Before Victoria: White Wedding Dress (Part II)

So, previously I showed you a lot of examples of actual white or white-ish gowns worn for weddings, including fashion plates (as they are intended to be prescriptive of real clothing - they exist to tell you what you can/should wear); these prove at least that white was worn. Now I'm going to follow that up with the kind of sources that can tell us more about the reasons white gowns were chosen, and whether the examples found previously are representative.
The Commonness of Bridal White

Although fictional weddings are by definition not real, the choices that authors and artists make can show what's considered normal or at least ideal for their societies, and the majority of authors and artists I found chose to dress their brides in white.

The marriage (ha!) of both textual and visual sources can be found in Samuel Richardson's Pamela (1742) and Joseph Highmore's painted illustrations of the same. Happily, the book describes what she wears in order to get married, and the Highmore series represents it:
I dress'd myself in a rich white satin night-gown, that had been my good lady's, and my best head clothes, &c.
IX: Pamela is Married, Joseph Highmore, 1743-4; Tate Collection N03575
Even in a print depicting the elopement of a bride and groom in, respectively, ordinary and military dress, the articles of the bride's clothing that most catch the viewer's eye are the lace-trimmed white mantelet (covering the colored clothing underneath) and white hat, which suggest bridal attire though her circumstances have denied her a formal wedding.
"Modern Love: The Elopement", John Collet, 1764; Colonial Williamsburg(?)
There are a number of stories involving weddings in the Lady's Magazine, in which brides are described in white gowns made of different fabrics. In one from 1776, the bride wore:
a white corded tabby Italian nightgown : her hat was of chip, ornamented with white gauze : her handkerchief and apron were the finest lace : the whole dress was infinitely becoming.
Another story in a 1778 issue describes how a bride, unlike two of her very showy guests:
was adorned with the work of her own hands, in pure white muslin, worked with close and open work, from an elegant pattern of her own drawing, on which she often cast down her eyes, when her lover, sitting by her side enamoured, poured out the happy effusions of his contented heart.
Two more stories in 1787 describe brides in "white satin, spotted with silver, tied up at the sides in the form of a Sultana's robe" with a hat "made of transparent gauze, bound with black velvet, the same round the crown, and one white feather in it", "white, spotted with straw", and "a fine white muslin with every fashionable ornament."

"The Bride," an 1832 poem by Capt. W. H. Armstrong, describes bridal-specific attire, which includes several uses of white:
I know her by the orange-flower, that Hymen only braids –
I know her by the robe of lace, that is not worn by maids –
I know her by the snowy white of satin shoe and glove,
And I know her by the milk-white rose that's in her breast of love.
"The Country Wedding, Bishop White Officiating," John Lewis Krimmel, ca. 1814; PAFA 1842.2.1
"The Country Wedding," above, shows a young bride of meager means dressed in a white gown – this could be thought an artistic liberty, but an article on the print in The Analectic Magazine specifically commends the artist for successfully reproducing "the costume and attitudes of … the inside of a farmer's dwelling, and the business that occupies the group." A written description of another fictional American village wedding, in Atkinson's Casket in 1834, has the bride dressed in white calico. These suggest that the white wedding gown was not restricted to the wealthy or those who would connect it to or reuse it for British court presentation dress (a popular theory regarding the use of white before Victoria): made in some variety of white cotton rather than lace and silk, it could be an affordable special outfit for other classes of society.

Looking at the matter from another angle, a somewhat satirical piece in the August 1818 issue of La Belle Assemblée describes how a silly, rich bride claimed that she considered wearing white at a wedding to be "vulgar" in comparison to wearing a cheap printed calico and curling papers (since many people did the former and nobody the latter). In the end, she agreed to wear white when her groom arranged for her to have "a gown of the finest Brussels lace, to be worn over Chinese silk."
  The Rest of the Wedding Party

While we have much less evidence of grooms wearing white, off-white, or silver, it was not unheard-of. Stephen Beckingham, in the first painting in the previous post, was depicted in silver and grey next to his bride. According to the Newgate Calendar, Laurence, Earl Ferrars, was executed at Tyburn in 1760 in his wedding suit, which was of white silk embroidered with silver. The story quoted above from the Lady's Magazine in 1778 also features a bridegroom "drest in a manner suitable to his bride", in "a plain light coloured fashionable coat, with a white silk waistcoat" embroidered by his new wife. One air in the 1783 comic opera The Poor Soldier contains the line, "The bride and bridegroom in coats white as snow", while a stage direction for Sir Adam in The Wedding Day (1791) describes him as "drest in white clothes like a Bridegroom." However, male wedding dress receives much less attention and description in fiction than female, and with fewer examples and fewer general statements it's difficult to say how common it was for men to wear wedding-specific colors.

Today, it's a faux pas for women other than the bride to wear white at a wedding, whether bridesmaids or guests. In the past, however, it was very often appropriate for other members of the wedding party, as in a wedding in The Vicar of Wakefield (1766): the bride's clothes were not described, but she was "attended by six young ladies drest in white …" Likewise, the fashionable bride's attendants in the story from La Belle Assemblée in 1818 are dressed in white, one in white muslin and lace with a white bonnet trimmed with white roses, and the other in "white spotted crape" and a net bonnet also trimmed with white roses as well as white ostrich plumes. The 1778 Lady's Magazine story has one bridesmaid, who "furnished herself with a new white gown, proper - as she thought - for the occasion", and one of the 1787 stories has bridesmaids in "plain white lutestring levettes [levites], with black velvet belts".

The predominance of white as a fashionable color through the turn of the century also implies that it very well may have been acceptable for guests to appear in white at that time, but as with grooms, there's much less description of the clothing of wedding guests.

After the Wedding

It also was not traditional for the bride to wear white only at the wedding: the white theme would be carried forward for days or weeks.
Scene from The Beggar's Opera, by William Hogarth, 1731; TC N02437
The painting of a scene from a 1728 performance of The Beggar's Opera shows Polly Peachum (as portrayed by Lavinia Fenton), whose status as Macheath's new wife is central to her role, dressed in a white gown.

While Pamela was married in a gown that was a hand-me-down from her mistress, Mr. B also bought her a white gown with silver flowers, "and he was pleased to say, that as I was a Bride, I should make my Appearance in that the following Sunday."

The newly-married Mrs. Macnamara is described in a sample letter from the Complete Letter-Writer (1758) as appearing at the Tunbridge Wells assembly rooms "in all the Innocence of a White and Silver full-trimm'd French Sack …"

In that same 1778 Lady's Magazine story from above, the bride also has a white outfit for after the wedding:
She also exercised her fancy in a white lustring night gown, and petticoat for this occasion, with a variety of ribbands, in the forms and colours of natural flowers, which she considers as her best summer dress, having ever been willing to set an example of ingenuity and industry to young ladies in that part of the country.
As a result of this tradition, women who couldn't afford multiple white gown probably expected to wear their wedding dresses for some time after the day of the ceremony, as part of the role of dressing as a newlywed: white gowns were likely not status symbols for being "one-use-only". For instance, at the very beginning of The Vicar of Wakefield the narrator notes that his wife chose her wedding gown "not for a fine glossy surface, but such qualities as would wear well."

Why White?

So, now, what's the apparent reasoning behind the choice of white? Well, this is rather boring, but - it's the association with purity that's usually given as a post-Victoria rationale.

This is demonstrated even more by fictional references to brides in white that take on a more general tone, describing common situations rather than individual weddings. For instance, one of the letter-writers in Sir Charles Grandison (1753) pointed out that "we women, dressed out in ribbands, and gaudy trappings, and in virgin-white, on our wedding-days, seem but like milk-white heifers led to sacrifice." (There is a second use of "virgin-white" in reference to a specific character, Harriet, at her wedding.) In Almira, Being the History of a Young Lady (1762), Cleone is ordered by her future father-in-law to restrict the white in her bridal attire to her underclothes and accessories, though he notes that maidens like to wear it in their outer clothing, "I suppose, because it represents your innocence!" Then on the other side, there is another satirical piece from La Belle Assemblée, this time in 1826: it notes that a young bride, who was being married in a rush after having absconded to Scotland with her groom, was "handsomely dressed, but in colours." While it's probable that a real woman who'd lost her virginity might have married in white anyway, for various reasons, the point of the episode is to signpost that she's not "pure" with her conspicuous lack of "virgin-white".

All of these instances connect bridal white with a combination of physical purity and naïveté, and make it clear that white was seen as a "normal" color for wedding gowns long before the marriage of Victoria and Albert. Join me next time for a discussion of the place of white in royal wedding dress!

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