White and Other Weddings, Vol. 5, Issue 7

Etiquetteer has been exceedingly interested in the responses to date to Etiquetteer’s Wedding Survey. So many attitudes have been expressed about the color of the bridal gown that this a good time for Etiquetteer to delve into some of the history surrounding this garment. Etiquetteer was surprised several years ago to learn that brides in ancient Rome wore gowns and veils of flaming orange. (Etiquetteer has not learned why this color was chosen; if you have any ideas, please inform Etiquetteer at once.) The first instance Etiquetteer has heard of a white wedding gown was the first wedding of Mary, Queen of Scots, to Francis II in 1558. Mary knew how to dress to impress, and she chose a white gown for her wedding, with magnificent jewels, knowing it would set off her skin and rich auburn hair to perfection. But unrelieved white was what court ladies had always worn in mourning, so Mary’s choice raised a few regal eyebrows. Mary’s attire for her other two weddings was equally unconventional, which ought to comfort brides eager to make their weddings ostentatiously individual. When Mary married Lord Darnley in 1565, she approached the altar as the widow of Francis II in the deuil blanc, the rigidly presecribed mourning white of the French court. Between the nuptial mass and the feasting, Mary devised a ceremony in her bedchamber where each of the nobles present would remove a pin from her wedding veil. She then changed into another gown for the two banquets and dancing that followed. At her 1567 marriage to the Earl of Bothwell, three months after the murder of Lord Darnley, Mary appeared in alleged mourning, elaborately gold-embroidered black velvet with a white veil. And then, of course, everything fell apart: Bothwell was imprisoned in Scandinavia and Mary had her head cut off by Elizabeth I. You see what happens when a bride wears black? Mary may have started a royal trend with her white wedding gown. The next Etiquetteer hears of it, George III’s eldest daughter, the Princess Royal, is preparing a white silk wedding gown for her own wedding. Because her groom was a widower, she was supposed to have gold embroidery, but her mother the Queen permitted her to use silver instead. Perhaps silver is purer than gold? Of course the most famous example of the white gown, the one that started the craze at every level of society, was the beautiful white satin dress Queen Victoria wore at her marriage to Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha in 1840. Before that, Etiquetteer imagines everyone just trotted out their best dresses whatever the color. But Victoria changed all that, and a white satin wedding gown became the default for generations. Indeed, this mania even gets mentioned in Gone With the Wind. Rhett Butler ends up smuggling in a bolt of white satin for Maybelle Merriwether after all the wedding gowns in the Confederacy were cut up to make flags. Of course, back in the day wedding finery was thought only Perfectly Proper for younger brides. Once you got to what Jane Austen called "the years of danger" elaborate weddings were not considered in the best of taste, because they unflatteringly called attention to the bride’s age. In Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, Mrs. Archer has been saving her own wedding gown (white satin, of course) for her daughter Janey. "Though poor Janey was reaching the age when pearl gray poplin and no bridesmaids would be thought more ‘appropriate.’" Even Letitia Baldrige, who married in 1963 at age 37, chose a knee-length white suit and a white fur hat with veil rather than a full-length wedding gown. To her, one just didn’t do that after age 32. Now, of course, first-time brides older than 25 are much more common, and this silly stigma has been lifted. Still, Etiquetteer always advises to dress appropriately to one’s age. It’s no good pretending you’re 19-year-old Miss Dewy Freshness drifting down the aisle on a cloud of tulle to the arms of 22-year-old Mr. Manley Firmness when you aren’t. Etiquetteer has been surprised to hear from several people who just don’t like white for brides. This sharp opinion made Etiquetteer think about his grandmothers, neither of whom married in white. About 1919 Etiquetteer’s paternal grandparents married in a daytime ceremony. Held in the parlor of the bride’s family’s New Orleans boardinghouse, the bride wore a green daytime suit with fur scarf and matching hat; the groom wore his World War I army uniform because he couldn’t afford a suit. Having no idea she was imitating the Roman brides of yore, Etiquetteer’s beloved maternal grandmother sewed and embroidered an exquisite dancing dress of bright orange crepe for her wedding in 1920. Attending a Leap Day dance with her sweetheart, they surprised everyone by leading the Grand March, which turned out to be the famous march from Lohengrin we all know as "Here Comes the Bride." A justice of the peace met them at the end and married them in the presence of the astonished and delighted company. So you see that brides can get away with colors, but Etiquetteer just can’t approve of red for Western brides. Red, of course, is the color that Asian brides have worn for centuries, but in the West red is still the color of harlotry (as in "red-light district.") We have only to look at Madonna, who wore a strapless red gown to her wedding to fiery actor Sean Penn in 1985. Of course they got divorced in 1989; see what happens when the bride wears red? Some references for those who are interested: Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart, by John Guy Princesses: The Six Daughters of George III, by Flora Fraser Persuasion, by Jane Austen The Age of Innocence, by Edith Wharton Gone With the Wind, by Margaret Mitchell A Lady, First, by Letitia Baldrige

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