Wedding Costume

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A wedding dress is apparel used in conjunction with wedding ceremonies, including accessories that may differentiate nonmatrimonial dress from that worn specifically for weddings.

Contemporary Overview

As of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, the global, urbanized standard of wedding apparel has followed the Western tradition of a bride dressed in white or off-white, with a head-covering, whether a veil or head-piece, and carrying flowers, a book, or some other object. The groom is attired in keeping with the degree of formality of the bride. Attendants are generally present, the number, gender, age, and dress of whom being peculiar to each culture. Family members usually attend, playing a prominent role, and are dressed in equally formal, but generally more subdued styles of clothing than the bridal party. Other accessories have become standard, some of which are mandated by religion or culture, and others of which are remnants of folk practice. The former may include specific types of headgear, for both bride and groom, and possibly all attendees. These range from yarmulkes at Jewish weddings, to crowns held over the heads of the bridal couple in Orthodox Christian ceremonies. Anglo-phone folkloric touches suggest the inclusion of "some-thing old, something new, something borrowed, and something blue," as well as a single garter, a remnant of the days when the public removal of one's garters was a significant symbolic gesture. The throwing of the garter to the male attendants serves more or less the same function as the tossing of the bridal bouquet to the females: that of determining the next to wed, although the previous stipulation that all attendants be unmarried having disappeared, this old "good luck" charm is vitiated.

In contemporary non-western industrial societies, the situation is complex. There are generally local or national traditions, based on religious and/or societal norms that have developed over time to provide identifiable wedding apparel. This can range from Japanese kimonos to long body-and face-concealing robes in Islamic cultures, to elaborate saris in India, to hand-embroidered and metal-encrusted Hmong dress. However, the primacy of the "western wedding style"—that of a bride dressed in a white gown and a groom in typical western formal attire, has supplanted many local traditions, at least for the middle and upper classes. Even in countries with strong local traditions, if there are no specific religious strictures that would prohibit them and the economic resources are available, couples may opt to hold two ceremonies, one in the tradition of their own country and one of the western variety. This has been particularly popular in Japan and Korea, where the couple dresses according to the religion and architecture of the wedding chapel, or holds two separate ceremonies, and might change ensembles five to seven times during the course of the celebrations. Even in Islamic societies such as Saudi Arabia, this doubling up of wedding attire has proven popular among the upper classes.


It is not possible to determine from archaeological evidence whether or not prehistoric societies celebrated marital unions in a specific manner or marked those celebrations through the use of special garb. Information is nearly as scarce for the first great urban societies, where nothing is known of the wedding dress or practices of the bulk of the population and only dynastic marriages survive in the written record. However, it appears that even at the dynastic level, dress for weddings was less occasion-specific than a matter of showing off one's best garments and accessories.

The first clear references to specific wedding apparel, in the form of bridal crowns and veils, come from the Hellenistic period of Greece. These too, while spec-ified for use in weddings, and ranging from simple flow-ers to elaborate metal tiaras, were accessories. It is not until many centuries later that most cultures adopted recognizable ensembles to mark the occasion. This stems, in part, from simple economics. In pre-industrial times, the idea of ceremony-specific clothing, particularly for a one-time event, was beyond the means of the vast majority of the population. Even at the court level, wardrobe inventories discuss the fact that royalty and courtiers alike tended to wear their most fashionable garments, with no real consideration of one-time use or symbolism of color or style. Again, it is the use of accessories that gives the garments their meaning.

It was during the long rule of Queen Victoria (1837–1901) that the Western notion of what the bride and her party should look like solidified, first in Britain, and subsequently the rest of the industrialized world. However, certain aspects, such as identically dressed attendants, appeared in many other cultures for more symbolic reasons than simply to honor, support, and, perhaps impress. The generation previous to Queen Victoria's introduced the white wedding gown, when Victoria's cousin, Crown Princess Charlotte, was married in 1816. According to reports, and a controversial garment in the collection of the Museum of London, her bridal gown consisted of a silver tissue and lace overgown worn over a white underdress. That this probably had more to do with the Regency fashion of white dresses than any symbolic intent did not stop it from exerting the same fashion influence of twentieth-century "royalty" such as Princess Grace of Monaco; Diana, Princess of Wales; or Carolyn Bessette Kennedy. The ideal of a white wedding dress was codified in 1840, when Queen Victoria wore a creamy white Spitalfields silk satin and lace gown. It was endlessly reproduced in fashion journals, setting a fashion standard for some appreciable time.

With the advent of industrialization in the West, the combination of readily available and comparatively cheap fabric meshed with the aspirations and needs of a nolonger self-sustaining population to acquire more garments, particularly those for festive occasions. Improved communication, in the form of newspapers, magazines, and their delivery methods of roads, railroads, and improved shipping speeds, as well as the establishment of dependable rural postal delivery at the turn of the twentieth century, allowed even isolated or working-class women to aspire to new fashion trends. However, economics and practicality continued to play a significant role, particularly among these populations. Societal norms decreed that appropriately formal dress be worn for significant occasions, from confirmation, to weddings, to church attendance, to funerals. Frequently, such a dress was presented to a young woman at her coming of age; if funding permitted, another was obtained for her wedding. However, this dress would be expected to serve, not only for the festive occasion for which it was purchased, but also for all others in the foreseeable future, including funerals. It tended toward a conservative cut for this reason, and often had large seam allowances that could accommodate pregnancy and possible weight gain. With the long-standing tradition of black for funerals and mourning, most of these "good" dresses were black, and often worn for the first time at the woman's wedding. This tendency continued into the late nineteenth and even early twentieth century among rural women. Women of the higher classes wore colors; frequently, but not invariably, white. After a death in the family, when the period of strict mourning was over, marriage could take place, but the bride would wear either gray or lavender. Among the working classes, as soon as it was economically feasible, colors were adopted, although the white, one-time only dress was still a rarity. Even the more affluent often assumed their gowns would see use more than once, and colored wedding dresses were still common into the first decade of the twentieth century, after which the ideal of a white, often anachronistic gown, meant to be worn only once, was only supplanted by extraordinary conditions, such as war.

With nods to changes in silhouette and length, the now-immutable tradition of the bride in white, surrounded by equally formally dressed family and attendants, became the norm, not only in Western culture, but wherever Western fashion was emulated, and frequently in the face of centuries-old local tradition. Occasional vagaries of lifestyle, including nude hippie weddings and thematic concoctions ranging from period or folk evocations to camouflage in honor of a deploying soldier, did not dislodge the basic formal make-up of the wedding party, or its concentration on white or off-white and a fairly conservative cut. However, in the 1980s, this began to change, first among the attendants and guests, who began to wear colors such as black, previously considered taboo for twentieth-century weddings. New materials began to appear, including leather, sequins, and even tattoos, as part of the wedding ensemble which itself frequently displayed significantly more flesh than had previously been considered appropriate. Now even brides were sporting colors such as red and black, and indeed, even getting tattoos for the occasion.

The symbolism of both color and cut for the wed-ding party, solidified over the nineteenth century and even earlier in the case of many of the accessories, is accepted in the early 2000s with no understanding of origin or is ignored by many modern brides. The idea of wearing a one-time only dress is more prevalent, as most medium-priced gowns have their beaded or pearl decoration glued on rather than sewn. Alternatively the bride simply rents her gown, a tendency common in Japan, but that is making inroads in Europe and the United States.

Accessories and Their Symbolism

It is often the accessories that historically have provided clothing with bridal significance. Some can be traced to specific time periods while others appear to predate written records. One example of this is the headpiece. Depending on the culture, both men and women may have a specific type of head covering, but it is most unusual for the bride to be bareheaded. The earliest were undoubtedly simple wreaths of plant material: flowers, grain, or leaves, most of which appear to have had fertility symbolism, and possibly served to identify the wedding party. Later, head ornaments of cloth, metal, gems, and even wood began to be used. These were often accompanied by an additional piece of cloth, which might simply cover the hair or be draped over the entire head of the bride, obscuring her features. Certain religions dictate this kind of modesty, historically as well as in the early twenty-first century. However, in European culture, the veil also served as a disguise, a pre-Christian remnant of hiding the bride lest she be attacked by the forces of evil. Identically dressed attendants served not only to assist her, but to also confuse demonic presence.

Bouquets or other objects, such as fans or books, are also important accessories and are symbolic on several different levels. The carrying of flowers or other plants, such as wheat, is not only decorative, but refers to the fertility of the union. Flowers have been accorded symbolism in nearly every culture, but they also express wealth and taste in their choice and cost. In the early 2000s it is most common for Western brides to carry expensive flowers, with only very religious or economically prudent women opting for a prayer book. However, in earlier times, the owning and display of such a luxury item as a book would have lent the bride additional status, and frequently formed one of her betrothal gifts. The wedding ring, a token of affection, an exchange of property in the form of precious metal, and a none-too-subtle warning of future unavailability, is not a universal accessory. This is even more true of the engagement ring, a staple in North America, but not as common in other cultures, even in the West. Additionally, the finger or hand on which the rings are worn vary from culture to culture, as well as historically. Sixteenth-century examples of wedding portraits show the bride wearing a ring on her thumb.

Color symbolism did not play a role in weddings until relatively recently in the West, although now it signifies virginity, and, as mentioned above, the primacy of the white wedding dress flies directly in the face of many other cultures' norms. White is the color of mourning in most Asian cultures. Red, the one color still forbidden to most mainstream Western brides, due to its connotations of immorality ("scarlet woman," "red-light district"), is completely appropriate in other cultural settings. In India, it is the color of purity, and is often worn by brides. In much of East Asia, it is the color of celebration and luck, and therefore appropriate for bridal attire. However, the tendency toward adopting the Western white wedding, established only in the mid-nineteenth century, seems to be continuing throughout the world, sometimes alone, and sometimes in conjunction with local traditions. At the same time, the white wedding in the West is proving to be far less static than previously thought, evolving as fashions and societal norms do.

See alsoCeremonial and Festival Costumes; Religion and Dress .


Baker, Margaret. Wedding Customs and Folklore. Devon, U.K.: David and Charles, 1977. An early work exploring the symbolism of marriage and its dress.

Baldizzone, Tiziana, and Gianni Baldzonne. Wedding Ceremonies: Ethnic Symbols, Costume, and Ritual. Paris: Flam-marian, 2002. One of many new studies that look at modern global practice.

Cunnington, Phillis, and Catherine Lucas. Costume for Births, Marriages, and Deaths. New York: A & C Black, 1972. One of the first, and still important studies of Western ceremonial clothing.

Foster, Helen Bradley, and Donald Clay Johnson. Wedding Dress: Across Cultures. Oxford: Berg, 2003. A rather good exploration of modern global wedding practices.

Kaivola-Bregenhøj, Annikki. Bondebryllup. Copenhagen, 1983. Excellent discussion of European peasant weddings.

Mordecai, Carolyn. Weddings, Dating and Love: Customs and Cultures Worldwide, including Royalty. Phoenix, Ariz.: Nittany, 1998. An imperfect but broad compendium of modern practices.

Newton, Stella Mary. Fashion in the Age of the Black Prince: A Study of the Years 1340–1365. Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boy-dell, 1980. Reprint, Totowa, N.J.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1999. One of the best studies of fourteenth-century dress, including weddings, using difficult to find primary sources.

Noss, Aagot. Lad og Krone: frå jente til brur. Oslo: Universitetsforlaget, 1991. The most careful case study to date of ethnic wedding traditions, focusing on those of Norway, by one of the pioneers of costume history fieldwork.

Piponnier, Françoise, and Perrine Mane. Dress in the Middle Ages. New Haven, Conn., and London: Yale University, 1997. A book that is significant because it presents much compressed information, and its discussion of garments signifying rites of passage is important.

Tobin, Shelley, Sarah Pepper, and Margaret Willes. Marriage à la Mode: Three Centuries of Wedding Dress. London: The National Trust, 2003.

Michelle Nordtorp-Madson