Playing the part of queen for the day

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Kate Middleton’s bridal gown will go down in history – the first royal wedding dress of the cyber century. It will be seen by billions, and will turn her designer into a global household name. Remember the flotilla of Eighties meringues launched by Princess Diana’s taffeta puffball?

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Queen Victoria is the royal bride credited with launching the tradition of the white wedding. She married Prince Albert in 1840 in white satin, crowned with orange blossoms, veiled in Honiton lace.

Though Queen Victoria was an early adopter of bridal white, she was not the originator. There is a creamy lace confection from 1829 in Bath Fashion Museum’s current exhibition of wedding dresses. Fashionable Regency brides married in the latest modes, which from 1790–1820 meant filmy muslins in white and pastels. But prior to this, bride and groom had the run of the rainbow.

None of the traditions that exert such a tyranny over the imaginations of romantic brides today predate the 1790s. The virginal veil, honeymoon, orange blossom and giving away of the bride are all 19th-century inventions. Even throwing rice was uncommon until Indian rice had established itself in the diet of the mid-Victorian upper classes. The Victorians institutionalised the wedding as female coronation – both the apotheosis of virgin purity
and the once-in-a-lifetime chance to be princess for a day. The white-lace Bridezilla was born here.

Medieval royal brides married in their most dazzling wardrobe, as a strategic exhibition of awe-inspiring splendour, dynastic power and state allegiances. Magnificence meant copious costly fabrics (velvet, damask, silk, satin, fur), gold and silver threads, and a blinding crust of gems. The nobility of the early modern period prized the darker jewel shades – true black, red and purple – produced by the rarest dyes. Light colours were not fitting raiment for those of blue blood.

Georgian couples married in the best clothes they had. For northern gentleman’s daughter Elizabeth Parker, this meant sending to London for a Spitalfields flowered silk.

She married in 1751 in the height of Rococo chic and may even have unpicked the dress to refashion in another style. Wedding clothes were never so exceptional as to prohibit general wear thereafter. Among the nobility, weddings were private affairs; it was the sparkling dress the new bride wore later to be presented at court as a wife which mattered.

Working girls wed in their Sunday best cotton gowns, adorned with ribbons. Chintz was adored for its brilliant fast colours, and ribbons came in a rainbow of shades, but blue already symbolised true love. Blue was the colour of the virgin, signifying sincerity and constancy. Hence the appeal of the sapphire today in engagement rings.

The engagement ring is yet another product of marketing. The discovery of the Kimberley mines in 1870 cascaded diamonds onto the world market. Rubies are the rarest gems, but diamonds are the hardest – not an intrinsic invitation to romance. It was Ayer & Son’s advertising campaign for De Beers in 1938 which managed to persuade consumers that no courtship would be complete without a flashy diamond.

If today’s bride really wants to follow antique tradition she should take a pan to the altar. For centuries, an array of gifts, from ribbons to spoons, symbolised commitment. Jewellery was no more binding than pots and pans – perhaps less so.

Before Hardwick’s Marriage Act of 1753, any exchange of vows before witnesses followed by consummation constituted a legal marriage. No exchange of rings was required and what the couple stood in became de facto their wedding clothes.

It was not until the 1950s that the white wedding became the norm. Fifty seven per cent of all 1950s marriages were church affairs. Yet far more women (68 per cent) preferred a white wedding than did men (46 per cent). Male reluctance is unsurprising. The star attraction was the bride. In brilliant white and machine lace, she instantly stood out from the congregation. It was ‘her big day’.

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Today the white Christian wedding has been challenged by the colours of other faiths and the emerging conventions of civil partnership ceremonies. The church bride in white dress and veil is unlikely to be a virgin offering. But she still plays the part of queen for the day. And for the next decade she will probably perform in a ‘Princess Catherine’ style. No wonder the female nation and the fashion industry watches with pencils poised and bated breath.