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The Establishment of the White Wedding

posted Mar 29, 2015, 11:00 AM by Anna-Lena Dubé Fuller
The Recent History of the White Wedding

This is the third and final part of a series of posts on the history of the wedding in Ireland and England. I have included books in the previous posts that I advise you to find if you want more, but please contact me if you need further information. I will list some books at the end of this if anyone wants to read about the contemporary wedding industry. This is going to be rather short as it is just going to trace the recent establishment of the stereotypical white wedding as we would recognise it today, but I want to quickly explain why I am referring to it as the Western White Wedding. I was about to give the original talk on the White Wedding that sparked off this blog series and I mentioned the title of it to a woman who appeared mystified, she had never heard of the term White Wedding before and for a

moment she thought I was talking racially, White weddings for white people. This point of view, that the word white as a description of one type of wedding would be invisible because the way the majority of people wed in the West is so taken-for-granted that it could cause such a misunderstanding only underlines how important it is to trace the history of these social rituals. I only read Roland Barthes Mythologies last week (why did no one put a copy in my hands years ago?) and even in France back in the 1950's he uses the wedding as one of his points of reference.

Anyway in the previous posts I described the different attitudes to weddings, and the different ways of having them up until the mid-nineteenth century. From couple-beggers, to only getting married on a Sunday, arranged marriages to wife-selling and from wearing your Sunday best to having cake broken over the brides head, in the nineteenth century however things are a-changing. The groom used to be as well dressed, if not better, than the bride, brocaded frock coats and rich coloured fabrics, his costume reflected his wealth and if his surname was the least distinguished of the couple, less wealthy etc he would take his wife's surname. The rise of the romantic ideal and the revolutionary idea of marrying for love in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries came about with the raise of literacy, the industrial revolution, capitalism and the mass media. The development and establishment of the white wedding is a ritual reflection of these influences.

The watershed moment was the wedding of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert at St. James's Palace London, Feb 10th 1840, this was an arranged match, however it was also a love match, and the public embraced it as such. Although the white dress existed in the upper classes as a display of wealth, silver and pastels were also favoured, after this period white became the established ideal. When it came to her dress the young queen chose British made fabrics and British made lace as a political act, bolstering the faltering lace trade and coincidentally establishing white as the colour to aspire to. The wedding was reported widely in the burgeoning media, and the wedding dress specifically described in detail in the press, and immortalised in paint, see image. By the end of the century some churches lent rings to people for the ceremony, and wedding clothes as distinct from daily wear became more important, here previously even in the upper classes the wedding dress was often worn again or adjusted for court wear. There was a period, at the end of the Victorian era, when mourning colours such as mauve were widely worn, but by the twentieth century white was the clear winner. The cut of the gown itself reflected current fashion so hems got shorter and sleeves and necklines altered with the year and dressmakers published pamphlets on the styles they offered, in tandem with the publication of women's journals these developed into the fashion and bridal magazines we know today. The journals reporting on aristocratic lives, such as Lady's Realm or The Queen especially from the 1870's onwards had the dual effect of creating an audience for royal weddings and a consumer base for similar experiences. Society weddings were a media gold mine and the reporting of them became the guide for lower classes to aspire to. This is the century where photography also came into it's own, and black and white images, which emphasised the dark suited groom as a foil for a white dressed bride (even if in reality the dress was a pastel shade such as lavender) also cemented the white dress as the norm, and the also encouraged elaborate weddings and groups of aesthetically arranged bridesmaids and wedding parties. In the U.K. and in Ireland it was in the 1930's that the influence of Hollywood and popular culture fixed the need for a specific white dress. As Monsarrat traces, many royal weddings of the last century happened before or directly after a war, and the link between the deprivations of World War Two and the desire to

have a lavish wedding are also reflected in its establishment during these periods. Throughout the twentieth century it was not unusual rent or borrow gowns or to marry in travelling clothes for the growing practice of 'bridal tour' ('going away' straight after the wedding breakfast). Prior to the 1960's the dress, now white, was often cut to reflect contemporary fashion, the historical look was not dominant until the late twentieth century with influence of royal fashions and recently Vera Wang for the wealthier brides. As Cox in I do-:100 years of Wedding Fashion points out, although...

“... the basic idea that the choice of gown reflects some personal choice on the part of the bride still pervades. It is, in fact, the least likely example of a woman's personal style, for most of the time completely unrelated to anything else in her closet.” Cox. pp.20-23.

Other elements involved in the running of the day were also first established in England, such as not marrying on a Sunday or the use of halls attached to the church for receptions after the wedding, or of hotels providing wedding packages. Most traditions date only from within the last 120 years, such as the wedding ring, music in the church, honeymoons, the 'something blue' rhyme, or the idea of the groom not seeing the bride before the wedding. Other 'traditions' are even newer, like hen or stag events or groomsmen. Yet some shared patriarchal legacy between Ireland and the U.K., such as the parents bargaining for the 'match', continue in the tradition of the brides father walking her up the aisle, and his speech.

England became the first country to introduce civil marriage in 1836, and by 1970 half of all ceremonies were not religious, in contrast in Ireland because of it's Catholic ethos by 1990 only 3.5% weddings were by civil ceremony (94% Catholic) and divorce was still illegal. The advent of divorce in 1997 required a referendum, however there are still relatively fewer divorces in Ireland then there are in the EU and the various options for dissolving marriage in Ireland reflects this religious legacy; it is possible in Ireland to have a separation, or nullity or a divorce. It takes a minimum of four years to obtain a full divorce allowing a person to legally remarry, and this difficulty divorcing increases the significance of a wedding in the life course; there are relatively few remarriages in Ireland. Although civil ceremonies are increasingly popular there are restrictions on the times and areas covered and venues given licences to hold them, making them unsuitable for many couples.

The history of how people marry is also a history of how the laws affects who is allowed, and why they marry, and over the past few centuries the State has taken more control over what was once a private act. In addition to issues of tax, which can be beneficial to the legally married couple, the State also has a vested interest in legally recognising a wedding when it comes to issues of its ideological borders, as can be seen with the laws regarding citizenship; for example when the Irish state was negotiating its legal identity in the 40's and 50's Irish women lost their right to citizenship when they married an 'alien'. In fact the 1937 Irish Constitution prioritises the family as founded on legally recognised marriage, and explicitly ties the importance of this to women as a group.

Irish Constitution

The Family: Article 41

      1. 1. The State recognises the Family as the Natural primary and fundamental unit group of Society, and as a moral institution possessing inalienable and imprescriptible rights, antecedent and superior to all positive law.

        2. The State, therefore, guarantees to protect the Family in its constitution and authority, as the necessary basis of social order and as indispensable to the welfare of the Nation and the State.

      2. 1. In particular, the State recognises that by her life within the home, woman gives to the State a support without which the common good cannot be achieved.i


As can be seen the wedding has been subject to a great number of social influences, and the traditions involved have therefore changed over time, you could say the one constant feature of weddings is their flexibility. In recent years this has been evident in the legal issues with 'gay weddings' or marriage equality, as the resistance to their being allowed has exposed the way weddings are a visible expression of heterosexism and are a reflection of the society they are a part of. It is the state that validates weddings between one man and one woman with no allowance for polygamous groups or for transferring 'married' privileges to a best friend, flatmate or close relative, and these privileges are still of material benefit. Although there are no longer horrific pressures, such as Chalk Sunday, the constitution still prioritises the relationship validated by a wedding. The individuals today who marry are unlikely to realise how much is going on when they have a wedding, yet the history and context in which they marry is reflected in everything from their choice of partner, to their dress, whether it is public or private and its cost.

Phew! Done.

As mentioned my thesis is focused more on the contemporary wedding industry so I apologise for any mistakes I have made regarding the history, but I hope it was informative and a little bit fun!



Article; Currie, Dawn. 1993. “Here comes the bride”: the making of a “modern traditional” wedding in western culture. Journal of Comparative Family Studies v. 24 (Aut 1993) :403-21.

Boden, Sharon. 2003. Consumerism, romance, and the wedding experience. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Cox, Caroline. 2002. I do-: 100 years of wedding fashion. London: Scriptum Editions.

Freeman, Elizabeth. 2002. The wedding complex: forms of belonging in modern American culture. Durham: Duke University Press.

Geller, Jaclyn. 2001. Here comes the bride: women, weddings, and the marriage mystique. New York Emeryville, CA: Four Walls Eight Windows; Distributed by Publishers Group West.

Ingraham, Chrys. 1999. White weddings: romancing heterosexuality in popular culture. New York: Routledge.

Otnes, Cele, and Elizabeth H. Pleck. 2003. Cinderella dreams: the allure of the lavish wedding, Life passages. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Tobin, Shelley, Sarah Pepper, Margaret Willes, and David Garner. 2003. Marriage á la mode: three centuries of wedding dress. London: National Trust.

iBacik, Ivana. 2004. Kicking and screaming: dragging Ireland into the 21st century. Dublin: O'Brien. 

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