If you know one thing about wedding gown history, I would wager that it has something to do with Queen Victoria beginning the fashion for brides wearing white. (And now, thanks to her, it has been a tradition of sorts for 175 years.) But I would also wager that most people don't know the real reason the 20-year-old monarch broke the precedent set by earlier royal brides -- "dressed in their usual cloths of silver or gold" -- and chose the color white for her wedding gown. Victoria even chose a crown of fanciful, yet wax orange blossoms instead of one of her dazzling diamond diadems!
Her choices have been regarded as representing simplicity, modesty and purity -- and indeed the young queen was sentimental with an "uncluttered fashion preference," according to costume historian Kay Staniland. However, Victoria was deeply in love, and this became her guiding inspiration for her wedding attire. Therefore, with much consideration -- taking into account her duty, her position and her subjects -- "the queen decided to make her marriage vows to her 'precious Angel' as his future wife rather than as the monarch," wrote Victoria and Albert Museum curator Edwina Ehrman. Or as Staniland described: Victoria determined "her role on her wedding day was primarily that of a bride" and not only opted against wearing the ornate silver and gold of royalty ("which English princesses of lesser rank had adopted as of right for their wedding"), but also against her regal "crimson velvet robe of state" (worn two years earlier for her coronation) feeling "it would only emphasize her seniority, and overshadow the role of her future husband."
Victoria's all-white bridal costume may have been without the usual glittering royal accoutrements, but it "was actually exquisite and of great value," explained Maria McBride-Mellinger, author of The Wedding Dress. Underscoring "patriotic spending," the queen commissioned her country's renowned textile artisans. The rich silk satin for the gown and its 18-foot court train was woven in Spitalfields and the beautiful, lyrically-patterned lace for her veil and gown embellishments was hand made by two hundred women in a Devon village employed for eight months. The only color Victoria wore was near her heart: a brilliant blue sapphire brooch which had been Prince Albert's wedding gift to her. (Albert gave his bride the large jewel on the eve of their wedding and Victoria, in addition to wearing it pinned to her wedding gown, "was to wear it constantly during the Prince's lifetime," wrote Staniland.)
On the day of the wedding, Victoria's adoring subjects happily received their queen's choices, cheering her carriage on its way to the Chapel Royal at St. James's Palace. And in a matter of weeks, since the wedding was covered by the new "popular press," engravings of their queen-bride were selling briskly at bookshops around the country. Dressed in these creamy shades of white and tufts of orange blossom, I doubt that Victoria had a sense of the remarkably romantic lineage she was about to inaugurate. Nor could she ever know that her queenly exemplar: "Keep your relationship top priority," would make fine advice for today's busy wedding-planning brides.
It seems for this young bride (who just happened to be ruler of an empire), that it came down to choosing the feelings of her future husband over her own ego. Victoria's heart-centered choice changed bridal history and, in turn, illuminated the supreme sovereignty of a woman in love.
Parts of this post excerpted from the blogger's new book, The End of the Fairy-Tale Bride (Volume One) For Better or Worse, How Princess Diana Rescued the Great White Wedding.