Why do brides wear white dresses? Plus the history behind 3 more wedding traditions

Did you know that brides haven’t always worn white dresses? When did this tradition start – and what is the history behind three other notable wedding customs? Emily Brand investigates…

10 February 1840:  Queen Victoria and Prince Albert on their return from their wedding at St James's Palace, London. (Photo by Rischgitz/Getty Images)

In Britain the average cost of a modern wedding can run into the tens of thousands, but things haven’t always been so extravagant. As centuries have worn on, the ceremony has picked up new rituals and traditions.

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Some elements, however, have stood the test of time. In 1803, an aristocratic masquerade themed as “a Village Wedding” featured “the usual paraphernalia of plumb-cake, favors, appropriate ballads, fiddles…” – elements that we might see in ceremonies today. But what about other traditions?

Did you know?

The earliest known mention of bridesmaids – “brydes maydes” – is from 1552


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Wedding rings

A book from the 1680s, written by the English travel writer Henry Swinburne, highlights the importance of wedding rings. “Giving and receiving a ring”, Swinburne writes, “is a Sign of all others, most usual [in] Matrimonial Contracts”.

It matters not what the ring is made of, only that it is circular (or “round, and without end”). This shape, he explains, symbolises how the couple’s “mutual love and hearty affection should roundly flow from the one to the other”.

And why it is customary to wear wedding rings on the fourth finger of the left hand? Swinburne explains it as follows: “There is a Vein of Blood which passeth from that fourth Finger unto the Heart”.

The changing face of marriage

Learn more about the history of relationships  


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Church weddings

The tightening legal restrictions of the 1700s specified that wedding ceremonies must take place in a church or by special licence – and always by an ordained clergyman. This delegitimised a trend of common law ‘weddings’ conducted in moonlit fields by an informal exchange of vows, or the fabled act of  ‘jumping over a broom-stick’ together. (Gossips joked that the scandalous secret wedding of the Prince of Wales [son of King George III, and future George IV] to Maria Fitzherbert in 1785 was consummated “by hopping o’er a broom”.)

A couple hop over a broom during their wedding. 'Jumping the broom' is a ceremony in which the bride and groom symbolically 'sweep away' their former single lives.(Photo by Acey Harper/The LIFE Images Collection via Getty Images/Getty Images)
A couple hop over a broom during their wedding, c1990s. ‘Jumping the broom’ is a ceremony in which the bride and groom symbolically ‘sweep away’ their former single lives. (Photo by Acey Harper/The LIFE Images Collection via Getty Images/Getty Images)
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White wedding dresses

Royal weddings have generally offered an excuse for spectacle and public celebration, from the lavish parade to St Paul’s made by the doomed Prince Arthur and his bride Catherine of Aragon in 1501, to the televised ceremonies of princes William and Harry in recent years.

The wedding of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert in 1840 is credited with popularising one notable matrimonial trend – the white wedding dress

The wedding of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert on 10 February 1840 is credited with popularising one key matrimonial trend – the white wedding dress. Until then, most brides had simply worn their finest dress of any colour (although among the wealthiest brides, this was often silver, white or cream). At the (legitimate) wedding of the same Prince of Wales to Caroline of Brunswick in 1795, it was the bridesmaids who wore “virgin habits, vis. a white satin body and crape petticoat”. Adopting this symbol of purity herself with a lace-trimmed, white satin gown, Victoria established a fashion that gradually became tradition across all classes.

Queen Victoria's wedding dress on display in Kensington Palace, London, England. (Photo by Samir Hussein/WireImage)
Queen Victoria’s wedding dress on display in Kensington Palace, London, England. (Photo by Samir Hussein/WireImage)

Read more about Victoria and Albert’s marriage

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Vows

The traditional vows of a Church of England service – “I take thee… for richer, for poorer” – dates to 1549.

In the 20th century, however, the wedding was increasingly embraced as a legal commitment rather than a necessarily religious one, bringing more freedom in terms of venue choice and the wording of vows. The rise of feminist thought has also inspired many to shed traditions such as being “given away”. Kate Middleton, in her 2011 wedding to Prince William, eschewed using the word “obey” in her vows, instead opting to “love, comfort, honour and keep” her husband.

Catherine Middleton and Prince William at the altar on their wedding day
The wedding of Catherine ‘Kate’ Middleton and Prince William. Middleton flouted tradition by omitting the word “obey” in her vows. (Photo by Anwar Hussein/Getty Images)

As the institution of marriage itself continues to evolve – such as the recent introduction of same-sex civil marriage, and increasingly widespread cross-cultural ceremonies – new traditions will be established. Nonetheless, one sensible piece of advice from the 19th century will no doubt persist: The Wives of England warns that the wedding day is only the beginning of a long and challenging “practical duty”.

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Emily Brand is an author and historian specialising in the long 18th century, especially the trials and tribulations of romantic (and not-so-romantic) relationships in England. Her new book, The Fall of the House of Byron, is out now