses to this day.
Color wasn’t Victoria’s only bequest to brides, though: the evergreen popularity of the ball gown skirt and corset bodice also mirror Victorian fashion. Queen Elizabeth II wore an A-line ball gown in embroidered ivory silk for her marriage to Prince Philip in 1947.
Even Princess Diana’s wedding dress followed the same lines: take away the ever-so-eighties frill around the neckline and the puffed sleeves, and you’re left with the traditional white ball gown elements popularized by Queen V a century and a half earlier.
As with romance novels, wedding dresses encourage an incredible degree of creativity by placing limits on what’s acceptable. For wedding dresses that means any variation on white, and nothing too skanky; for romance novels it means no adultery and a happily-ever-after ending.
Looking at the basic descriptions of Victoria, Elizabeth II and Diana’s dresses, you’d think they would look very similar. All three were ivory silk, embroidered with seed pearls and adorned with lace, yet each carries the distinctive mark of the wearers’ personality—and looks totally different. Victoria’s lace-encrusted gown, long train and longer veil radiated an upright, slightly girlish authority that would mark the era named for her, while the modest neckline and rich embroidery reflect the restraint and elegance Elizabeth II considered part and parcel of her station. Beneath the romantic tradition of Diana’s gown were several extravagances that hinted of her fashionable personality and awareness of status: 25 yards of silk taffeta, more than 10,000 pearls and sequins and a 25-foot silk train–the longest ever worn in a royal wedding.
It seems unlikely that Kate Middleton will be so gauche as to try and outdo Diana’s gown, but whatever she chooses for her gown will undoubtedly influence wedding fashions for years to come. And chances are pretty good that it will at least nod to Queen Victoria’s “shockingly simple” white gown in 1840.
For more gown talk, check out NYMAG’s compilation of royal wedding photos.
Carrie Netzer Wajda is an independent researcher and freelance writer in New York, and can be found at writetocarrie.com. A devotee of romance and mystery fiction, she someday hopes to actually finish one of the 182 gazillion “first books” she has started writing in her lifetime, and maybe even publish it. In the meantime, she loves blogging about her favorite authors.