The History of the White Wedding

According to a survey by The Knot, in 2016, the average cost of a wedding in the U.S. shot up to $35,329, with the global wedding industry worth in excess of $300 billion. But weddings have not always been such lavish affairs.

For much of the history of the Catholic Church, people could, and did, marry simply by saying so. There was no specific formula or ritual, and they did not need the authority of a priest or the permission of their parents—although in practice families often arranged the marriage or, at least, approved the partner. Some people got married at the church door, sometimes with the blessing of the parish priest—whence the elaborate porches that still adorn some older churches. But many tied the knot on a hill or other beauty spot, down the pub, at home, on the road, or pretty much anywhere.

It is only in 1184, as part of a move to condemn the Cathars, that the Council of Verona decreed marriage to be a sacrament alongside baptism, confirmation, eucharist, penance, anointing of the sick, and holy orders. In 1215, the Fourth Lateran Council headed by Pope Innocent III required couples to announce their intention to marry, or ‘cry the banns’, so that any impediment to their marriage could be disclosed. The Tametsi decree issued in 1563 by the twenty-fourth session of the Council of Trent called for the presence of the parish priest or his delegate, along with at least two more witnesses. But many regions did not follow the Tametsi decree, and it is not until 1907 and the Ne Temere decree of Pope Pius X that the canonical form of marriage with a church minister and two witnesses became a universal requirement.

So when in all this did the white dress get in? Traditionally, brides simply wore their best dress to their wedding. White dresses, being impossible to clean, were beyond the means of most; in any case, the colour of purity in those days was not white but blue. White wedding gowns became fashionable during the Regency, and popular after Queen Victoria wore one to marry Prince Albert in 1840. White wedding gowns could only be worn once, and reflected wealth and status. The tradition of putting the bridesmaids in matching dresses is much older, going back to Roman times when it served to confuse the evil spirits that threatened to curse the bride and groom.

Also protecting Roman brides from evil spirits was the bridal veil, which, like the dress, gradually grew into an overblown status symbol. The veil also came to symbolize the virginity and modesty of the bride. It was lifted at the time of the kiss by the father or groom to reveal the beauty of the bride as the groom took her into his possession.

For luck, the bride would wear, as per the opening line of a Victorian rhyme, ‘something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue’. These four items represented, respectively, the bride’s family and her past, her future, borrowed happiness, and virtue. At the wedding of Prince William and Catherine Middleton, the bride wore Carrickmacross lace (something old), a pair of diamond earrings from jewellers Robinson Pelham (something new), one of the Queen’s tiaras (something borrowed), and a ribbon sewed into her dress (something blue).

The bouquet carried by the bride once consisted of herbs like garlic and rosemary to—you guessed it—ward off evil spirits. At her wedding, Queen Victoria replaced the herbs with fresh flowers. After the wedding, the bride tosses the bouquet over her shoulder into a crowd of unmarried women, and the one to catch it is said to be next in line for marriage. Rather than posies, flower girls used to carry sheaves of wheat symbolizing fertility.

Owning a piece of the wedding dress brought good luck, and wedding guests would rip the bride’s dress to shreds as they drove the newlyweds into the bedchamber. This developed into a tradition of the groom removing a garter from the bride and tossing it into a crowd of unmarried men, presumably as proof of consummation. The man who caught the garter would put it onto the woman who caught the bouquet.

The wedding ring goes back at least to Ancient Egypt, where the circle was a symbol of eternity. It is placed on the fourth finger, the annularis, because the Egyptians believed that the principal vein in that finger, the vena amoris, ran straight to the heart. In 1549, Edward VI of England decreed that the ring should be worn on the left hand, and there it has remained. Upon their betrothal in 1477, Maximilian of Austria gave Mary of Burgundy a diamond ring, popularizing the diamond ring among the upper classes. In that period and at least until the Reformation, the betrothal ring, rather than the wedding ring, was the primary ring associated with marriage. The practice of having an engagement period may have arisen out of the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215 and the crying of the banns. Before that, the betrothal and wedding rings would have been one and the same. Originally, only women wore wedding rings. Still today in England, upper class men tend not to wear one. At the wedding, the ring is often carried by the best man. It is said that, originally, the best man assisted the groom in capturing the bride from her kinsmen. Still today, the groom stands to the right so that his sword-hand is free.

The Egyptians tossed rice or grain at weddings to underwrite the fertility of the couple, but the wedding cake itself comes to us from the Roman epoch, when, for fertility, guests would break a loaf of bread over the bride’s head. Guests in mediaeval England brought small cakes to a wedding, which they would stack up for the newlyweds to kiss over. This practice inspired the French croque-en-bouche cake. The wedding cake of Queen Victoria weighed 300 pounds and was covered with pure white sugar, which was expensive, and like the white wedding dress, became a symbol of wealth and status. The wedding cake of Queen Elizabeth II weighed 500 pounds and stood at nine-foot high. After the wedding ceremony, it was served at a celebratory lunch at Buckingham Palace.

Only in the late 19th century did weddings start being held in the afternoon—often in the month of June, named for Juno, the Roman goddess of marriage and wife of Jupiter. June is also the time when honey is ripe to be harvested. In a number of cultures, the bride after the wedding drank honey mead or honey wine every day for one moon to encourage pregnancy. The modern ‘holiday’ honeymoon dates back to the Belle Epoque before the Great War put a damper on jollies to the French and Italian rivieras.

Neel Burton is author of Heaven and Hell: The Psychology of the Emotions and other books.

Find Neel on Twitter and Facebook.


One thought on “The History of the White Wedding

  1. I had a Greek Orthodox wedding. No saying yes or no. You show up so it’s yes. The rice hurts! My gown was stolen in Barcelona. I tell the tale in One Dress, One Day, a new hybrid manuscript. ALMODOVAR style.

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