Victoria Finkle has a nice piece on history of bridal outfits:
Flip through a popular bridal magazine these days and you’ll find a sea of smiling women, twirling in white.
The white gown is synonymous with weddings, a custom that’s often assumed to be a nod to old-school values of purity and chastity, as embodied by the virginal bride. But in reality, the rise of the white dress is less a story of religious influence or puritanical mores than it is a tale of economics and marketing – one driven by a burgeoning garment industry that managed to harness the power of WWII propaganda and the marital boom that followed.
“The color of the twentieth-century gown itself was an invented tradition, meaning that it evolved into something seen as unchanging and timeless, though it was not always so,” writes Vicki Howard in her book, Brides, Inc. Though considered a historic and time-honored ritual, the white wedding is actually a somewhat modern phenomenon.
It usually takes the top celebrity to change fashions. In this case who better than the Queen of England choosing white for her wedding in 1840:
For many women throughout history, a wedding dress wasn’t a once-worn garment in shimmering white, but simply the nicest item of clothing they had. In many cases, they’d wear it again for other formal occasions, some of them less celebratory in nature. “Most nineteenth-century brides were simply married in their best dress, which was often black (durable and appropriate for inevitable funerals),” writes Carol Wallace in her history of the ceremony, All Dressed in White.
For most of human history, those of lesser means were wise to avoid white – in addition to being expensive, white fabrics weren’t exactly easy to keep clean. Since wedding gowns were typically used on multiple occasions, this was a particularly important consideration. Women often made their own dresses at home, and any faulty stitches or imperfections would be more likely to stand out in white.
Still, there’s evidence of royalty sporting the color dating back to the Middle Ages.
Princess Philippa of England reportedly donned white satin trimmed with ermine (a type of weasel) for her 1406 wedding to a Danish prince, likely the first documented case of a princess in white on the big day.
The color gained a significant PR boost when Queen Victoria of England chose a white satin and lace gown for her marriage to Prince Albert in 1840. As the most public royal wedding to date, news of the event, including engravings of the queen, quickly made the rounds. A trend had begun to take root, although it would be another hundred years before the style would be widely available to middle class women at an affordable price.
World War II is when middle class started donning white which became the choice forever:
It took a world war to turn the wealthy’s obsession with chaste, white dresses into an institution that crossed class lines. The early 1940s proved to be a time of sacrifice and scarcity with the onset of World War II. Rations imposed limits on a host of goods, including silk, a popular wedding dress material for those who could afford it.
The military began using silk to build parachutes, although in an endearing twist, there are a number of recorded tales of women crafting wedding dresses out of the parachutes carried by their betrothed.
While marriages themselves were sometimes postponed or pared down during the war, the ritualistic significance of the white wedding was on the rise.
Though women were encouraged to enter the workforce to fill the jobs left vacant by men at war, they were also held up as symbols of what the country’s soldiers were fighting to protect—and what they would come home to when the battles ended.
Government propagandists initiated the effort to motivate Americans by describing the war as a fight for marriage and family, but manufacturers and retailers quickly picked up on the trend. One government-sponsored radio broadcast from 1942 emphasized that the war was “about love and gettin’ hitched, and havin’ a home and some kids, and breathin’ fresh air out in the suburbs.” Meanwhile, Eureka, the vacuum company, writes Katherine Jellison in It’s Our Day, sold women on the idea that “you’re fighting for a little house of your own, and a husband to meet every night at the door.” Even soap manufacturers capitalized on the zeitgeist.