The Wedding Dress

There are many beliefs surrounding the traditional wedding dress. Maureen Baker of Susan Small Limited of London, designer of Princess Anne's dress for her wedding in Westminster Abbey to Captain Mark Phillips, commented about traditions that were to be observed in her workroom. Whistling was banned as it brings back luck, as it is on a ship, down a mine or in the theatre; the belief is ancient and is probably connected to whistling up evil spirits. No tacking with black thread, only white and thread, because of the association with funerals and death. Fifteen of Susan Small's workers each sewed a hair into the wedding dress as a good-luck charm (crazy, those little bits of transparent plastic thread that is often used in garment making these days, causes all sorts of itching in annoyance, but nothing I would have thought compared with having all those bits of hair tickling you). Some traditions say that the bride benefits less than the owner of the hair and that the procedure is akin to witchcraft. (But who cares, it sounds like a good marketing gimmick on the part of Ms Baker and Ms Small, and I'm sure they wallop the price up many times as a result.) But perhaps it's a bit dodgy playing these games with their, because as we all know from watching the Harry Potter films, hair is an essential ingredient of many spells. In the Ozarks, one girl at least is known to have taken a magnifying glass to her wedding clothes to make certain that no such hair had been inserted and there the connotation is sinister rather than lucky.

This part of my research is very interesting. I consider myself something of an expert on wedding dresses and brides, having played with my string quartet for so many weddings and watch brides dressed to perfection in every kind of wedding dress you can think of, from the plainest and most elegant of the most expensive and frothiest. Although was playing, one can't really take too much notice of what's going on around one, there are plenty of breaks while the vicar or registrar is speaking, to take full note of wedding dress design and beautiful brides.

The French say that a bride lives the same number of years as there are buttons on her wedding dress (another good marketing ploy, but this time by the Association Of French Button Makers, I would have thought). A penny sewn into the seam of the gown brings luck wherever it goes later, (more like a what if £50 notes these days!). The seamstress who inserts the first stitch into a wedding dress will herself be married before the year is out is another saying (but what if she's already married?) It is generally said that a bride should not make her own dress; even professional dressmakers used to avoid the task. Nowadays there's not much danger of that as dressmaking, which it one time the majority of women did or at least had a go at and our younger days, is something that very few people have any idea how to do these days. Wedding dresses are now big business, and there's little encouragement by the businesses for brides to even begin to consider making their wedding dress. It would indeed be bad luck, but bad luck for the business rather than for the bride I think!)

The dress is rarely fully completed before the wedding day lest anticipation invite disaster and it is safest to add the final stitch, bow or ribbon, after a final glance in the mirror, at the very moment the bride leaves for church, thus reducing to a minimum the dangerous interval between appearing as a bride and becoming a wife. If the dress is bought readymade, a belt or another detachable part must be left off during the fittings. (This seems an eminently sensible and practical idea. Many brides spend weeks dieting, so that they can fit into address, and the diet may not be as successful as they had wished, or the diet may have been sabotaged by too many chocolates and drinks immediately prior to the wedding, to quell their nerves. So leaving the final fitting of the dress until the last moment is, I think, the first really practical tradition that I've come across in my research.)

It was once felt to be unlucky to sell, remodel, or dye a wedding dress. Country bridegrooms in the USA are still recommended not to be too hasty in changing wedding clothes for working overalls; wedding suits should be kept in view and worn occasionally, for several months after the ceremony, to carry wedding luck forward into married life. In a more sentimental past, the gown and accessories were kept for later use; after Queen Victoria's death in 1901 her lace wedding veil was laid over her face. This is still a living tradition and every year thousands of American brides send their dresses to a Los Angeles laboratory for ultrasonic dry-cleaning and 'restoration', which guarantees the dress's life for a century (only in America, surely, please). It is then laid to rest in an airtight box. Prior to the reforms and advancements in health in Victorian area, death often came all too quickly after marriage. In Cambridgeshire (wedding string quartets in Cambridgeshire), England, after the ceremony, the bride embroidered a cross upon her husband's wedding smock which was kept until his burial. In Sweden the wedding shirt, and in Spain the father-in-law's gift of the bridal nightgown, were similarly preserved. Supposedly, sometimes the couple gave each other a complete set of grave clothes, proudly displayed with the other wedding presents. (This seems gruesome to us today, but in past times I guess that life-and-death past much more quickly and much less predictably, so I can quite believe this custom really did happen.)

Until the nineteenth century dresses were rarely bought specially for weddings; brides merely appeared in their best dresses or, in peasant communities, in national costume. The colour of the wedding dress is important. Except in Norway a green dress, or green garments in the trousseau, are shunned. (A great pity. Sitting writing this at this very moment I can visualise playing with my band at a wedding ceilidh, where the beautiful redheaded bride was wearing a brilliant green wedding dress. She looked stunning. But, the tradition of wearing white or something close to that still strong. Last summer, in Spain, I took some photographs of a beautiful Spanish bride standing on rocks by the sea, in a brilliant red wedding dress. Stunning! But even in Spain, quite unusual.) Green is a fairy colour, it is said, and therefore unlucky, but a green dress once had a moral significance. To say that a girl 'had a green gown' was to imply light morals with a predilection for outdoor lovemaking and a grass-stained gown as a natural outcome. Obviously a green-gowned unvirginal girl was hardly likely to make a satisfactory wife. A comprehensive old rhyme goes into wedding colours thoroughly:

Married in white, you have chosen all right,

Married in black, you will wish yourself back,

Married in red, you wish yourself dead,

Married in green, ashamed to be seen,

Married in blue, you will always be true,

Married in pearl, you will live in a whirl,

Married in yellow, ashamed of your fellow,

Married in brown, you will live out of town,

Married in pink, your fortunes will sink.


The first all-white wedding dress of modern times appears to have been chosen by Anne of Brittany for her marriage to Louis XII. So white wedding dresses is not such an old tradition. (Thinking back to the string quartet wedding events, and barn dance band evening reception dances, I would have thought that about 95% of wedding dresses have been white or near white.) The first American bride to wear white was perhaps Decima Cecilia Shubrich of Charleston, South Carolina, a noted beauty who at the age of nineteen married James H. Hey ward. Her picture, painted in 1800, shows a tulle wedding veil and pearl tiara. Today most Western brides choose white wedding dresses and during the last century changes have been few.

In 1874 it is written that Nellie Grant wore a tulle veil and a white satin wedding dress trimmed with point lace, with orange blossoms in her hair: her bridesmaids, white corded silk covered with white silk illusion, with puffs caught up with flowers. Four carried pink roses, four olue.

3 decades later Alice Roosevelt married Nicholas Longworth wearing white satin, point lace and a silver brocade train 5 m long.  The words 'white wedding' have become neatly expressive of all the old traditions of white satin, bridesmaids, flowers, bells and wedding cake. White epitomises purity and also deters the evil eye, a constant danger for young virgins of both sexes. In the UK it has become relatively common for bride who has been married previously, to wear something other than a white wedding dress, then the majority still stick to the custom.

Is traditional at an Orthodox Jewish wedding for the bridegroom as well as the bride to wear white. It is regarded as unsuitable for those making second marriages, in the Jewish tradition (as becoming more traditional in the UK, as I mentioned above). I really like playing for Jewish weddings, during the ceremony there is the traditional stamping on the wineglass, and if you're playing for the ceremony with your string quartet close to where the couple are going through the ceremony, you hope that they wrapped the wineglass up in a tea towel before stamping on it, to save you from flying glass. Ceilidhs for Jewish weddings are also great fun, because you the ideal excuse to play all the amazing Jewish wedding repertoire, which goes through the motions of the most joyful to the most desperately sad, then back again to the exuberant.

However, white has not always been the wedding colour: during the Revolution American brides favoured red, the colour of defiance. Islamic brides wear the gharara, a tunic and ruffled trousers, in red. (In Islamic countries, only widows wear white. A complete reversal to Western Europe) Black is normal to wear in some peasant communities: in Iceland, fifty years ago, it was fashionable to wear black velvet wedding dresses (probably nice and warm, important in a place like Iceland), embroidered with gold and silver thread. In Roman times, a bride customarily wore a yellow hairnet and shoes and in the nineteenth century it became the fashion for a bride to wear a yellow garter put in place by a girl-friend, to ensure marriage for the friend within the year. A Boston bride in 1895 shocked people by being married while wearing seven yellow garters pressed upon her by the hopeful. As a yellow garter attracts lovers it was highly improper for a married woman to wear one.