It’s often said that Queen Victoria was the first to wear a white wedding dress, and therefore the origin of our modern tradition. Whilst it’s true that brides did wear coloured wedding dresses before 1840, they also continued to wear them long after. Traditionally you just wore your ‘best dress’ – and the colour didn’t come into it. Daughters of noble houses wore white to show off their family’s wealth; white cloth – in the days before bleach – was a difficult colour to achieve and – in the days before washing machines – even harder to maintain. The notion that brides wore white to publicly convey their virginity and purity is a myth, something that we are applying to our ancestors retrospectively.
Although Victoria was not the first British royal to be married in white, in the centuries before her it was most common for princesses across Europe to be wed wearing cloth of gold or silver. Victoria’s cousin, the tragic Charlotte Augusta (more about her here), had worn a metallic lamé dress after this fashion. But Victoria, it is said, chose her high-profile nuptials as a vehicle for showcasing the British lace industry, which was flagging due to industrialisation, and white was the most suitable colour for doing so.
Victoria herself described her wedding attire in her journal: “I wore a white satin dress, with a deep flounce of Honiton lace, an imitation of an old design. My jewels were my Turkish diamond necklace & earrings & dear Albert’s beautiful sapphire brooch.” Her matching veil was four yards long and instead of a tiara she wore a wreath of orange blossoms (symbolising purity) and myrtle (symbolising love and domestic happiness), and these became the most common flowers carried and worn in Victorian weddings. A sprig of myrtle from Victoria’s bouquet was planted at her favourite residence, Osbourne House, and cuttings from the bush that resulted have been carried by every royal bride since then, including the most recent – Kate Middleton.
Victoria’s idea to give a promotional bump to the British lace industry worked, but not straight away. White certainly became the colour for brides to aspire to, but it still wasn’t likely unless you were very wealthy. Even those who could afford a white wedding dress usually had to dye the dress a darker colour for continued wear after the day itself was over. White dresses did not become common at all until the turn of the century, when people had more disposable income, and bleached material was more readily available.
Victoria kept the new tradition alive by insisting that all her daughters wear similar dresses at their nuptials and that all the royal babies were christened wearing a Honiton lace gown she had had specially commissioned; this gown was used by the royal family for christenings up until 2008, where a replica began to be used due to the age of the lace. Prince George was this week christened wearing this replica.
Victoria had her wedding lace removed from her wedding gown and wore it many, many more times to important events; her youngest daughter Princess Beatrice was permitted to wear it as part of her own wedding gown in 1885. Now, although the wedding dress itself is conserved and displayed at KensingtonPalace, the lace is too fragile to move and will remain hereon in safe storage. When Victoria died in 1901, she was buried with her wedding veil placed over her face.